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.