Pentecostals, politics and the black church

Anthea Butler, associate professor of religious studies  Photo credit: Candace diCarlo

Anthea Butler, associate professor of religious studies in the School of Arts and Sciences, did not begin her professional career as an academic scholar.

With an undergraduate degree in marketing, Butler spent several years as a pension administrator back in the early 1990s, during the national savings and loan crisis.

“My job became so depressing,” she recalls, “liquidating 401(k) plans for people whose businesses were going under. It was really bad.” That’s when she had an epiphany. “I said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’ and I decided to go to seminary.”

Once she began studying at Fuller Theological Seminary in California, she realized “that I could not counsel anybody because I am too blunt, and that’s what got me started on working on my Ph.D. [at Vanderbilt University].”

Many people, she says, can’t see the direct connection between her background in marketing and her study of Pentecostalism, politics and the church, the history of the black church and the church and sexuality.

“But religion is all about sales,” she explains. “Everybody is selling something. They are selling some kind of God. If you understand what marketing is, it will help you understand a lot about religion. For me, it wasn’t that big of a switch.”

The Current sat down with Butler to discuss the Pentecostal movement, its intersection with national politics and the question of whether the black church as a social and political force is dead.

Q. Did you start focusing on the Pentecostal movement in graduate school?
A.
I was always interested because I had a couple of friends who were in a pretty well-known Pentecostal church in the Los Angeles area. It was the church of Andraé and Sandra Crouch, the gospel artists. That church was pretty interesting to me because of a lot of the things their father, Benjamin Crouch, used to teach. I had no idea that what I was interested in was going to become popular. But Pentecostalism is one of the fastest growing religious movements in the world right now.

Q. You are recognized as an expert in the Pentecostal movement, and you’ve been featured in lots of media stories about the influence it is having in American politics. Can you talk about that a bit?
A.
Well, let me first say that most of the work that is been done in this area stays in religious institutions as opposed to broader institutions like Penn. It really came into focus by the media when Sarah Palin got put up as vice president, because people just didn’t know what Pentecostalism is all about.

Q. Can you give a definition of the Pentecostal movement?
A.
The movement believes in signs and wonders and gifts of the Holy Spirit, and that God can give revelation in the here-and-now as opposed to just speaking through the text, the Bible. How that plays out depends on where you are, what sort of side beliefs you have, whether you are interested in prosperity or you are interested in social change. The one word that usually defines it is ‘ecstatic’ religion, in other words, a religion in which the body is very much employed through singing, chanting, speaking in tongues, trance, those kinds of things.

Q. What is the basic difference between Evangelical and Pentecostal?
A.
Evangelicals are Bible-believing Christians. They want to engage with the culture, but the thing that takes precedence for them is Scripture. They don’t necessarily believe in all these miracles, and laying-on of hands and speaking in tongues and all that stuff. It would be, for example, Jimmy Carter [Evangelical] versus Pat Robertson [Pentecostal].

Q. There has been a lot of discussion since the last presidential election about the Pentecostal movement and politics. Is there, in fact, a stronger connection between the two than there has been in the past?
A.
Pentecostals, historically, did not want to be involved in politics. But with the advent of the 1970s and things like the Christian Coalition and Pat Robertson running for president, Pentecostals started seeing themselves in the mix along with conservative Evangelicals. And although they weren’t like conservative Evangelicals because they believed in all these miracles and that other stuff, what they did believe in was conservative politics: for example, that abortion is wrong; that premarital sex is wrong. They also believed in what some people have called ‘Dominionism,’ which is the belief that people who are chosen and appointed by God are destined to rule on Earth, and this comes out of a certain kind of Pentecostal belief.

Q. Has that played an important role in Sarah Palin’s current popularity?
A.
Yes. For example, when Sarah Palin got hands laid on her by Kenyan Bishop Thomas Muthee, in one way that was just a normal Pentecostal thing, where she was just being prayed for. But the kind of things he was praying for her about—favor with all, favor with God—and the fact that this happened before she was selected as the vice presidential candidate, plays into the Pentecostal narrative about being chosen and being appointed by God. So, when [U.S. Sen. John] McCain picked her as his running mate, it looked as though that was a fulfillment of prophecy. Even now polls might say that if she runs, she will never win. But there is a contingent of people out there who really believe that she has been chosen by God.

Q. How do you talk to students about this modern intersection between politics and religious theory?
A.
One thing I try to stress is that religious belief can get mixed up with the political very quickly. We say we don’t provide a religious test for anybody who is running for president, but for some there is a religious test. I believe this movement toward Pentecostalism has set the tone for a new conservative religious base [in politics]. It allows more people to be part of that base, and it allows people of color who are Pentecostal to find themselves, somewhat, in like-minded collaboration with these people. In other words, it makes it easier to knit together a coalition of people because they share a certain set of beliefs.

Q. Is this by design, or is it a fortunate coincidence for conservatives?
A.
I think it’s a little of both. This was a missed demographic. I wish somebody would run a poll the next time we have an election that asks more specific questions, such as ‘Do you come out of a Pentecostal or Charismatic tradition?’ Part of the problem with polling is that they only ask denomination-based questions and this misses all the people who consider themselves to be non-denominational right now.

Q. Has Sarah Palin been one of the first politicians to bring this into focus?
A.
There have been other people before her. Carter brought it into focus because of his Baptist background. But this is the closest any Pentecostal has gotten to the White House.

Q. Do you see this as a 21st century political movement that is different than movements before it?
A.
I see it as having antecedents in the 20th century religious right movement, but it’s taken on a new dimension. I hear people say the religious right is dead, but it’s not. Look at the people who just won the mid-term elections. It’s not dead; it’s just a reformation of the movement.

Q. Another realm of your scholarship is the black church. Reading your blogs, it looks as if there is a national discussion right now about whether the black church, as a social entity, is dying. Is it?
A.
What started all this was an article Eddie Glaude [chair of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton] wrote for The Huffington Post [asserting the black church is dead]. I think there is a core of a question there. It has never been a wholly unified ‘black church.’ There are too many religious traditions that make up the African-American community, especially here in Philadelphia. But the question becomes: Does the traditional way they have gotten social and political things done have the same amount of force as it once did? I think maybe not. I think it’s been fractured, especially on the state and national level, because the connections they had with black organizations like the NACCP or The Links and other black community organizations don’t exist in quite the same way anymore.

Q. Is that because social classes have changed?
A.
That’s part of it, but some of it is also due to the quest for prosperity in these big churches that talk about individualism as opposed to the community. The people in these churches are much like the Evangelicals in that they are about individual righteousness and individual fiscal responsibility and not corporate issues. It’s a trend that’s going on in American Christianity, to turn away from the social and toward the individual.

Q. And you are seeing that in the black church?
A.
Yes, especially in these mega-churches. Even though they may be socially involved, and they have things they do for the community, a lot of that involvement is centered on people in their community, not people from other communities. It’s not about reaching out and making coalitions. There’s a big difference.

Q. Are you saying the historical constituencies that have made up the black church have dissipated?
A.
What I try to explain to people is that you aren’t going to see another Martin Luther King, Jr. You aren’t going to see any more marches. It’s just not what people do now. But, for the life and soul of the community in the inner city, black churches do mean something. The question becomes how do they stay viable with a younger generation that doesn’t want to participate or doesn’t feel the need to participate, or people who have left and decamped for other religious traditions? On the other hand, I think there will always be larger black churches that will be engaged in the community. But there is not one core issue [like the Civil Rights Movement] that everybody is going to focus on now to make the black church cohesive.

Q. You mentioned the prosperity gospel. Is it an arm of the general Pentecostal movement?
A.
Yes, and it’s growing by leaps and bounds. It’s a way for people to believe that God helps them become upwardly mobile. The reality is something else altogether, because if you have a house and [it went into foreclosure] and you can’t pay to get it back, how does that reconcile with someone like Joel Osteen who says you just have to pray for a house? I think this is a moment in which these churches, at least in the American context, are going to get reshaped. I think these mega-churches are going to find it difficult to continue if the economic situation continues on the way it is.

Q. You think there is a possibility they will not survive?
A.
They probably will, for this reason: Even if the economy is bad, people need something to believe in that is going to get them out of bad circumstances. The beauty of the prosperity gospel is that you can always just say, ‘If you are the pastor, you don’t believe God enough, I can’t help you. You’ve got to have better faith.’

Q. What Christian tradition does the prosperity gospel come from?
A.
It comes out of theology from the early 1900s. It used to be called the health-and-wealth gospel. You could believe in God for healing, and you could believe in God to provide material wealth. The health part sort of dropped out since we got good healthcare, and now it’s all about wealth. It’s about 100 or 125 years old. But the idea of prosperity has become sharpened in the last 25 years or so. Think about Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, who had all that stuff. What is different now is that if the pastor shows that [he or she is] prosperous, the people can believe in it as well. So if the pastor has a Jaguar, it’s a good thing.

Q. And this sort of thinking has carried over into conservative politics?
A.
I think 30 or 40 years ago it would have been easier to get universal healthcare because you didn’t have this many people thinking, ‘Just pull yourselves up by your bootstraps.’ People [back then] would have thought it was the Christian thing to do to take care of the poor and the needy. But now there’s been a shift in thinking and that shift has affected not just the social but also the political.

Q. What research are you working on now?
A.
One of the long-term projects I’m working on now is late-19th century, early-20th century African-American women’s Bible reading. It’s basically about homeschooling, African Americans and religion. It’s about a group of women who belonged to what were called the Fireside Schools. The Fireside Schools was a program that was sold throughout the South in a magazine called Hope, a series of books that offered a three-year program in reading, using Scripture as a base. So it was basically a literacy program, very empowering, and very needed. An American woman missionary named Joanna P. Moore had tried to start schools [for black children] but one of them had been burned down in Louisiana by the White League, so she, along with a group of African-American women, including Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, created mothers’ conferences and that’s how the Fireside Schools got started.

Originally published on December 2, 2010