Hopeful sign? Brazil's Christian right and secular left want Carnaval to cover up and tweak its tunes

These are not happy days in Brazil, the South American colossus that's home to more Roman Catholics than any other nation. Political, economic, social, and health problems abound, as does crime.

Plus there's this: Brazil's famed and raucous carnival season, Carnaval, as it's called in Portuguese -- the pre-Lenten blow out that begins this weekend and ends the first week of March (exact dates vary by city) -- has been caught up in the nation's very own culture war.

Interestingly, both Brazil's conservative evangelical and Pentecostal Christian communities and the nation's progressive left are both upset at what until now have been hallowed carnival traditions.

Conservative Christians are upset by the striking, to put it mildly, amount of female flesh on display during Carnaval. (Unfortunately, the terms evangelical and Pentecostal are often incorrectly used interchangeably in news reports about conservative Brazilian Christians in the American press, so we'll go with conservative Christians as an umbrella.)

Meanwhile, the progressive left says it's time to do away with long-popular carnival songs featuring racist, sexist and homophobic lyrics.

The Washington Post ran this solid overview of the situation. Here's a taste of the Post story that notes how the right-left criticism has already impacted carnival traditions.

Brazil’s increasingly powerful evangelical church and its progressive movements are both pushing to refine Carnaval to match their often opposing priorities. As a sign of the times, the Brazilian city of Olinda, famous for its street festival, has two new additions this Carnaval: a “Gospel zone” and an “LGBT zone.”


I guess it's up to visitors to make sure they don't stumble into the wrong zone. (I'm jesting, folks.)

A bit deeper in the story came this, an example of one changed, high-profile carnival tradition that critics from both sides found distasteful.

For decades, the telltale sign that Carnaval season had begun was the appearance of the “Globeleza” dancer during commercial breaks on Brazil’s major TV network, Globo. (“Globeleza” is a portmanteau of Globo and the Portuguese word for beauty). Clothed only in sparkly glitter and body paint, this performer -- always a mixed-race woman -- samba-dances for about 30 seconds with a broad smile while her body parts jiggle and the camera zooms.
The idea is to get Brazilians excited for Carnaval, but an increasing number of Brazilians see the Globeleza as a symbol of the objectification of women -- women of color in particular.
“This is an old colonial symbol that doesn’t represent the multiplicity of Brazilian culture -- or Brazilian blackness -- at all,” said Juliana Luna, a writer for the Brazilian magazine AzMina. She sees the Globeleza as an example of using black women as a form of entertainment, “a body displayed in a window.”
This year things are different. For the first time since 1991, the Globeleza danced across TV screens in actual clothing -- a crop top. Luna was admittedly shocked but thrilled by the change. “You don’t need a black woman with her [butt] out covered in glitter to sell Carnaval.”

The story also included this conservative Christian background info.

When it comes to the sinful extremity of Carnaval, some evangelical leaders encourage their followers to simply sit out the party. One of Brazil’s most famous evangelical pastors, Silas Malafaia, warned on his website that “this festival of the flesh brings degrading physical, moral and spiritual consequences,” adding, “It is therefore not appropriate for Christians to participate.”
But some evangelicals know Carnaval can be impossible to avoid. So, like the social progressives, they are attempting to transform the festival into one they can endorse. In the city of Salvador, for example, a group called Salt of the Earth will parade to Brazilian funk tunes -- one of Brazil’s most salacious music genres -- adapted to include lyrics referencing the Bible. Another group, called Christafari, will parade to gospel reggae music.
“The beat is the same, the lyrics are different,” a performer name Tonzão told a local paper. He justified Christians’ participation in this adapted Carnaval by saying, “Dance is a way of evangelizing.”

Doesn't that last quote remind you of the whole Jerry Lee Lewis-Jimmy Swaggart cousins' thing (I know, Mickey Gilley's in there, too)?

(For purposes of journalistic contrast only, and if you feel the need for another tangent, read this substandard piece on the carnival controversy from The Economist. It missed entirely the story's pertinent religion angle, an omission we at GetReligion refer to as a "religion ghost.")

GetReligion writers have long noted the social and political rise of Brazil's conservative Protestants. Back in 2012, we even ran a piece on how women's clothing fashions were being impacted by this. I, myself, posted a piece in 2015 about how Brazil's stew of evangelical and Pentecostal Christians are influenced by various African faith traditions that, after being carried across the Atlantic by the slave trade, survived by adopting Catholic veneers.

Both the mainstream press, click here for one example, and Christian media have also long been on the story. Here's a piece from the liberal The Christian Century that does not look all that kindly at the rise of Brazil's Christian right.

I don't mean to make light of conservative religion's newfound role in Brazilian national politics. It's a profound shift, the full impact of which will not be clear for years.

Yet it seems to me that the growing dust up surrounding the carnival season is of a different cultural order. Perhaps because, while political control shifts continually from right to left and then back to the right, changes in cultural mores are more glacial. And carnival is certainly deeply imbedded in Brazilian culture,

It's the nation's largest festival and it helps drive the nation's tourist trade. Carnival's tropical sensuality is almost synonymous with Rio de Janeiro's steamy image -- the city's skyline-dominating Christ the Redeemer statue not withstanding.

Despite all that, you have voices on both sides of the conservative-liberal divide arguing that what was once acceptable, no longer is.

As such, the Carnaval story is a measure of how swiftly once cherished identity markers can -- and do -- change in today's interconnected world.

I'd also like to think it's a sign that religious conservatives and the progressive (presumably non-religious or at least doctrinally more liberal) left can work together on more than what initially meets the eye, even when approaching a concern from different angles.

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