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Pentecostalism and the Christian Right in America: Politics, Religion, Influence

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The Pentecostal Church is a conservative Protestant Christian denomination which has had significant influence on American politics and the growth of America's radical Christian Right. Pentecostal Christianity is not the same fundamentalist or even conservative evangelical Christianity. Indeed, many fundamentalist and evangelical Christians can be very critical of Pentecostal theology. Unfortunately, too many atheists simply equate "Christian Right" with "fundamentalism."

Given how important the connections between theology and politics are, this is a serious mistake. It's important to understand what Pentecostalism is in order to better understand the development of the Christian Right, to understand the diversity in the Christian Right, and to understand why conservative leaders have to work so hard in order to paper over theological differences which would, in other circumstances, drive people apart.

Pentecostal leaders in America include Benny Hinn, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, and Pat Robertson. The highest political office attained by a Pentecostal was Attorney General John Ashcroft. Major Pentecostal churches include the Assemblies of God, the United Pentecostal Church International, the Association of Vineyard Churches, Church of God in Christ, and the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship. The Assemblies of God is currently the largest Pentecostal denomination in the world while the Church of God is both the oldest Pentecostal denomination and the largest black Pentecostal group in the world.

 

Pentecostal Beliefs

Pentecostal Christianity grew out of the Holiness movement of the 20th century; this, in turn, was a product of traditional Methodism. The two beliefs which most characterize Pentecostal churches and differentiate them from other Protestant groups are the belief in a "Baptism of the Spirit" and in resultant charismata ("Gifts of the Spirit," like speaking in tongues). Belief in Gifts of the Spirit and charismata is based on Acts 2 when the apostles were visited by the Holy Spirit.

Holiness groups emphasized what they called the "second blessing" which was bestowed upon those who underwent an ecstatic conversion experience. Some manifested this blessing through Gifts of the Spirit, like glossalia and prophesies. Others regarded such activities as a form of heresy and this is where Pentecostals diverged from the Methodist and Holiness churches (though early on many wanted to remain part of their original churches).

Today, unusual practices like speaking in tongues, faith healing and ecstatic experiences are characteristic of Pentecostal services. Pentecostals focus upon the importance of personal religious experiences rather than specific doctrines — indeed, there is little consensus among Pentecostals with regards to most Christian doctrines except those of Baptism of the Spirit and charismata.

In large part because of the emphasis on personal experience over doctrine, Pentecostalism has been perceived as an anti-intellectual movement within Christianity. Pentecostal ministers relied less upon complex theology to develop and spread their ideas and more upon songs and oral traditions of communication — proverbs, jokes, personal testimonies, miracle stories, etc. It is thus understandable that Pentecostal ministers were among the first to use radio and, later, television to preach to ever larger numbers of people. This was the origin of the Christian Right media empires.

It was not inevitable that Pentecostal Christianity would become part of the anti-modernist, anti-Enlightenment Christian Right, but it's also not surprising. The anti-intellectual streak in Pentecostalism makes it a ready ally of anti-science beliefs like creationism. The emphasis on charismatic gifts gives it a strong tendency towards community (and thus political) involvement, in contrast to the traditional fundamentalist tendency to avoid worldly politics. Belief in the authority of new revelations can allow Pentecostal leaders to push political agendas even without direct authority from scripture. This also makes it harder to argue against Pentecostal politics while using only the Bible.

 

Pentecostalism vs. Conservative Christianity

Although regarded as a recent form of Protestantism, some think that Pentecostalism should treated as distinct from traditional Protestantism. Protestantism was created as distinct from Catholicism on the basis that the Bible alone should be the source of religious authority, rather than traditional practices or the hierarchy of church institutions. Pentecostal churches move beyond this by relying not simply upon the Bible, but also upon direct and personal spiritual revelations which can not only supplement teachings of the Bible, but even replace them.

It is no surprise that Pentecostals are often kept at arm's length by traditional Protestant churches,. Thus, although Pentecostals are often categorized with fundamentalists, any alliance between the two groups is destined to be uneasy. This is not very different from the uneasy alliance between the Christian Right and conservative Mormons.

Fundamentalists have condemned practices like speaking in tongues and prophesizing because they regard God's revelation in the Bible as complete — claiming that one has new revelations is rejected out of hand. The two also tend to appeal to different sorts of people. Whereas traditional Protestant churches tend to be populated by the middle class, Pentecostal churches tend to appeal to the poorer strata of society.

Pentecostalism cannot, however, be ignored or dismissed by other conservative Christians. However distasteful or heretical their theology is, their political power is too strong not to be taken advantage of. There are about 24 million members of various Pentecostal churches in America and they are the fastest-growing Protestant denomination in the world. By the mid-21st century they may number one billion.

This reveals how far fundamentalist and conservative evangelical Christians are willing to compromise on religious differences in the pursuit of political power and their political agendas. It's also a potential point into which a wedge can be inserted in order to split the Christian Right. If they wish to bring their theology into politics, it's entirely appropriate to use their own theological differences to drive them apart and thus reduce their dangerous political influence.

 

Pentecostal Origins

Pentecostal beliefs originated in the Bethel Bible College founded by Charles F. Parham (1873-1929) in Topeka, Kansas in 1900, and are often regarded as an outgrowth of the teachings and theology promoted by Parham and other like-minded Protestants of the time. According to Parham's own reports, On January 1, 1901, the first of his students began to manifest the "Gifts of Spirit" by speaking in tongues. In the following weeks more and more students began to do the same, drawing increased attention to the school and Parham's ideas. As a result, Parham founded what became known as the "Apostolic Faith Movement," a fellowship of different churches which included thousands of members.

Another early source of Pentecostal beliefs was the 1906 Azusa Street revival led by William J. Seymour (1870-1922). Seymour himself was a student of Parham's in another school which Parham had opened in Houston, Texas. Large crowds attended Seymour's Azusa Street ministry in Los Angeles, characterized by miraculous healings and high religious enthusiasm. News reports at the time express shock at the "howlings of the worshippers" and "hideous" antics of the late-night services. Basic aspects of Pentecostal services could be found even earlier, for example a prayer service in 1831 in London, England, resulted in members speaking in tongues and prophesizing.

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