I (Joel) had the privilege of hearing Dr. Carolyn Dirksen present this paper at the Society for Pentecostal Studies 2018 conference in March, and I was so moved by it that I asked if she’d allow us to post it here, which she generously granted. Thus, we’ll post her important paper in four parts. Enjoy!
First, let me say that I am neither a political scientist nor a theologian, and I am not a scholar of contemporary religious or political movements. So I have no academic standing in a discussion of Pentecostalism and politics. However, I am a citizen who takes my role in our democracy seriously, and I am a life-long Pentecostal in relatively good standing. My experience with these topics, then, is just that–experience, but it is experience that has been examined and contemplated and vigorously critiqued. It has been lived with a worried nervousness that I might never get either part of it––the Pentecostalism or the politics––exactly right. So this is not an academic and scholarly analysis of what happened with Pentecostals and Trump. It is a groping narrative confessional with far more questions than answers. So buckle up. It could get messy.
When I first started thinking about this topic, I was in the library of a small Church of God college in Kenya, re-reading Harvard theologian Harvey Cox’s seminal work on Pentecostalism, Fire from Heaven, published in 1995. I had stumbled across it while evaluating the library’s holdings and assisting my students in their research. I had just spent a month deeply immersed in the kind of Pentecostalism Cox was talking about when he so admiringly plunged into research on this worldwide phenomenon. In Pentecostalism outside the US, and in the origins of American Pentecostalism, he had found “the recovery of primal speech, the recovery of primal piety, and the recovery of primal hope.” At the end of his research, he was intellectually stimulated and emotionally charged by his foray into a religion with such strong appeal to so many of the world’s most disenfranchised. Yet, he was “distressed” by certain aspects of white American Pentecostalism “especially the political alliances some of its members have recently entered.”
His warnings about the white American version of Pentecostalism and its alignment with what he calls, “the high rollers of the Religious Right,” focused my thinking on the surprising turn of events 22 years after the publication of Cox’s book, that led many Pentecostals to support Donald Trump. This alliance had disturbed me––as Cox might say “primally”––so this topic sprang to life. In light of the beliefs of early Pentecostals and the shape of the Pentecostal movement worldwide, what did it mean that an apparently high percentage of Pentecostals had supported Trump––not holding their noses and voting for the least awful of terrible alternatives––but triumphantly, declaring Trump to be God’s choice for America.
How did their allegiance to a man twice divorced with overlapping wives and mistresses and children by three different spouses square with the strongly pietistic sect’s attitude toward marital faithfulness and purity of heart?
How did the grandchildren of the poorest of the poor who founded the Pentecostal movement, join in the causes of an ostentatious multi-millionaire who flaunted his wealth and showed contempt for society’s most vulnerable?
How did this religion which “started out as a radical inclusive spiritual fellowship in which race and gender discrimination virtually disappeared” align itself with a candidate who overtly championed white priority and a return to an America where white men held the power?
How was it possible that American Pentecostals––a body of believers so familial that in many places they still call each other “brother” and “sister”––could champion a nationalism so undiluted that it would expel undocumented brothers and sisters who are a vital, living part of that fellowship?
I have tried to distance myself from this controversy many times since it claimed me, but others of Cox’s words prevented me from abandoning it. In his introduction, Cox says, “as I came to know the Pentecostal movement in its present incarnation I discovered that the Pentecostals themselves are facing a dilemma they may not survive. At least they may not be able to survive it and remain true to their origins.” And later, in the conclusion, he reiterates, “Most of the Pentecostals I knew personally were as outraged by all of this as I was. But I was not at all sure that even the most courageous of them could put up the kind of battle that seemed to be needed in their churches.” His final comment that closes the book is the most condemning, “Today Pentecostalism stands in grave danger of losing the invaluable message it could bring to other churches and to the rest of the world.”
As a life-long Democrat, for many decades, I never talked about politics because it was just so counterproductive. I hate argument for its own sake, and I was never successful in converting anyone to my way of thinking, perhaps because that was never my intention. A democracy works because citizens think differently. The majority prevails, but the minority has protection under the law. The political pendulum has swung in both directions in my many years as a voter. Sometimes you win; sometimes you lose. It’s hardly worth either gloating or sulking. But the election of Donald Trump has been different, and something in Cox’s words about our need as Pentecostals to put up some kind of battle struck me. I have not put up any kind of a battle nor have most of the people who share my perspectives. We remain uncomfortably silent or we defect to less troublesome faith traditions, but maybe there is too much at stake for me to continue to be a coward.
One reason Cox and his ideas about white American Pentecostals resonated so strongly with me is, as I said, I was in Africa, steeping in the international version of the Church of God. In Africa, Pentecostalism is still the religion of the poor and dispossessed. It is a religion of hope for the world to come and strength to endure the trials of this present world. It is a religion that longs for the coming of Christ and for delivery from the troubles of a world that is not our home. It expects miracles and divine intervention, and its worship is free and lively and uncontrived. The church is a place where women and children speak and are loved and valued, where young people are given a chance to lead, and where people from across unimaginable divides come together in unconditional love. And that is basically my definition–and Harvey Cox’s definition–of true Pentecostalism.
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.