At Encounter, we emphasize that religious communities are diverse and that the traditions themselves often contain aspects of real beauty and wisdom. However, we also try to acknowledge that, as powerful cultural forces, religions can and have been used in harmful ways.
Today we are delving into the political impacts of one of Christianity’s newest branches. In the previous blog, we looked at the basics of Pentecostalism including its founding and key characteristics. Today, let’s explore why this burgeoning religious movement is so politically relevant. While millions of Pentecostals attend church to find community and connection with God, developments in recent decades have lent the tradition a set of perspectives and tools that have real political impact. Indeed, it is no understatement to say that Pentecostalism is reshaping politics in many places across the globe.
Pentecostalism’s focus on healing (described in the last blog) often sees illness as the work of Satan or of other demonic spirits. Hence, Pentecostals practice exorcisms but this thinking goes beyond illness.
Pentecostalism is a very optimistic faith that teaches that God is bestowing blessings on his people now and that they will be victorious now. As discussed in the last blog, part of the tradition’s appeal is that it promises healing, wealth and prosperity today.
But this victory is understood to require going to war with Satan and his powers. Not at some distant future date but today. As a result, many (though certainly not all) Pentecostal leaders teach spiritual warfare.
Chronicler Elle Hardy explains that spiritual warfare is marked by several practices:
- Demonizing opponents – hostile and aggressive rhetoric that links opponents with Satan
- So-called “violent prayer” which channels hatred or anger against Satan
- Spiritual mapping – identifying locations of evil which might be abortion clinics, casinos, the offices of political parties, etc.
- Prayerwalking – roaming the streets in pairs or in groups and praying at locations where God’s intervention is sought (i.e. places where evil is though to have a hold)
- Cursing/burning objects – statutes or ritual items from other traditions, most notably from Indigenous traditions
- Heresy extends into politics – God is to dominate this world now so political opponents can be seen as heretics
Some of the most prominent Pentecostal leaders in several countries have aligned with far-right politics and scholars are concerned that certain teachings have emerged can be antithetical to democratic politics since opponents are illegitimate (agents of the devil). Compromise, which is central to democratic politics, can be depicted by some in the tradition as betraying God.
Paula White, an advisor to Donald Trump, shows here a name and claim it approach described in our prior blog, whereby if you name what you want, God will make it so (in this case that Trump will be declared the winner of the 2020 election). Notice the spiritual warfare of calling of angels to fight demons and the use of speaking of tongues. Screenshot from Youtube.com video.
The Seven Mountains Mandate
In 1974, three different Pentecostal pastors reported receiving similar visions that God was instructing his followers that they were to seize control of seven areas of society (or seven mountains referencing a Biblical quote). These seven are business, media, entertainment, government, education, the family, and religion. This idea was spread in a best-selling book suggesting that Christians need not win everyone over. Rather, by getting key people in key places, you could seize control for Jesus and bring about this kingdom.
Some even suggest that God is establishing “Joel’s Army” (based on the book of Joel in the Bible) a group of “overcomers” who will be unstoppable and who will impose God’s will on the unrepentant.
The above elements, most of which were not there at Pentecostalism’s founding but that have developed in recent decades in the United States (and surely pull on certain elements of American culture). They have since spread abroad and are worrisome to many who study and follow the cultural and social impacts of religion around the world.
To give a few examples:
- In Guatemala, Indigenous healers have been threatened and in the past few years, one was murdered by neighbours for his “witchcraft” while another healer has gone missing.
Indigenous Mayan healer Domingo Choc Che was tortured, burned and killed by fellow villagers who accused him of witchcraft. Photo credit: picture by M. Gonzales from herbalgram.com.
- The founder of the Yoido Full Gospel church with its 800,000 congregants (located in Seoul, Korea which may be the megachurch capital of the world) has denounced homosexuality, Islam and anti-discrimination laws as being from Satan.
- In Brazil, millionaire megachurch pastor Edir Macedo has transformed what was once an almost entirely Catholic country while demonizing Candomble, an African-inspired tradition, and denouncing the education of women since they should be under their husbands.
- In Nigeria, Pentecostals are replacing Catholics and converting Muslims, all of which has led to less tolerance of Indigenous spirituality.
- Indigenous converts, not only in Guatemala but also in Papua New Guinea and Australia, are seeing their ancestral traditions as demonic and sometimes actively destroying their own history.
- In the United States, Pentecostal leaders like Paula White supported the idea that the 2020 election was stolen and many call for seizing the levers of power.
Redemption City in Nigeria is a church of 1MM people. It is six times the size of the Vatican. In the foreground are its housing estates. At top, the roof of the arena that covers 1.5 kms. Photo credit: Wikipedia.org CC BY-SA 4.0
Many Pentecostals turn to the tradition to connect with God and to find healing both spiritual and physical. Many also hope it will bring prosperity, sometimes in situations of real hardship. America’s most watched pastor, Joel Osteen, never addresses political issues at all, focusing on a God who blesses you and who wants you to find joy and success.
However, developments in recent decades have added concerning political elements to the mix. To be fair, many religions, especially at their inception or in times of political or societal upheaval and strife have been engaged in attempting to dominate in the political realm. Hopefully voices internal to the Pentecostal tradition can speak out against interpretations that emphasize dominance over those one might disagree with.
If you would like to learn more, Elle Hardy’s book Beyond Belief: How Pentecostal Christianity is Taking Over the World is quite good as are these two articles by André Gagné and Frederick Clarkson (part 1; part 2). On the tradition’s origins see Grant Wacker’s Heaven Below.
Grant Wacker’s Heaven Below. Photo credit: Amazon.com