Pentecostalism, a non-rational form of Christianity whose adherents believe they speak directly to God and favor apocalyptic prophecies, is adding to the polarization of American politics behind the movement’s champion, Sarah Palin. Rev. Howard Bess explains the emergence of this distinctive brand of Christianity.
By the Rev. Howard Bess
All Christians are theologians, but they do not think of themselves in those terms. Most Christians think of their pastors as theologians and also gladly give that office to learned women and men who teach in colleges or seminaries, but they do not give the title of theologian to themselves.
When doing theology, mainstream Christian theologians consider Bible, reason and tradition in some sort of balance. However, Pentecostals break with this approach because the foundation of their faith is a direct, personal experience with God.
Tradition, reason, and even the Bible take a back seat to the personal experience of the Pentecostal believer. Pentecostal Christians are all theologians because they believe they have met God personally.
Thus, Pentecostalism is a non-rational, experiential religion. Note also must be made that Pentecostalism is non-rational, not irrational. What this means is that reason does not play a significant role in theological formations. Ultimate reality is based on an individual’s personal encounter with God.
Some observers suggest that Pentecostalism attracts the poor and the under-educated. However, research is showing that this is not true. Many highly educated and professional people are being drawn to this experiential faith.
Understanding Pentecostals on the American religious scene may be difficult, but their arrival on the political scene seems even more puzzling. Pundits have completely missed the difference between Pentecostal Christians and mainline Evangelical/Fundamentalist Christians.
While fielding candidates for every level of elected office, Pentecostals have produced one high-profile candidate for President of the United States. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is that Pentecostal.
As Sarah Palin has made unorthodox decisions, pundits have declared that she cannot handle politics in her independent manner and be a winner. But she will not go away. She has now said that she will make her candidacy intentions known in September.
When she makes her decision, it will not be at the encouragement of advisers or poll numbers. Her decision will be based on God whispering in her ear. It will be the same God who, she believes, has called her to be a special person in divine history.
Some pundits have compared Sarah Palin with declared presidential candidate Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota, but they are very different. Michelle Bachmann is a member of a Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod church. Bachmann’s theology is based on a tightly held union of Bible and reason. It has zero space for the experiential faith found in Pentecostalism.
Sarah Palin stands alone as the representative of the fastest-growing religious movement in the United States. When she says “I can win,” she is not speaking with tongue in cheek. She is speaking out of a profound personal relationship with her God.
There have always been Pentecostal Christians, but church hierarchies have successfully contained their influence. However, America was the perfect seedbed for that pattern to be broken. Freedom to practice one’s own faith is a cardinal right of Americans.
The first great wave of Pentecostal Christianity has its root in a revival that took place on Azusa Street in Los Angeles in the first decade of the 20th century. It was a revival that lasted for three years. Yet, formal program structures were not apparent.
The Spirit reigned in uncontained freedom. The Azusa Street revival is considered the birth event of what is known as the First Wave. The impact was nationwide, but numerically insignificant.
The Second Wave developed after World War II and the advent of television. Pentecostals mastered television. They made religious television exciting. Pentecostal evangelists such as Kathryn Kuhlman, Oral Roberts, Rex Humbard, Jim Bakker, and Jimmy Swaggart led the way.
Each developed huge followings and Pentecostal numbers were no longer insignificant, though exact counts are difficult.
There are now over 1,000 Pentecostal denominations in the United States, but they hold very loose controls over their member churches and many Pentecostal churches are completely unaffiliated. Current estimates are that 15-20 percent of American Christians are Pentecostal, and that one-quarter of the world Christian population is Pentecostal.
Some Pentecostals believe that the world is now in the early stages of the Third Wave. They believe it is the movement that will bring world domination to Pentecostals.
Agree or disagree, the waves of Pentecostalism have ushered in a new day in American politics.
The Rev. Howard Bess is retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is [email protected].