Time Tries to Gin Up 'Pentecostal Problem' for Palin

October 9th, 2008 1:20 PM

Time magazine wonders if Sarah Palin has "a Pentecostal problem," but a closer look at Pentecostalism in America finds that while Time magazine may have a problem with Pentecostalism, America certainly doesn't, and there's no reason it should be a problem for Palin the way the race-baiting "G-D America" rantings of Rev. Jeremiah Wright were for Barack Obama.

Time does a fairly good job explaining the Pentecostal wing of American and global Christianity, though it gets some things wrong. (For example, many non-Pentecostal Christians also believe in the baptism of the Holy Spirit, though differ in degrees on how it is manifested in the life of the believer. There are many members and leaders, though not all, within the very conservative and decidedly not-Pentecostal Churches of Christ who believe in the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit in the believer, for example.)

A couple days ago I had a chat with a friend - a left wing socialist Obama-supporter friend - who warned that Palin's past attendance at an Assemblies of God church would scare off voters the same as Barack Obama's membership in Trinity United Church of Christ became so controversial thanks to the racist anti-American rantings of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

I don't think so. For one, according to various data, there are between 20 million and 30 million Christians in the United States who can be classified as Pentecostals, spread across numerous denominations. That's at least four million more people - and perhaps 14 million more - than the entire membership of the single largest Protestant Christian denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Pentecostalism is a major part of mainstream Christianity in America and around the world. Major Pentecostal denominations in the United States include the Assemblies of God, the Church of God headquartered in Cleveland, Tennessee, and the largely African-American Church of God in Christ, which is headquartered in Memphis and has 6 million members.

As this map from Valparaiso University shows, Pentecostalism isn't a regionally limited faith, but has adherents nationwide.

Even some churches in various denominations that aren't officially Pentecostal incorporate some pentecostal elements, beliefs and practices. Pentecostalism's cousins in America, include charismatics and neo-charismatics, altogether totaling 80 million Americans. Religion experts call the broad movement "renewalism."

According to Wikipedia, approximately 918,000 Hispanic-Americans, or about 4 percent of Hispanic-Americans, are members of Pentecostal churches, though it doesn't cite a source for the data. Time magazine says "Nearly 20% of American Pentecostals are Latino," which obviously doesn't square with the Wikipedia numbers. A 2006 Los Angeles Times article noted that American Latino Catholics are increasingly leaving the Catholic church for Pentecostal churches. The numbers disparity may be because Hispanic Catholics are increasingly incorporating Pentecostalism into their churches. The Pew Hispanic Center and Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life said this in 2007 in an in-depth report on Hispanics and religion in America titled "Changing Faiths: Latinos and the Transformation of American Religion":

Religious expressions associated with the pentecostal and charismatic movements are a key attribute of worship for Hispanics in all the major religious traditions - far more so than among non-Latinos. Moreover, the growth of the Hispanic population is leading to the emergence of Latino-oriented churches across the country.

About a third of all Catholics in the U.S. are now Latinos, and the study projects that the Latino share will continue climbing for decades. This demographic reality, combined with the distinctive characteristics of Latino Catholicism, ensures that Latinos will bring about important changes in the nation's largest religious institution.

Most significantly given their numbers, more than half of Hispanic Catholics identify themselves as charismatics, compared with only an eighth of non-Hispanic Catholics. While remaining committed to the church and its traditional teachings, many of these Latino Catholics have witnessed or experienced occurrences typical of spirit-filled or renewalist movements, including divine healing and direct revelations from God. Even many Latino Catholics who do not identify themselves as renewalists appear deeply influenced by spirit-filled forms of Christianity.

Similarly, the renewalist movement is a powerful presence among Latino Protestants. More than half of Hispanics in this category identify with spirit-filled religion, compared with about a fifth of non-Hispanic Protestants.

While critics of Palin, like my friend, will try to caricature Pentecostals as backwoods, backwards snake-handlers, the larger Pentecostal denominations operate a long list of colleges, universities and seminaries across the United states.

Pentecostalism is very much part of mainstream Christianity in America.

That's why a political attack from the Left on Palin based on Pentecostalism is likely to backfire in a big way. It's not that Pentecostals are politically monolithic - they aren't. But the average American voter is more likely to know, work with, live near or be friends with a Pentecostal Christian - indeed, to be one - than they are to know, work with, live near or be friends with someone who attends a church that features a pastor who blames America for 9/11 and delivers hate-filled race-baiting political rants from the pulpit.

As for Palin, she now attends a non-Pentecostal non-denominational church when she's back home in Alaska, the Wasilla Bible Church. The independent Bible church movement - autonomous churches that have no or very loose ties to any denomination or larger organization, often called "Bible churches" or "Bible fellowships" or "community churches," is a fast-growing part of American Christianity, though hard to quantify in numbers.

Palin says she is not a Pentecostal, just a "Bible-believing Christian," a phrase that Time magazine calls a "code" phrase. But it's not a code phrase at all. The dominant trend in American Christianity today is a movement away from denominationalism. Go to any of these new independent Bible churches, or even visit churches of various denominations that have downplayed their denominational ties, and you'll find the pews (or, more likely, padded chairs that can be stacked turn the "sanctuary" into a multi-purpose event hall) filled with people who came from various denomination backgrounds - "Bible-believing Christians."