Monday, January 17th, 2011

The Growth of a Pentecostal Congress

It’s hard to say in what, exactly, our elected representatives believe. Oh, this Congress got all sorts of attention for running, and winning, on a tea partyish platform of ideological purity, but when it comes to belief belief—in the cosmic stuff, last things and first scriptural principles—they’re a distinctly squishy bunch.

They are, like the country they represent, majority Protestant, according to a new study by the Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life. But as is the case with the country’s broader Protestant profile, it’s hard to say what, beyond a general feel-good affinity for Jesus, that faith entails. Not surprisingly, the 112th Congress includes stronger contingents of the well-to-do Protestant denominations: it has four times the percentage of Episcopalians, and three times the proportion of Presbyterians, than you find in the general US population.

But the fastest-growing contingent of the Protestant faithful on Capitol Hill are those who don’t specify any denominational leanings. These souls increased by 19 from the last Congress to this one, up to 58 members. Nor is it clear that these are doctrinally non-denominational believers—yes, the schismatic strain in Protestantism is traditionally so robust that not claiming a denominational affiliation can itself be a denominational affiliation—since only two members of the squishy Protestant sample specified such nondenominational membership.

Firm conclusions or demographic trends from this research are necessarily a matter of conjecture—but then, one does well to caution, so is nearly all discussion of religious doctrine. Some Pentecostal observers, mindful of their own denomination’s fervid growth in the spiritual marketplace, have rushed in to suggest the new vaguely churched Protestant bloc in Congress may be charismatically inclined.

As Charisma magazine correspondent Jennifer LeClaire notes, if you move the yardsticks back aways from the previous Congress, to the heyday of “mainline Protestantism”—the stuffier strains of Methodist, Baptist and Congregationalist faith—then the trendline would seem to favor the more experiential and less doctrinally rigid Pentecostal types of belief. The percentage of Methodists in Congress has dropped by half over the past half century, with Episcopalians and Presbyterians logging dropoffs between a third and a half. The poor Congregationalists have dwindled from 27 to four since 1961. “The religious composition of Congress shows a continued American religiosity, but one that is decreasingly associated with Mainline Protestantism,” Institute on Religion and Democracy President Mark Tooley reports. "Just as Mainline Protestantism no longer occupies the central place in public life as it did a generation ago, we are seeing fewer and fewer elected Representatives from those denominations.”

Of course, it’s in the interest of the Pentecostal brand to lay claim to the growth of an influential cohort of believers—however fuzzy it may have become in theological terms, American Protestantism is nothing if not entrepreneurial. But there are plenty of reasons that LeClaire’s surmise is plausible. For one thing, one of the significant trends in modern U.S. religion has been the rise of Pentecostalism—which originated as a hardscrabble, itinerant and disproportionately African-American Protestant denomination in the poorer stretches of the South and West—into a full-blown gospel of success. A particularly militant wing of Pentecostalism—the so-called Word Faith tradition—claims the adherence of Sarah Palin, the spiritual godmother of last November’s tea party semi-sweep, and the most signature on-the-make personage in today’s conservative political scene.

More broadly, however, Pentecostal preachers are the face of the new millennial equation of Christian observance with unbridled material well-being, in the preachings of such otherwise diverse figures as Joel Osteen and the aptly named chief shiller of the “prosperity gospel,” Creflo Dollar. It’s also the faith of world-class conspiratorial-nut-cum-presidential hopeful Pat Robertson, and has supplied an important tributary of the secretive “Fellowship” faith of high-powered DC spiritual elitists, chronicled expertly by journalist Jeff Sharlet.

Beyond its growing elite appeal, however, Pentecostalism has been a key formative influence in the rise of modern conservatism. As historian Darren Dochuck shows in his new book From Bible Belt to Sun Belt, the Assemblies of God movement in Southern California was instrumental in channeling the historically Democratic-leaning southern migrant population into the Reaganite GOP. Pentecostalism closely tracked the sudden postwar surge of prosperity among the golden state’s southern exiles—like the seemingly miraculous growth of the Angeleno aerospace exurbs, charismatic Christianity appeared to bear direct witness to the chosen character of a socially conservative yet anti-hierarchical and experiential cohort of southern believers.

Pentecostals also formed the vanguard of the 1960s and 1970s “Jesus People” youth movement in California and throughout the United States, helping to brand spiritual conservatism as a sunny, future-oriented faith, much as Reagan had. The features of Pentecostalism that the Protestant mainline had formerly found so off-putting—the glossolalia and faith-healing exploits of a primitive Church militant—now took a backseat to the slick musical spectacles produced at Melodyland, an early forerunner to regional megchurches like Rick Warren’s Saddleback empire, constructed fittingly enough in a former musical theater-in-the-round, just down the road from Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Anaheim.

Pentecostals helped lead the way, in other words, toward a more self-consciously modern formulation of evangelical conservatism, one that stressed direct communion of believers with the Holy Spirit, and therefore was ideally suited to the explosion of televangelical and megachurch preaching alongside the rise of the evangelical right. Much as the original Assemblies of God was the lead spiritual outlet for displaced and disenfranchised agrarian southerners, so has modern Pentecostalism become the signature faith of the Amerian exurb—promising instant spiritual gratification and material earthly reward in a scheme of salvation that elevates the virtue of the striving individual believer above the mainline Protestant social model of the “priesthood of all believers.”

And for all the talk of the tea party’s incorrigibly libertarian skepticism when it comes to manning the well-dug bunkers of the culture wars, it bears reminding that the last election cycle saw evangelical voters turn out in record numbers—a show of strength that inspired former Christian Coalition leader (and Jack Abramoff crony) Ralph Reed to hail the dawning age of the “teavangelical.” The spiritual profile of the new Congress may be something of a work in progress still—but if its newly empowered tea party vanguard is smart, its members will clamor to herald the political gifts of the spirit in much the same fashion that Ronald Reagan did.

Chris Lehmann is our religion columnist now.

Photo from Flickr, by John McNab, 1962.

21 Comments / Post A Comment

Riggsveda (#9,425)

And it's interesting that the more this strain of so-called "Christianity" fills the seats of power, the less and less we hear of the obligation to care for the poor and weak, and of the metaphor of the camel and the needle's eye. Christ's message to love God and love one's neighbor as oneself which was, after all, the whole purpose of the religion in the first place, and in direct opposition to the Randian objectivism of today's politicos.

hockeymom (#143)

Today's Christian: Now, with 75-percent less "Christian".

When was the last time you heard a Mormon assert their right to plural marriage? Whenever these weasels get a taste of legitimacy they totally forget where they came from. At least the Scientologists still stick to their core principles, defending Earth from the forces of the dread lord Xenu and homophobia.

hockeymom (#143)

This is distressing because these folks will not compromise. You're either 100-percent with them or you are just flat wrong. EXACTLY the kind of people we want in DC.

KarenUhOh (#19)

From day one there's been a loud strain of folk who insist we're the Chosen Sovereign. Problem for them is, they never seem to agree on exactly how dominion works.

Another problem is they inevitably default to their fallible mortality. They torch their ideals by being bumblefuck humans.

Any reason to think things have changed?

deepomega (#1,720)

Wait, what? The only defense of the headline here is a hand-wavey supposition from an immensely biased source? "It’s not clear if those members are Pentecostals or Charismatics, but it’s a possibility."

Other possibilities include: they are crypto-Muslims in deep cover, they are Scientologists, they are actually starting a new Congress-centered religion. Christ.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Well … I don't know much about sectarian stuff, but there does seem to be more concealment of religious affiliation among politicians nowadays. Maybe it is all lies and they tailor the degree and kind of faith they profess to the audience at hand, but Sharlet's work addresses the concealment directly, for example, he claims that there is a specific, private agenda among these Fellowship characters that is never shared with the public.

Remember when George W. Bush used to go around saying that he read the Bible every day and some reporter asked him what part he'd read that day and Bush was caught just completely flat-footed? But he had to pretend to be really devout all the time, and to the extent that he worshiped the dough those guys donated to his campaigns, I guess maybe he was pretty devout.

It's a very good question. Which of these new congressmen are privately affiliated with a particular evangelical or Pentecostal movement, and what are their aims exactly? That said KUO is probably right in that congressmen generally are too self-serving, corrupt and/or crazy to wreak all that much havoc as a gang?

Tulletilsynet (#333)

There's an old tradition among some politicians of keeping the specifics of their faith to themselves, and not in order to conceal some kind of private agenda (like putting free-thinkers in concentration camps, or whatever it is you're afraid we're planning to do to you). Fred Thompson, for example, who was raised in a rural and fundamentalist church, the Church of Christ, is more likely to attend an Episcopal church if he goes to church, as he sometimes does. But he never raised the issue a lot during his political career, apparently in part to avoid implying he'd gotten too uptown for his raising.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Yeah but JFK had to endure a highly public grilling about whether or not he was going to be taking orders from the Pope, and then look what happened to Obama. So some part of it is reckoned to be relevant to the public.

Until I read Sharlet's stuff I really did not believe in such wacky theories. But his reports ring so true to the gentlemen's-club mentality of the white-shoe guys I've known. Guys who feel themselves to have been anointed by I don't even know what authority, whose dads are putting them down for membership in this or that club when they are born. Grown men who practically burst into tears when they are allowed in. This whole gate-kept "we are meant to be in charge" thing, it is a real thing.

deepomega (#1,720)

@barnhouse: Well my feeling is that most politicians don't get into politics to reshape America to meet their religious expectations. They wear their religions like a cloak to get elected, where they can do what they want. Power is more alluring than Christ, basically! And looking for a secret cabal of religious types in un-denominated Protestants is sort of approaching Sarah-Palin's-Secret-Baby level of overconspiratizing?

David Roth (#4,429)

Deepomega's point, there, is what strikes me as the singular and sinister genius of the theology behind The Brotherhood, as I remember it from Sharlet's book.

Namely, that it reverse-engineers contemporary power politics into divine will, ex post facto. A set of theological/political ideals in which there is no obligation for those with power but to keep (or expand) that power is not the sort of thing that would appeal to most people, given the amount of power most people have. But once you make it to the House or Senate — or State Department, or President For Life of Nigeria or whatever — I'd imagine the appeal becomes a lot clearer.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Well said @David Roth. It sounds like tannis root locket craziness, yet there is such a thing really going on, to hear Jeff Sharlet tell it. @deepomega is right too, though, along with @KUO: these things wind up v. Keystone Kops by the time they get to the execution part (with any luck.)

facepunches (#7,757)

I feel an overwhelming urge to post a link to John Ashcroft's album from the 1970s if simply to point out that the Seventh Day Adventists (of whom Ashcroft is a member) have been in the conservative politics game for quite some time.

Modern, yet full of old-timey faith!

YAsano (#9,441)

Uhh, A-croft is Assemblies of God (Pentecostal).

mmmark (#4,458)

I have all sorts of opinions about this.

But for now, kudos for churning out this: "conspiratorial-nut-cum"

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Religious people stuff. This is very attractive work, although for example charismatics aren't Pentecostals (and not necessarily even Protestants), and the dreaded DC "Fellowship" is unrelated to Pentecostalism (it is doctrinally bland), and you sure did let that Charisma journalist get away with one bold leap through the undistributed middle (lots of Congressmen go to non-denominational churches, lots of non-denominational churches are charismatic or Pentecostal and so therefore … nothing, really).

But I suspect that the readership here has a better background for (and secretly a much higher tolerance for) rich people stuff. Could the reason be … Satan?

barnhouse (#1,326)

Probably Satan!

GoGoGojira (#2,871)

They do the "speaking in tongues" thing. It's a language that the devil doesn't know, according to some Pentacostal dude I met on the street. It's an interesting concept and all but the execution is frightening.

YAsano (#9,441)

Pentecostalism in America (Praeger 2010) helped me sort out the Pentecostal-charismatic cast of characters and hit some of the Dochuck points. Quick read/survey, so not as much detail as a person might like, and plays it down the middle, but helpful.

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