The rest of this is more or less my own thinking, so it is open to huge amounts of disagreement. Before Pat Robertson lured Pentecostals to dominion theology, there was a much greater tolerance among Christian brothers and sisters for differing political view points. As I said, I have been a Democrat since I registered to vote in 1968, and when I came to Lee that same year, there was already a College Democrats organization on campus, led by Dr. Ollie Lee. Ollie, a very non-controversial faculty member in good standing, ardently campaigned for Albert Gore, Sr., and while most faculty were Republicans, those of us who weren’t were not immediately and without other evidence seen as sinners. But dominion theology made political choices part of the ushering in of the kingdom of God, so to oppose the candidate of the religious right became a kind of heresy. Over the past 50 years, the animosity toward those Pentecostals who took the peace and justice, left leaning, Democratic route to bringing the values of the kingdom to life on earth have been viewed with growing skepticism and increasing animosity.
However, one more crucial step had to be taken in the evolution of Pentecostal politics in order for the “faithful” to support Trump. Robertson’s view was that Christians should rule because their personal morality would bring morality to the world’s institutions. So candidates had to have the highest of moral standards. Divorced candidate were suspect; candidates could not be profligate, and even drinkers were questioned. However, as the culture wars raged on, a candidate’s position on two key issues replaced personal morality as the key factor in their anointing by the religious right. By the end of the long, hostile, painful primaries in 2016, the two issues that mattered most to Pentecostals on the right were abortion and marriage equality. Trump had them–despite his questionable personal life–when he pledged to appoint Supreme Court justices dedicated to overturning Roe vs. Wade and to returning to a traditional definition of marriage.
The Trump vs. Clinton contest took interpersonal animosity to a whole new level around those key issues. When I posted on Facebook that my daughter and I would attend the inauguration of the first woman president if Clinton won, I was attacked with a stunning vehemence. Used to the more open air of the university campus, I was not at all prepared for the vitriol my post prompted. I could not have received stronger condemnation if I had said that I was opening an abortion clinic and the first 100 clients would be free.
Some Pentecostals have been willing and able not only to support Trump because of his stand on these key issues, but to transmute his morals into something approaching sainthood. So it seems that a certain strand of contemporary Pentecostalism has come the full distance from a pietistic focus on the immediate coming of the Lord to a headlong rush to assume power on earth, prioritizing an anti-abortion, anti-gay agenda over other causes that are central to the gospel of Christ.
Since the election, I have met regularly with Trump supporters whom I trust and admire to talk about what his election means and to hear how they were able to support him. What I hear time and again is that the Democratic Party lost touch with the essential moral center of these Pentecostals, and Trump’s platform offered a correction in the trajectory of social change. Most of them believe that treatment of minorities, refugees, and the poor and marginal is a personal commitment rather than a government responsibility.
Other Pentecostal Voices
In all this, I do want to clarify that I am speaking mainly of individual Pentecostals who are taking these political stands — not of denominations or even congregations. I have been very happy that my own denomination, the Church of God, has remained above the fray in spite of what I am sure has been significant pressure to side with the religious right, or whatever the contemporary term might be. Shortly after the election, when heated rhetoric was making life difficult for immigrants, Dr. Tim Hill, the COG General Overseer, published the denomination’s resolution on immigration which is inclusive and caring. He also appointed an Immigration Task Force to explore ways the denomination might help relieve the stress of the large numbers of undocumented members in the Church of God. Unlike Liberty University, Lee did not take a political stand, and open dialogue is possible on campus. Lee still has a College Democrats, a College Republicans and a Libertarian organization offering a place for students across the political spectrum. Lee also has a Racial Justice Advocacy Group, a Peacemakers Group, and a Restorative Justice Council.
I believe in Pentecostalism as the rich, expressive religion of the poor and marginal and of those who support them. As an avant-garde religion, bent toward the non-rational grasp of hope, I believe Pentecostalism does have something to offer a world reaching increasing levels of despair. And as a religion that can finally see its role on earth as more than a longing for heaven, I believe Pentecostalism can contribute to the empowerment of the weak, the reconciliation of the broken, and the healing of the earth. I believe it because I have seen it in the Pentecostal movement worldwide. So while some members of the Pentecostal movement have moved toward a dominion theology with clearly prioritized principles, Pentecostalism is alive in a different form worldwide with the message that Cox believes Pentecostalism has to offer other churches and the rest of the world. This alternate and more primal version of Pentecostalism is worth discussing, and I am hopeful that there are ways for the white American church to find its way back.
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.