King's Evangelical Divinity School

16 September 2009

Pentecostal Faith and Politics in Costa Rica and Guatemala

When I first launched this blog I discussed briefly the rise of Pentecostal Studies as an academic sub-discipline of theology. To a large part this is owed to the explosion of Pentecostalism across Latin America in the 1970s and especially the 1980s, which attracted the attention of sociologists, historians, political scientists and others keen to explore the extent to which this phenomenon has had on society and politics across that continent. Since the 1980s there have been numerous studies and book exploring this topic.

This is an area which I write about from time to time and I am sometimes asked to review books on the subject. Where possible I plan to post those reviews here. The following book review was originally published in Pneuma: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies 28.2 (2006), 374-6 (reproduced with permission).

Timothy J. Steigenga, The Politics of the Spirit:
The Political Implications of Pentecostalized Religion
in Costa Rica and Guatemala (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2001). xviii + 201 pp. $74.00 cloth; $26.00 paper.

There was a time when secularist European and North American social scientists rejected religion as a predictor of political attitudes and behavior. Yet political scientist Timothy Steigenga explains how episodes such as the Iranian revolution, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, Pat Robertson’s presidential bid, and liberation theology in Latin America challenged this prejudice, leading social scientists to `discover’ religion. More recently, the explosion of Protestantism across Latin America has attracted much interest. Why are huge numbers converting to Pentecostalism, and what will be the political impact in the region? Steigenga believes much of the current literature is fraught with disagreement and sweeping generalizations. Noting a paucity of public opinion research, he brings a scientific approach to his comparative study of Guatemala and Costa Rica, which explores the effects of Pentecostalism on political orientation and participation.

Three models offer explanations for Evangelical growth. The first argues religion is imposed by external actors, such as missionaries. In the 1980s, leftists and Latin American Catholics favoured this explanation, regarding Protestantism as both a cultural invasion and extension of U.S. foreign policy that retained the status quo by legitimizing and supporting elites. Yet Steigenga’s polling indicated 60% of Protestants were raised in their current religion or introduced to it by family members, while only 3% of Pentecostals came to faith through television or radio. These statistics, together with indigenized church leadership and a modest Protestant population in Costa Rica (despite intense missionary activity) greatly challenge the “religion as imposed” view.

Steigenga is more sympathetic towards the “religion as adaptive” model, which posits pragmatic reasons for conversion (for example, as a survival strategy during times of upheaval). Yet polling data warns against sweeping generalizations characterizing this view. Steigenga especially challenges the commonly-cited Weberian notion that Pentecostals enjoy social upward mobility. Though converts may feel more affluent, statistics indicate they are on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. Thus Steigenga believes we should drop “grand theoretical claims” and aim for a more circumscribed, sophisticated approach.

Polling supports the “religion as autonomous” model as the best explanation for Pentecostal growth. Here, would-be converts believe religion delivers real answers to pressing everyday questions. Thus, Pentecostal spirituality, doctrine, and experience represent genuine attractions in themselves. Significantly, it is here, in the realms of belief, that Steigenga discovers the most reliable predictors of political attitudes. True, religious affiliation sheds some light on political activity. For example, Pentecostals were less likely to participate in political campaigns, compared with Catholics or Mainstream Protestants. Yet the evidence is mixed; they voted in similar proportions to other religious groups, engaged in community-level volunteerism, and in Guatemala were more centrist than Mainstream Protestants, which defies conventional wisdom. Thus, Steigenga argues that religious belief, rather than affiliation, represents a far more reliable predictor of political attitudes. In particular, he highlights how Pentecostal features such as premillennialism, speaking in tongues, and experiences of miracle cures and temptation, all denoted a tendency towards political quiescence in the form of respect for authorities and an unwillingness to criticize public officials.

At this stage, readers may well say, so what? If these represent identifying features of Pentecostalism, then religious affiliation determines political predilections after all. But this is not so. Steigenga’s nuanced study differentiates between Pentecostalism and Pentecostalized religion, explaining how large numbers of Catholics and Mainstream Protestants have also embraced Charismatic beliefs and practices. He states: “I was shocked… by the degree to which all of the subgroups I polled displayed charismatic and religiously conservative characteristics” (p44). Thus, Pentecostalism’s effect on politics is moving beyond its own circles to affect other religious groups. The ramifications for Guatemala are particularly significant, where Steigenga estimates some 30% (possibly even 50%) of Guatemalans practice some form of Pentecostalized religion.

Steigenga’s delineation of Pentecostalized religion is not without its problems. For example, experiences of miracles or temptations are not exclusive to Pentecostalism (consider Lourdes), and it is noteworthy that polling indicated far lower instances of glossolalia among Catholics. One also wonders whether premillennialism, an important indicator of Pentecostalization for Steigenga, translates across the continent. Kingdom Now theology, which emphasises prophetic over apocalyptic eschatology, appears to be trickling down into parts Latin America. At the very least, classical premillennialist Pentecostalism is not the only expression of Charismaticism in the region, and one does well to heed Steigenga’s advice concerning stereotypes and generalizations.

Nevertheless, this piece of research provides observers of Latin American Pentecostalism with valuable scientific data, countering studies which have sometimes relied on flimsy evidence. Especially important, however, is the effect Pentecostalized religion is having elsewhere in Latin America. By influencing the political behaviour of others, Pentecostalism is moving beyond its own numeric strength, leading Steigenga to conclude: “It is likely that the most durable and consequential effects of the Pentecostalization of religion in Latin America have yet to be felt” (p 155).

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