Debunking Some Pentecostal Stereotypes

Article excerpt

PENTECOSTALISM AND related "Spirit-filled movements" are rightly seen as a hard-driving engine fueling the global spread of Christianity, but their adherents are often wrongly seen as apolitical, otherworldly enthusiasts bent on "speaking in tongues," according to two separate studies on the century-old phenomena.

A groundbreaking survey of such believers in 10 countries, including the United States, where they account for 23 percent of Americans, was released this month by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Pentecostal and charismatic Christians still hold conservative views on the Bible, end-times prophecies, faith healing and traditional morality. But in six countries at least four of every 10 Pentecostals surveyed say they never speak or pray in tongues--the utterances unintelligible to the believer that were commonly ridiculed in the past by Christian and non-Christian critics.

And researchers said "they were taken aback" by discovering a range of views among Pentecostals on sociopolitical issues--views sometimes similar to outlooks more characteristic of progressive churches.

When U.S. adults in the survey were asked if they agree that Christians have a responsibility "to work for justice for the poor"--a phrase often identified with liberal Christianity--90 percent of Pentecostals and 85 percent of charismatic believers agreed. Between 93 and 72 percent agreed in Brazil, Chile and Guatemala; in Kenya, 97 percent agreed.

"I find that extremely interesting," said sociologist Donald E. Miller, executive director of the University of Southern California's Center for Religion and Civic Culture. Miller and colleague Ted Yamamori have completed research on what they are calling "progressive Pentecostalism" for a book to be published next year.

Miller pointed also to the Pew finding in which most Latin American respondents disagreed with the statement that "AIDS is God's punishment for immoral sexual behavior." In South Africa 53 percent of Pentecostals and 44 percent of charismatics disagreed.

"The point is," said Miller in an interview, "that you get split opinions, and that tends to deflate the idea that you can stereotype charismatics and Pentecostals." Miller is outgoing president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Miller said his research on global Pentecostalism, done before he knew of the Pew study, was bolstered by the 10-nation survey funded by the John Templeton Foundation. He spoke at an October 4-6 symposium at the USC campus in Los Angeles where the results of the Pew survey were released.

Luis Lugo, director of the Washington-based, nonpartisan Pew Forum, noted that at least a quarter of the world's 2 billion Christians are estimated to be Pentecostal and charismatic believers. About two-thirds of survey respondents said they speak to others about their faith at least once a week, Lugo said, adding: "No wonder they are growing and retaining their people."

Lugo said the Pentecostal success stories in Latin America and Africa are understandable. African converts "don't have to leave behind their world of spirit ... and Pentecostalism is second to none in providing a sense of community," especially in countries affected by massive displacement and migration.

"I don't think it's too farfetched at this point to seriously consider whether Christianity is well on its way to being Pentecostalized," Lugo said, "certainly in the developing world." Like Miller, Lugo said that "contrary to widespread perceptions, Pentecostals are anything but apolitical."

The Pew study settled on renewalists as an umbrella term for Pentecostals and charismatics. Miller objected that the word connotes a fringe movement, which the movement is not. "We had quite an argument on how many categories to use," said John Green, the Pew Forum's senior fellow in religion and American politics, in an interview. …