Why we should be interested in the rise of the Pentecostals

February 23, 2016

     By Duncan Green     

Maybe it’s my Latin America background, but I’ve always been fascinated by the rise of evangelical Christianity, and pentecostalsits potential social and political impact. Religion in general is an inexcusable blind spot for a lot of the aid business, and activists are particularly alarmed by the kind of happy clappy Protestant churches who go in for guitars, ecstasy, speaking in tongues etc. But they play a huge and growing role in the lives of poor people and communities around the world, so we need to get over it. To help, there was a fascinating series of articles in a recent Economist about the state of Global Pentecostalism.

There’s an overview, and then country profiles on Brazil and South Korea (both hotbeds). For those of you unwilling to hand over your dosh to the evil neoliberals for a subscription, here are some highlights:

‘Like migrants in search of safety and prosperity, charismatic Christianity has proved adaptable, almost chameleonic. To people whose lives are in flux, it offers a mix of ecstasy, discipline and professional and personal support. In Brazil an initially sober kind of Pentecostalism has been replaced by a brasher kind. In South Korea, a style of worship that suited a poorish, insecure country has been replaced by one that flaunts success.

Whatever their style, Pentecostal pastors are culturally closer to their flock than are the learned clerics of the Catholic or Lutheran churches; and they are numerous. A study in 2007 found that in Brazil Pentecostal churches had 18 times more clerics per believer than the majority Catholics. Older churches move slowly because they are lumbered with hierarchies and rules; the Pentecostal world is one of quick startups, low barriers to entry and instant reaction to change.

pentecostals fig 1At worst, this flexibility shades into opportunism. In every country where Pentecostalism has thrived, its leading practitioners have faced investigations of their finances. In 2011Forbes magazine estimated the combined worth of five Nigerian pastors as at least $200m. In Brazil the faithful seem tolerant of pastors who are light-fingered with their tithes; many see giving as a virtuous act, regardless of the money’s ultimate destination. Estevam Hernandes, one of Brazil’s best-known preachers, cheerfully resumed his career after returning, in 2009, from five months in an American jail for smuggling undeclared cash.’

The link to migration: ‘In the past migrating religious groups either merged into their host societies or else pickled the culture of the old country in aspic. Thanks to technology, today’s roaming worshippers have no such dilemma; a Nigerian or Brazilian in transit can adapt while maintaining contact with home. Globally dispersed Pentecostal churches meet both those needs. An outlying branch of the RCCG can offer job advice and a way to keep links with home. Global charismatic movements act as transmission belts along which ideas and worship styles can travel quickly.’

Are evangelical churches always right wing?: ‘Politically, Pentecostal churches tend to be pragmatic rather than consistently conservative. Brazil’s globally successful Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG) initially resisted the rise of the centre-left Workers’ Party, but went on to back its presidential candidates, including Dilma Rousseff, the incumbent. In Ukraine Mr Adelaja was close to the 2004 Orange revolution but also wooed the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych. Peru’s right-wing authoritarian leader, Alberto Fujimori, enjoyed Pentecostal support, but in El Salvador, Pentecostal preachers strike a leftist tone. In America Latino Protestants (mostly charismatic) are contested electoral terrain. Almost all Pentecostal churches are anti-abortion and anti-gay, but the UCKG has made statements that are pro-choice and comparatively gay-friendly’

In Brazil Roman Catholics remain more numerous, but ‘One study found that in 2002-03, when they made up 13% of Brazilians, Pentecostals gave 44% of tithes collected by churches in Brazil; Catholics, then 74% of the population, paid less than a third.’

February 23, 2016
Duncan Green