The Two Souls of Pentecostalism

Early Pentecostal preachers railed against elites and uplifted the oppressed — a far cry from their recent efforts to elect right-wing populists like Donald Trump. There are deep contradictions at the heart of Pentecostalism, and they aren’t resolved yet.

Because Pentecostalism is a decentralized, grassroots form of evangelical Christianity, both structurally and theologically, its politics are difficult to pin down. (Geron Dison / Unsplash)

Pop quiz: Which right-wing populist heads of state identify as Pentecostals?

The answer is not as many as you think. Donald Trump is a Presbyterian, at least on paper; Jair Bolsanaro claims Catholicism; and Viktor Orbán has been called “the world’s most powerful Calvinist.” The two Pentecostal international leaders are Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, and Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, neither of whom can be considered right-wing populists.

If that sounds counterintuitive, it’s because the liberal media loves to pin Trumpism on Pentecostals. They’re not totally wrong. The Pentecostal clergy and the ex-president have been in a mutually beneficial relationship for years. Trump ham-handedly courted some high-profile ministers like Rodney Howard-Browne and Paula White-Cain for his advisory board — which was alarming, as they fused strains of QAnon with Christian millennialism to prophesy that Trump was an Old Testament king reborn or that he would trigger the Rapture. Many evangelical voters ate it up.

But not as many as the media would have you believe. Only about 52 percent of evangelicals cast a vote for Trump, according to a Baylor Religion Survey. As for Pentecostals in particular, less than half vote Republican — a combined majority either vote Democrat (33 percent) or have no preference.

Although a quarter of the world’s two billion Christians are Pentecostals, it is a poorly understood religious movement. The media treats Pentecostalism like a conservative white American monolith, but its epicenter is in the Global South, and its believers are poorer and less white than the rest of Christendom.

In Latin America, Pentecostalism has long had a close relationship with populist politics, but it’s not ideologically determinative. Many South American Pentecostals break right, but Latin American Pentecostals have been known to embrace left-wing politicians too.

Because Pentecostalism is a decentralized, grassroots form of evangelical Christianity, both structurally and theologically, its politics are difficult to pin down. But one feature is distinctive and often goes unnoticed: historically, Pentecostalism has taken a jaundiced eye to both matters of the flesh and the political establishment.

A Second Reformation

Some scholars argue that Pentecostalism’s birth — popularly pegged at the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles in 1906 — set off a second Protestant Reformation or even established a “Third Church,” a form of Christianity as distinct as Protestantism or Catholicism.

Early twentieth-century Pentecostals wanted a clerical revolution of sorts. They saw the church establishment as corrupt, cowardly, and unholy. There was a suspicion — even contempt — of hierarchy and elites in the church and greater society. They railed against white-collar professionals, preachers in white collars, popes, and politicians in equal measure. In Heaven Below, historian Grant Walker notes, “Poking fun, albeit bitter fun, at one’s ecclesiastical betters had long been a staple in radical evangelical circles and remained so among Pentecostals.”

It’s no coincidence that this sounds similar to the mood at Trump rallies, which were always more like tent revivals than symposia for policy wonks.

Starting with the publication of the Scofield Bible just before World War I, the Bible took on a new meaning. It was still a mixture of Israel’s history, genealogy, and poetry, yes, but also an unerring and transhistorical prophecy unveiling the fate of all of humanity.

Fundamentalists recontextualized John’s dream on Patmos’s isle so that it was no longer a warning directed at first-century churchgoers but a story about how the earth would briefly succumb to the forces of hell and be ruled by the “Antichrist.” True believers would be saved, first by the Rapture and then a 1,000-year reign of a returned Christ to a redeemed earth. In this context, modern-day believers are supposed to suit up as holy warriors battling baddies in the spiritual realm. One of the verses from the Good Book I was told to memorize in my own Pentecostal church as a kid was 1 Peter 5:8: “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”

Again, this was metaphoric language about the destructive effects of sin reinterpreted as the invisible reality. Oh shit, I thought, Satan is literally trying to eat my soul. Say what you want, but it’s a very compelling story, especially in a twentieth-century America that grew ever more bewildering and alienating. Capitalism and extreme individualism may have been truly consuming the soul of America, but it was way easier to shout at the devil.

A Second Reformation

Yet when they did their shouting, early Pentecostals sounded more like Eugene Debs than Oral Roberts.

More than a century ago, Pastor Charles Parham, one of the founding fathers of Pentecostalism, even professed faith in the secular prophecies contained in the Communist Manifesto — up to a point.

“We are facing an international struggle wherein the governments, the rich, and the churches will be arrayed on one side,” he proclaimed in a sermon in 1911. “On the other side, will stand the masses of wage slaves who have been ground under the iron heel of oppression, whose lives have been exploited by industries and sweatshops until their whole being cries out for revenge.”

Parham predicted that an ultimate international class struggle was imminent, one in which the working classes of the world would “avenge themselves on their exploiters and the ungodly profiteers.” Where Parham strayed from Marx is that he predicted that a class war would lead not to the “dictatorship of the proletariat” but to Armageddon. A Biblical literalist, he perceived Woodrow Wilson’s plan for the League of Nations as the Antichrist incarnate, as described in John of Patmos’s wild-eyed apocalyptic visions in the book of Revelation. Then, as the prophecy goes, Jesus would return to Earth and save humanity.

Parham’s theology is illustrative of the contradictions of early Pentecostal philosophy. Like the Quakers or Christian socialists, they sided with the poor and oppressed, but they viewed the state as an inherently tainted vehicle of change. Christ was the singular path to not only heavenly salvation but earthly liberation as well. But the fact remained that for Parham, money was indeed the root of all evil. He thought the clergy should be prohibited from owning land property and called tithing “the meanest, scrubbiest, stingiest way to serve God there is in this world.”

The sight of a multiracial coalition of working-class believers invoking social justice and pacifism in between boisterous prayers and speaking in tongues freaked out both the religious and secular establishment. In covering the Azusa Street Revival, the Los Angeles Times was bewildered to see African Americans, Latinos, whites, and others praying and singing together in “a tumble down shack” in LA. In the Jim Crow era of racial segregation — to which Los Angeles, despite not being the South, was no stranger — the revival was largely led by William Seymour, the half-blind son of ex-slaves.

“Colored people and a sprinkling of whites compose the congregation, and night is made hideous in the neighborhood by the howlings of the worshippers who spend hours swaying forth and back in a nerve-racking attitude of prayer and supplication,” observed the Times. Stories of the thousands of people who poured into the revival meetings at Azusa Street between 1906 and 1909 spread quickly across North America and to Europe, and a new crop of missionaries focused on evangelization quickly grew this new sect of Christianity.

The literature and sermons that came from this early period of Pentecostalism ranged in subject matter from Parham’s apocalypticism to pacifism, racial equality, and the rejection of excessive wealth — concerns that aligned with the Progressive Era’s Christian left. “War is therefore anti-Christian in all of its forms,” wrote early Pentecostal leader Arthur Sydney Booth-Clibborn in his antiwar polemic, Blood Against Blood.

When the Assemblies of God — now the largest Pentecostal denomination with over 55 million members — formed in 1914, it even included an antiwar resolution in its original charter, stating, “We cannot conscientiously participate in war and armed resistance which involves the actual destruction of human life.”

Stanley Frodsham, the editor of the Pentecostal Evangel, railed against nationalism and racism back in 1920 — a time when his opinion was not exactly popular. “National pride, like every other form of pride, is an abomination in the sight of God,” he wrote. “And Pride of race must be one of the things that pass away when one becomes a new creature in Christ Jesus.”

Render Unto Caesar

Over the next few decades, Pentecostals maintained their attitude of anti-elitism, but the Social Gospel elements receded into the background as Pentecostalism and its more mainstream offshoot, the charismatic movement, spread across America.

As revival meetings migrated from ramshackle buildings in immigrant neighborhoods and country churches to the suburban sprawl and megachurches of the middle classes, the emotional, spirit-filled worship remained but the theology softened to accommodate the materially comfortable. The literature and sermons began to focus on themes of self-fulfillment and winning souls overseas through formal missionary work.

Certainly, no one in the blindingly white Pentecostal church tradition I grew up in during the ’80s in Central Illinois talked about class struggle, pacifism, or racial equality. Both religion and politics were considered dirty words. The former was equated with antiquated institutions and oppressive rules and traditions that distracted from intimate experiences with God. “It’s a relationship, not a religion” was the pithy line used constantly to describe Pentecostalism’s anti-hierarchical mindset and contrast it with stuffier mainline Protestant denominations.

Politics, meanwhile, was dismissed with an invocation of Mark 12:17: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s.” As such, my parents didn’t vote in elections, and I didn’t know anyone who did. We were taught to seek positive change through prayer and meditation, not the secular world. That’s not to say that our church communities sealed themselves off from the outside world and ignored suffering. It’s just that the acts of goodness — food banks, disaster relief, building housing for the poor — were self-contained and didn’t involve trying to engage democratic institutions.

Theology isn’t the only factor in Pentecostals’ political abstinence. Even with an influx of affluent congregants, today about 50 percent of American Pentecostals make less than $30,000 according to Pew Research, and 58 percent of Pentecostals have a household income that places them in the bottom two income brackets, compared with 41 percent of the overall population. Rich people vote much more than the poor.

Politics remained mostly on the margins during the rise of third-wave Pentecostalism or the “neo-charismatic” movement in the ’80s and ’90s, when television evangelists like Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker ruled the airwaves. Jerry Falwell’s Ronald Reagan–era Moral Majority conservative movement was Baptist, not Pentecostal. Pat Robertson’s ill-fated run for president in 1988 was the exception rather than the rule, and his 700 Club was still largely a variety show with feel-good stories of miracles and conversions — still a far cry from the Jesus-themed Fox News–esque program it is today.

Mountains to Climb

There’s no smoking gun that explains Pentecostalism’s uneasy embrace of electoral politics over the last two decades.

One factor is the way that conservative politicians and right-wing media, starting with Reagan, pandered to Christians by merging the American flag and the cross. The best way to get people to vote for the end of capital gains taxes is to make them believe that Bill Clinton wanted to abort all babies and make everyone gay — or better yet, make him some combination of Joseph Stalin and Satan.

Then in the early aughts came the Third Wave of Pentecostalism, or the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), as dubbed by C. Peter Wagner, one of its leaders. Wagner, the president of Global Harvest Ministries, promoted a new “apostolic and prophetic” charismatic movement that no longer separated church and state. The idea was that Pentecostalism had slumped into bog-standard Christianity and needed to pivot toward building a theocracy that would rule over politics, business, media, and culture to properly pave the way for Jesus’s glorious return.

In 2011, Wagner told NPR that a vast swath of elites was influenced by demons. They “are directly affected by demons, not only in politics but also in the arts, in the media and religion in the Christian church,” he said. My church didn’t use the words “demon-possessed” when talking about how we intended to change Los Angeles, but we were sent as missionaries to Southern California in the late aughts to help Christianize our shared national culture by proselytizing to the people who made entertainment.

The ideas of NAR were distilled and popularized by Lance Wallnau, a slick evangelist who wrote Invading Babylon: The 7 Mountain Mandate. The book was a manifesto urging evangelical Christians to “conquer” seven key facets of society: education, religion, family, business, government, entertainment, and media.

When Trump was elected in 2016 and filled his administration with Evangelicals and moved the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, Reformationists saw him as a transcendent figure meant to scale all seven mountains. “Finally we have a president that understands the seven mountains of cultural influence,” said college campus activist and Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in 2020. It seemed possible to many that Trump would usher in the Second Coming, similar to how Parham viewed the League of Nations after World War I.

But the NAR movement isn’t hegemonic in American Pentecostalism; it’s just one strain. When Trump seemingly pierced the veil separating the secular and spiritual world and encouraged Christian theocracy, it alienated plenty of Pentecostals, who believed the church was gaining the whole world only to lose its soul.

“Even though NAR adherents claim to restore apostolic Christianity, the movement is Christianity fully conformed to democratic individualism,” wrote Dr Dale Coulter, a professor at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary. “Apostles guide megachurches and ministries as mediating institutions unleashing an army of individuals who utilize pop culture and democratic mechanisms to facilitate Christian expansion.”

In other words, in order to own the libs, some Pentecostals have become them. In the process they have watered down fundamentalist Christianity and turned it into a kitschy cultural expression exploited by religious conservatives rather than the faith-based belief system preached by Parham and Seymour.

“This is a Christianism — not a substantive Christianity,” argued Rogers Brubaker, a sociologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It’s a secularized Christianity as culture. . . . It’s a matter of belonging rather than believing.”

Groups like Pentecostals and Charismatics for Peace & Justice (PCPJ) are now attempting a counterreformation by reorienting the movement to focus on left-wing concerns, including nonviolence and economic and racial justice.

Hope can be found in Latin America, where Christian fundamentalists played a role in the electoral success of the continent’s “pink tide” of left-leaning governments in the late 1990s and 2000s. Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and El Salvador’s Mauricio Funes openly courted Pentecostal voters, even as their opponents did the same. Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez explicitly tied Christianity to socialism: “The Kingdom of Christ is the kingdom of love, of peace; the kingdom of justice, of solidarity, brotherhood, the kingdom of socialism. This is the kingdom of the future of Venezuela.”

Last year, Peruvian president Pedro Castillo, a school teacher turned union leader who belongs to a Marxist-Leninist party, defeated right-wing populist Keiko Fujimori thanks in part to the evangelical Christian vote. It’s not much, but it’s some proof that Pentecostalism’s recent alignment with right-wing populists is one built on sand, not rock.