Critically assessing how anthropological research on Pentecostal Christian movements has contributed to our understanding of politics and the state

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Godless Age?

It has been argued by rationalists that the age of religion has a definite lifespan. Comte (1830) outlined threestages of intellectual development, it progressed from: the theological, the early religious stage; towards the metaphysical, where philosophical thought reins supreme; and finally the “positive” age. As better explanations for the Universe’s phenomena become known, ideas from the old paradigm are, Comte argued, discarded. Our final stage – the positive age – is defined by a respect for scientific inquiry, questioning and rigorously-tested theories. Religious belief, the antithesis of this (being its ignorant ancient relative) could not surely hope to compete for minds in a period where a logical framework of understanding has been provided by the likes of Newton, Galileo and Darwin. It sounds reasonable, but how would this deterministic thinker reconcile this theory with the recent rise of religious fundamentalism globally? An ideology opposed to secularism and described by Nagata as: “a set of irreducible beliefs or a theology that forestalls further questions” (2001: 481).

With an emphasis on Pentecostal Christian movements, I will assess to what extent religion, a supposed relic of a by-gone age, still maintains a grip on all of us – namely, through politics. I will use ethnographic examples from Brazil, Africa and the United States to argue we can not ignore religion’s continuing ability to shape the political landscape. It is also important to not dismiss Pentecostalism as a shadow from the past, but rather a political movement with modern origins.

Going Back to Basics – The Modern Day Rejection of Secularism

In fact, it is in planet Earth’s beacon of Enlightenment-thinking that our conception of Pentecostalism – “the mother of all fundamentalisms” (p. 482) – was developed. Nagata has charted the rise of the “post-millennials” – from its origins as an exclusive fringe group in the 1870s to the major political force it is today. Opposing Van Vuchy Tijssen (1995: 16) who has argued that Pentecostal Christianity simply emerged to fill an “ideological gap” in mid-nineteenth century America – and, in the process suggesting people just need something, anything, to believe in – she has focused the “revivalist” nature of the movement. Distrustful of increasingly liberalisation and feeling alienated by the changing ethnic make-up of the country, large numbers of white Protestants were encouraged to reminisce about an imagined Golden Age, when the Bible was taken literally and morals were absolute. When everybody knew their place.

Brazil has also seen a rejection of cultural liberalism. Birman (2006) has noted how, like much of South America, Brazil has had an unconventional relationship with Christianity. Catholicism, as practised by the 16th Portuguese, was by-and-large incompatible with polytheistic indigenous belief.When the new white elite settled however, they did not work to exterminate the natives like in North America, they instead set about to convert them. A great deal of the Jesuits which took up thistask did something unexpected: they tailored the word of God to make it more palatable (Lippy et al1992). Texts were arduously translated into native tongues and religious scenes were illustrated in native styles (Bakewell: 259). The black population was also brought into the Catholic fold, its formwas again “adapted” by those with long-standing traditions – in this case those brought from Africa in slave ships (The Invention of Brazil 2014). This was done with the hope that all would come to accept the religious and political order imported from Europe.

Birman has argued that the Catholic Church during this early period frequently “turned a blind eye” to doctrinally unacceptable practices in order to not threaten hegemony they had built. Because of such concessions, if you would call them that, Brazil’s strain of Catholicism relied on an atmosphere

of shared identity. Regardless of how one practised it, all Brazilians could proudly declare “we are aCatholic nation”. And, as was the clergymen’s hope, people accepted the Catholic Church’s authority on the major political quandaries: have tolerance for your countrymen but do not question the social hierarchy (p. 55).

Paying the Way to Christ – Capital and New Ideas

This inclusive albeit hegemonic Catholicism seemed to be under attack with the emergence of the United Church of the Kingdom of God. A populist movement similar to the post-millennials, UCKG gathered a swift following among the politically disillusioned (UCKG – Who We Are). From the start it denounced the climate of tolerance, liberalism and the “idolatry” of Brazil’s Roman Catholicism. (It went so far as declaring a sickly-sounding “holy war” on Afro-Brazilian cults (Birman: 55).) It instead asked the poor to give “prosperity theology” a chance. In stark contrast to the socialistic liberation theology, that other famous radical religious movement with modern “Latin” American origins, prosperity theology puts emphasis on the individual and the need to better oneself materially. It put the emphasis on “you”, not society and certainly not the Church of old (Cuadros 2013).

It has been argued that the Roman Catholic Church needs the poor to stay poor because without them it would have no following (Hitchens 2003). Taking this into consideration, we may welcome a change of direction which sees Christianity put an emphasis on social mobility through Pentecostalism, particularly in the “Global South”. The problem comes with how UCKG pastors recommend people should become prosperous. In order to dole out spiritual favours and success – “instant wealth and health” as Kramer has called it (2005: 95) – the church requires monetary donations from its congregation. These donations have helped launch political careers, all with a very specific right-wing agenda and an overtly religious message. A leading figure of the church Edir Macedo – who has been calculated at being worth $1.2 billion by Bloomberg and involves himself in politics – has drawn a direct link between the pursuit of money and Christian faith claiming that the USA’s success as a country comes from the “In God We Trust” motto on all of their dollar bills. A frequent reminder that all one owns has been granted by supernatural forces. Macedo has preached that it is the job of Brazilians to emulate this (Cuadros).

UCKG is able to prey on the most vulnerable by claiming to have a celestial open hand and the deep pockets of Heaven on their side. The Brazilian government has taken issue with many of the church’s practises, successfully charging members with embezzlement (Phillips 2011). However, UCKG seems to thrive regardless – or perhaps because – of being at odds with the establishment.

Jesus He Knows Me – God, TV Personality

Media – in the form of television, radio and stadium events – is a vital tool: maintaining public opinion and forwarding the political ambitions of UCKG’s leadership. It is important to stress how UCKG’s message is not limited to the pulpit, anyone with a radio or television can potentially hear their message. In a society where stories of violence, kidnappings and a general sense of crisis pervade the news, there is fertile ground for a Pentecostal church broadcasting 24 hours a day to portray itself as a safe haven in a terrible, uncertain world. The traditional Catholic Church, not nearly as media-savvy, has seen its flock disperse to become “share holders” (Birman: 56) in the Pentecostal movement. The United Church of the Kingdom of God shows itself to be an effective mouth-piece of consumer capitalism, especially among the economically down-trodden.

Meyer (2004) has documented a similar trend of celebrity preachers-turned-political voices in Africa. He has argued that the old ideas of of modest African prophets – with a cross in hand, simple dress and weary feet – are out-dated. Today’s preachers behave like super stars and have cult

followings. Mercedes Benz’, private jets, mega-churches – and most importantly – dedicated television channels are just some of the armaments in the modern holy man’s arsenal (p. 448). Meyer has suggested that globalisation has facilitated the growth of these churches and their message. Often tapping into the individualistic jargon surrounding political and economic liberalisation of countries like Cameron (p. 453), Pentecostalism – also with an emphasis on wealth,extroversion and showiness – has been able to grow and grow. Another similarity with Brazil can befound in the way the media networks of the “Pentecostal-Charismatic Churches” of Africa implore all, but particularly the youth, to “break away” from the current status-quo and help forge a new Christian order. This explicit rejection of pluralism puts it at direct odds with the region’s other religions – particularly Islam – not just secularism (p. 465).

The Pentecostal adoption of television began in the USA. The way the mainstream media works, with its frequent witch-hunts, couples it nicely with Pentecostal Christianity (Nagata: 483). Both systems crave easy explanations, heroes and demons, and are at their best when focusing on the negative. The common enemy of recent times is Islam (p. 486). And, even if there is an constitutional separation of Church and State, we have, at times, found them agreeing on a surprising number of issues: abortion, stem cell research, and promotion of Christian doctrine in schools. Pat Robinson, an worringly popular evangelist talk show host, has promoted presidential candidates employing Biblical language:

“God’s blessing is on him [George W. Bush]. It’s the blessing of heaven on the emperor.” (in Marina.)


As we can see, the intellectual evolutionist perspective put forward by Comte is flawed. As demonstrated by Birman, Nagata and Meyer, contemporary secular politics are not immune to becoming tainted by religious discourse. This can not be explained as a post-modern absence of ideology: in the USA and to a degree in Brazil there has long existed a mainstream ideology – a secular and increasingly tolerant one – and modern converts to Pentecostalism have openly rejected it. We have similar trends throughout the world: parts of the world dominated by Islam have seen secular social democratic governments fall and be replaced by nightmarish, absolutist theocratic regimes (compare Iran of the 1950s with today).

Their sophisticated media apparatus has garnered the fundamentalists millions of followers, and our political institutions will be forced to consider, and possibly to cater to, them. That’s unless the forces of liberalism and secularism are able to coalesce and fight back. There are certain things these progressives hold dear (if not quite sacred) – freedom of speech, pluralism and rationalism – and they must make clear that they won’t be infringed without a fight.

When it comes to matters of Church and State, there’s required a continuous and confident chorus, it should go: Build up that wall! Build up that wall!

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