So how does any of that translate into the political stance of Pentecostals for Trump? Cox explains part of that transition this way: In the beginning Pentecostals were totally focused on the imminent coming of Christ to the complete exclusion of involvement with politics in this present world, but in the third or fourth generation of Pentecostals, there was a gradual transition that moved the coming of Christ further into the future. What started as “Jesus in all likelihood is coming today,” became “While Jesus could come today, He probably won’t,” and finally became “Jesus isn’t coming today because everything hasn’t yet been fulfilled.” The indefinite delay of the Second Coming nudged Pentecostals into a kind of political awareness that had been impossible in prior decades.
Let me share how all that actually felt as lived experience. When I was a child, the immediate expectation of the rapture of the church permeated every sermon and every Sunday school lesson. It was on the lips of the good women at the center of my life, and my grandmother reminded me of it around any and every childhood infraction of the “teachings of the Church.” It was the warning that corralled all my behavior. “You don’t want to be sitting in a movie house when the Lord comes back for his saints, do you?” So it is little wonder that I expected the rapture in ways that bordered on the irrational.
If I ever came home from school and my grandmother wasn’t home; if I thought my mother was in her bedroom and she turned out not to be, or if I went to the dress shop where Sister Irvin worked and she wasn’t in her usual position, my absolute first thought was that the good women had been raptured, and I had been left behind. I went through this knee weakening, cold sweat kind of fear on such a regular basis that I might have needed treatment for PTSD if such a thing had existed. In the time between my grandmother’s supposed disappearance and the time she came in from hanging out the laundry, I repeated to myself all the ways I would withstand taking the mark of the beast. I hear people younger than I am telling stories of “that time I thought the rapture had taken place,” but I don’t have individual stories. That was the narrative of my entire childhood. To make matters even more traumatic, my grandmother was a great scholar of Revelation, and she read current events like tea leaves, comparing them to prophesies about the “end times.” Reading the morning paper with her was a terrifying way to begin the day.
For the grown ups in my church, the second coming was anticipated with great longing, but for children of my generation, it was a constant source of fear. That fear is testimony to the thorough and deep pietism that permeated the congregation. To us children, it seemed impossible to measure up, to be “ready” as the spotless bride of Christ. Except for the two weeks immediately following a revival or youth camp, we were too eager to go to a movie or school dance, get our hair cut, or wear a dash of mascara. I was even known to wear sleeveless shirts or even shorts on the searing Arizona desert where I grew up. That level of adult perfection–long hair, no make up, modest dress, and abstinence from everything that sounded fun–was just too demanding.
But all that began to change, not suddenly but almost imperceptibly, so that by the time my daughter was a child at Westmore, the rapture was an exotic topic. When the Left Behind series came out, she read them all from cover to cover, much to my great dismay.
The Second Coming was fascinating to her because it was a new thought something extraordinary and not the every day fabric of church. That deep piety and legalistic adherence to the “Church of God Teachings” was also a thing of the past, and the sin of worldliness was no longer a theme in the pastor’s sermons. Gradually, the songs changed from longing for heaven to individualistic joy in a personal relationship with God–not “Some glad morning when this life is o’re, I’ll fly away,” but “Jesus is a friend of mine.”
It stands to reason that if the Second Coming is at hand and conditions leading to it will continue to get worse no matter what we do, there is no reason to participate in political movements, to try to save the planet, or to address systemic problems in the world. But if Jesus’ return is more distant, and if there is a chance that Christians can help usher it in by creating a better world, then political action takes on a whole new urgency. This is essentially a shift in Pentecostal theology from pre-millennialism to post-millennialism. Because it opened the door to political action, this change created a split in the Pentecostal movement. Some Pentecostals have taken the tack that Christians can influence on earth the kind of social justice that is outlined in the teachings of Jesus, so they participate in groups like Pentecostals for Peace and Justice or Sojourners, working toward the ends of peace, justice, racial reconciliation, creation care, and meeting the needs of the poor.
According to Cox, however, a larger percentage of Pentecostals have espoused the dominion theology popularized by Pat Robertson. This is the idea that Genesis 1:27 which gives humankind dominion over “every living thing” also suggests dominion over the institutions of this world including political institutions. Robertson claimed that Christians should rule the world–in this life not just in the kingdom to come. The first steps in that direction are to take over political positions. Although this shift in eschatological viewpoints was a huge change for Pentecostals, Cox notes that many made it with little resistance. Once totally averse to politics, Pentecostals became players on the religious right as part of the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition. But even at this point, which is the end of Cox’s analysis, there was an emphasis on the moral piety of the Christians who should rule the world. Their righteousness would bring righteousness to the institutions they governed.
Note from the Editorial Team: Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.