Pentecostalism and politics
Pentecostalism, with its meteoric growth from a nascent movement in 1906 to roughly 500 million followers worldwide today, has the potential to change not only the religious landscape but the political as well.
Luis Lugo, the director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which organized a survey of Pentecostals in 10 countries, concluded that “Pentecostals are at least as politically oriented as other Christians in these societies, and on several measures even more so.” In all 10 countries, Pentecostals were more likely than non-renewalists to believe that religious groups should express views on political and social questions. The Pew survey, the most comprehensive look at Pentecostalism to date, paints a good picture of what those political views really are.
Even though nearly 80 percent believe religious groups should express political opinions — and the fact that they are slightly more likely to be active in their local communities, addressing issues that include poverty, employment and racial equality — Pentecostals in the United States are less likely to belong to or participate in a political organization or party. This is not the case in Latin America. Guatemala has had two Pentecostal presidents, and Nicaragua and Brazil both have Pentecostal political parties that hold seats in parlia- ment. An organized voting bloc has yet to emerge in the United States — and, indeed, is difficult to form because most Pentecostal churches are independent and the movement is without a central governing body — but 87 percent of American Pentecostals want their political leaders to share their beliefs. More than half of Pentecostals in the United States would even like to see steps taken toward making America a Christian country; only one-quarter of American Christians feel this way.
These beliefs have a strong moral aspect. Abortion is never justified, say 64 percent of Pentecostals in the United States and close to 90 percent in Kenya, Nigeria, the Philippines and the three Latin American countries. (Opinion on the government’s role in preventing abortion is more equally divided in most countries, including the United States.) Pentecostals are also, across the board, much more likely to regard drinking alcohol, homosexuality, extramarital sex and euthanasia as never justified — beliefs that lead some to see Pentecostals in the United States as an ideological constituency for conservative politicians. Pentecostals’ strong support for increased social programs, however, could be used to make a case for a new Democratic constituency.
The movement’s active proselytizing has traditionally targeted those who frequently feel marginalized by society — often poor, and, in the United States, often immigrants. In developing countries particularly, the demographic is shifting to include more from the middle and upper classes. Pentecostals are far from apolitical, the Pew survey demonstrates, and as the movement continues to grow rapidly from its current 5 percent of the U.S. population, its effects on the political terrain will become more pronounced.