Pentecostalizing Christianity, by Robert Conner

Observers agree that many churches across Europe and North America
are bleeding members, struggling financially, and are increasingly faced with the choice to close or merge to stay afloat. At the same time, sociologists of religion have noted a clear trend: the center of Christian belief is steadily shifting to the global South. As Christianity withers in Europe and its former colonies in the northern hemisphere, a New Christendom is springing up in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. Its brand of Christianity is Pentecostalism.

 

The American Pentecostal movement began on January 1, 1901, when Agnes Ozman, a 30-year-old student at Bethel Bible College in Topeka, Kansas, began “speaking in tongues.” The phenomenon, known as glossolalia, soon spread to thousands of individuals within the Holiness movement, a faction of Methodism. By 1906, charismatic Christianity—so named from charismata iamat┼Źn, gifts of healing, a term used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:9, 28 to describe miraculous cures—appeared in an African Methodist Episcopal church in Los Angeles, California. Before long, people “called” to be missionaries were busy spreading the message of Pentecostalism across the globe. In 2015, the Pulitzer Center named Pentecostalism as the fastest growing Christian movement in the world with an estimated 35,000 adult conversions daily.

 

The boundaries of charismatic Christian cults are fuzzy, but broadly speaking, Pentecostals share several basic traits with conservative evangelicals generally, particularly the lack of any central authority—the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic or Orthodox churches, for example—and an unsophisticated, literalist interpretation of scripture. For Pentecostals generally, the Bible simply means what it says and says what it means. Like religious fundamentalists of all stripes, “Pentecostals present a Manichean worldview of good and evil in which human beings are inevitably caught in the epic struggles between good and bad spiritual forces—the contest between God and Satan. Those who survive and flourish in this highly contested dualistic world are those who align with the side that has the supremacy of power…All this spells an unusually intense quest for power via conversion and salvation, in which the stakes are so high that they are approached with the dedication of war, hence the constant language and practices of spiritual warfare.”[1] The tendency for violent metaphor to sanction literal violence among God’s chosen is too well known to need elaboration.

 

In stark contrast to the idea of a magisterium as an organizing principle—doctrinal authority originating at the top—“Pentecostal theology holds that religious authority resides in a person with spiritual gifts, not in a religious bureaucracy; relatively low value is placed on theological education or official ordination. This core belief opens up a vast number of opportunities for laypeople and women to serve as preachers, evangelists, and healers in the church.”[2] Pentecostalism’s claim to restore “apostolic” Christianity is valid insofar as it duplicates the role of charismatic preachers in the early Jesus cult: “One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, I follow Christ.’” (1 Corinthians 1:12) Quoting author Elle Hardy, a recent article observes, “In terms of temperament, Pentecostalism is very much about what you feel, rather than Scripture or doctrine. That’s the case with a lot of populists as well. Donald Trump speaks off-the-cuff about whatever he feels like that day among his incoherent, inconsistent ideas.”[3]

 

In a conversation about church influence on African politics, theologians Harvey Kwiyani and Abraham Waigi noted that “money-hungry preachers take advantage of gullible, vulnerable and desperate people. In a context like this, money brings power and power brings more money. Political power becomes enticing, especially as a means for some Christian leaders to accumulate riches. However, this is not unique to Africa. It happens in other parts of the world.”[4] The connection between political power and religious authority is ancient: “Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David.” (1 Samuel 16:13) Across the world, politicians crave the endorsement of religious leaders; the hand of religion cynically washes the hand of politics and vice versa to the mutual benefit of each. In turn, preaching becomes politicized, political speech is debased to the level of hate preaching, and populations break into opposing sides arming for battle.

 

Examples of such unholy dyads abound: American evangelicals tiptoeing throught the tulips with Donald Trump, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kyrill calling the rule of Vladimir Putin “a miracle of God,” and the fusion of Pentecostalism with “big man” autocrats in Africa and Latin America generally.[5] But there is another, more dangerous effect that has spilled over into the general culture: smug ignorance that regards information as the enemy. “Unfortunately, the innovative and syncretic nature of Pentecostalism did not give birth to a colorful and free religious practice. On the contrary, it created a very intolerant, anti-intellectual and fear-based environment that treats its pastors as all-knowing Shamans with direct access to God and healing powers…there is a spiritual war going on and it affects us constantly, to the point one should never rest, because, by doing so, he may open the door for sin and demonic activities in his life…Exorcisms are also a big deal in Pentecostalism, as they see all non-believers (and sometimes even some believers) as being demon-possessed.”[6]

 

Those outside the Christian fundamentalist biosphere may dismiss God-verses-the-Devil rhetoric as hyperbole, but the majority of Pentecostalized believers take it literally. “In Evangelical-speak, ‘spiritual battle’ or ‘spiritual warfare’ means a test of power between God and Satan (or his demonic minions), with human souls and the fate of all Creation in the balance. Describing one’s opponents as on the wrong side of a ‘spiritual battle’ is simultaneously an expression of the most extreme hatred available to a Christian, and a rationalization for it on grounds that the object of demonic possession is not entirely responsible for becoming the devil’s workshop (it’s a variation on the old conservative Christian dodge of ‘hating the sin but not the sinner’ when it comes to, say, being gay).”[7] Biblical literalists are assured, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12, ESV) These days the demonic authorities with whom Pentecostalized Christians must contend include not only skeptics, but election workers, judges and juries, and public health agencies.

 

Enter America’s Frontline Doctors, a cadre of anti-vaccine Ghostbusters founded by Dr. Simone Gold, sentenced to a prison term for participating in the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.[8] The group includes such medical notables as Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, who has testified that the COVID-19 vaccine will make metalic objects such as spoons and keys stick to a person’s forehead, and Dr. Stella Gwandiku-Ambe Immanuel, a doctor and pastor who claims that endometriosis, infertility, miscarriages, and sexually transmitted diseases are caused by incubi, aka “spirit spouses.” I’ve discussed the role of disinformation about vaccination and its connection to fundamentalist churches in some detail here,[9] but lest the reader suppose anti-vax hysteria couldn’t possibly get more farcical, a recent study from the Boston University School of Public Health has found that 22% of American dog owners consider vaccinating their dog ineffective, unnecessary (30%) or positively unsafe (37%).[10]

 

Watching Pentecostalism drag mainstream Christianity to hell by the hair is alarming enough, but several lines of evidence indicate the thinly veiled language of spirit woo-woo is invading politics, education, and public health as well.



 

Robert Conner is the author of The Death of Christian BeliefThe Jesus Cult: 2000 Years of the Last DaysApparitions of Jesus: The Resurrection as Ghost StoryThe Secret Gospel of Mark; and Magic in Christianity: From Jesus to the Gnostics



[1] Nimi Wariboko, “Pentecostalism in Africa,” Oxford Research Encyclopedias: African History, October 26, 2017.

[2] Daewon Moon, “Pentecostalism in African Christianity: The Formation and Scope of a Distinctive Spirituality,” Lausanne Global Analysis 10/1, January, 2021.

[3] Rich Tenorio, “Are the End Times near? How Pentecostal Christianity is taking over the world,” The Times of Israel, October 14, 2023.

[4] Joel Foster, “African Pentecostalism has grown large enough to begin to influence world Christianity,” Evangelical Focus, December 20, 2021.

[5] Robert Conner, “Where Christianity Goes to Die,” The Death of Christian Belief, 75-87.

[6] Frank Zanon,  “The dangers of Evangelical Pentecostalism,” medium.com, August 26, 2023.

[7] Ed Kilgore, “Christian Right Leaders Suggest Trump Critics Are Possessed by Demons,” nymag.com/intelligencer, November 26, 2019.

[8] Owen Dyer, “Founder of America’s Frontline Doctors is sentenced to prison for role in Capitol riot,” British Medical Journal 2022;377:o1533.

[9] Conner, op.cit., 23-27.

[10] Matt Motta, Gabriella Motta & Dominik Stecula, Vaccine 41/41, 5946-5950, September 22, 2023.


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