King's Evangelical Divinity School

24 February 2010

Excerpt 4, Pentecostalism and Politics in Latin America

For previous excerpts see here.

B. Implicit Political Effects of Pentecostal Belief and Practice

As we can see, eschatology is one example of how Pentecostal belief can have a bearing on the movement’s worldview and political activity. There are others, for example, a strong belief in the sanctity of life which leads to a conservative stand on abortion and euthanasia, or a rejection of communist atheism which led to a suspicion of the East Bloc. However, we should take great care not to stereotype Pentecostals as inherently conservative. Take, for example, the traditionally pacifist stance of the U.S. Assemblies of God. (Donald Gee, one of Pentecostalism’s leading figures in the U.K., was also a pacifist.) (17)  It was only in the 1960s that the Assemblies of God in the United States softened its stance on pacifism, permitting liberty of conscience so that members could choose combatant or non-combatant roles during Vietnam. (18)

These are examples of explicit instances of Pentecostal political opinion and activity. Another which is evident in Latin America is the rise of Evangelical, mainly Pentecostal political parties. Thus, ironically, Pentecostal ministers who previously believed strongly in the separation of church and state are now running for office and regularly make political pronunciations in the media. In his survey of Protestant political parties, the sociologist Paul Freston discusses several such parties in the Latin American milieu. (19)  Meanwhile, political scientist Timothy Steigenga has traced voting patterns of Pentecostals (and those influenced by Pentecostalised religion) in Costa Rica and Guatemala. (20)  Also, Pentecostals in many Latin American countries are heavily involved in social projects such as literacy, helping the poor, orphanage work, and drug rehabilitation. (21)

But political activity among Pentecostals is not always so explicit. Sometimes the movement’s social and political impact may well be far more implicit, whereby Pentecostal belief and practices have an unintended or subtle effect on society and politics. Consider, for example, a sense of empowerment Pentecostalism gives to the poor. The movement’s focus on individualism (individual faith, salvation and regeneration, a dynamic one-on-one relationship with Christ, unique calling, and spiritual gifts bestowed upon the believer, and so on) helps to empower the individual as a worthwhile member of the Pentecostal collective. Thus, across a highly-stratified continent, Pentecostalism offers the poor a sense of worth and value, whereby each individual member is considered unique with an important, God-given role to play in the local church (cf Paul’s discussion of the different parts of the body in 1 Corinthians 12).

Lidia Susana Vaccaro de Petrella, a Pentecostal leader in Argentina, suggests a strong feeling of community within Latin American Pentecostal churches. (22)  Another Pentecostal author echoes this view, explaining how the movement provides a sense of community to Latin American peasants migrating to cities. (23)   Thomas Birchall explains how Latin America’s poor are welcomed into Pentecostal churches, where they are made to feel far more comfortable than in a more middle-class setting. Migrants to the cities find a new social identity, emotional security, and material assistance within these churches, which also provide sanctuary for the poor, alcoholics, the destitute, unemployed, and rootless. (24)   J. Samuel Escobar believes Pentecostalism provides a sense of community to uprooted people who have lost their point of reference. (25)  Meanwhile, Pentecostalism often emphasises financial security and prosperity as a blessing from God. The movement encourages thrift and stewardship, while the decision by new converts not to spend their earnings on alcohol or gambling can produce tangible benefits for that person’s family. It also assists social upward mobility.

Yet another example of the implicit social and political effects of Pentecostal belief and practice relates to gender and race issues. Several commentators have pointed out how Pentecostalism helps to challenge machismo, the Latin American prejudice against women. For example, women are empowered as members of equal standing in the local church with a role to play and the accompanying spiritual gift to fulfil their ministry. (26)  This sense of self-worth is also extended to view abusive husbands no longer as masters that must be obeyed, but rather victims of sin. Thus, women are encouraged to help their husbands. (27)   Furthermore, female ministry within Pentecostalism is highly progressive. Meanwhile, Pentecostalism has also traditionally downplayed race (the early Pentecostals drew heavily from among the black poor), and this emphasis on racial harmony is evident in many of Latin America’s Pentecostal churches.

C. Latin American Pentecostalism and the United States

As stated previously, the explosion of Pentecostalism in Latin America has attracted a great deal of interest among sociologists and other commentators keen to learn of its political impact across the region. One question often asked, mainly by Catholics and those on the left, is the extent to which these groups have formal links with the U.S., particularly North American policymakers. Both have accused Pentecostals of being a tool of U.S. cultural imperialism, or worse, an extension of U.S. foreign policy. Bookshops in Latin America contain many Catholic-produced items on how to deal with the sectas (sects, i.e. Evangelical groups) when they come to your door. Meanwhile, Marxist commentators have accused Pentecostals of being a social prop used by corrupt and unjust regimes to retain the status quo. Thus, the U.S. is seen as encouraging, even financing, such groups for its own purposes in the region.

There is evidence to suggest that the U.S. has, on occasion, sought missionary help to gather intelligence in parts of Latin America, to the extent that the National Association of Evangelicals issued a resolution denouncing such practices. But all this is quite different from suggesting that the invasion of Pentecostalism represents a U.S. foreign policy tool, and that Pentecostals receive funding accordingly, or that Pentecostals in some way represent a social prop for unjust regimes. There was certainly never an invasion of Latin America by early Pentecostal missionaries. Contrary to perceptions among some Latin American Catholics and those on the left, this initial influx of missionaries was small (a missionary here, a man-and-wife team there, etc) and certainly did not constitute an invasion. Moreover, a careful examination of the personal accounts of Assemblies of God missionaries sent from Springfield, Missouri, details only subsistence-level funding (the denomination always encouraged self-sufficiency), and missionaries often struggled financially. David Stoll, too, considers the funding issue inadequate and over-exaggerated. (28)  Furthermore, talk of close links between the U.S. and many Latin American Pentecostals is over-exaggerated, while the Assemblies of God in the U.S. encouraged rapid indigenisation of local works (Melvyn Hodges, a Central American missionary and later Missions Secretary of the Assemblies of God, was strongly influenced by the writings of Rolland Allen, who emphasised indigenisation). Finally, if Pentecostals in some regimes represented a social prop, it seems they were getting very little out of it. That they benefited from acting as a prop is a charge that has been levelled at Evangelicals during the corrupt dynasty of Nicaragua’s Somoza family. Yet earlier Somozas did not protect Evangelicals from intense Catholic persecution, while there is evidence that the last Somoza had a group of Pentecostals executed. If Pentecostals in that country willingly helped to bolster the Somoza regime, they clearly received very little in return. The social prop theory is discussed in further depth in my book.


(17) John Carter, Donald Gee: Pentecostal Statesman (Nottingham: Assemblies of God Publishing House, 1975), 16-21.

(18) D. J. Wilson, `Pacifism’, in Stanley Burgess and Gary B. McGee, Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 658-60.

(19) Paul Freston, Protestant Political Parties: A Global Survey (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004).

(20) Steigenga, Politics of the Spirit.

(21) Douglas Petersen, Not By Might Nor By Power: A Pentecostal Theology of Social Concern in Latin America (Oxford: Regnum, 1996).

(22) Lidia Susana Vaccaro de Petrella. `The Tension Between Evangelism and Social Action in the Pentecostal Movement’, International Review of Mission 74 (January 1986).

(23) Pedro C. Moreno, `Rapture and Renewal in Latin America’, First Things 74 (June/July 1997), 31-34.

(24) Thomas A. Birchall, A Theological Evaluation of the Growth of the Pentecostal Church in Latin America. MTh Thesis (Dallas Theological Seminary), April 1994.

(25) Samuel Escobar, `The Promise and Precariousness of Latin American Protestantism’ in Daniel Miller, ed. Coming of Age: Protestantism in Contemporary Latin America (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1994), 3-35.

(26) Carol Ann Drogus, `Private Power or Public Power: Pentecostalism, Base Communities, and Gender’ in Edward L. Cleary and Hannah W. Stewart-Gambino, eds. Power, Politics, and Pentecostals in Latin America (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1998), 55-75.

(27) Cecilia Loreto Mariz and Maria Das Dores Campos Machado, `Pentecostalism and Women in Brazil’, in Cleary and Gambino-Stewart, Power, Politics, and Pentecostals, 41-54.

(28) Stoll, Is Latin America Turning Protestant?

No comments: