The nomination of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate has put Pentecostalism back in the national spotlight. Not since Attorney General John Ashcroft has someone with ties to the movement risen so high in American politics.
While Palin eschews the Pentecostal label, she spent her youth in a congregation affiliated with the Assemblies of God. Though Palin joined a non-Pentecostal church in 2002, she has maintained close ties to the movement, attending the AG-affiliated Juneau Christian Center when in Alaska’s capital city. In June of 2008, Governor Palin spoke at a graduation ceremony at her childhood church, the Wasilla Assembly of God. Captured in a pair of videos available on You Tube, the overtly supernatural language used by Palin and Pastor Ed Kalnins has evoked fear and incomprehension in progressive journalists and bloggers. Zeroing in on the parts of the video that connect divine intervention with the state of Alaska, they have scrutinized Palin’s prayer for a $30 billion natural gas pipeline, as well as Kalnins’ claim that Alaska will be a “refuge state” during the coming apocalypse. Also raising eyebrows is the governor’s relationship with an African cleric linked to an anti-witchcraft crusade. This past June, Palin recalled how Bishop Thomas Muthee prayed over her, calling his words “bold” and “awesome.” A 2005 video shows Muthee laying hands on Palin, praying that “every form of witchcraft . . . will be rebuked in the name of Jesus.”
While Sarah Palin’s connection to Bishop Muthee is indisputable, other claims about her religious background are far more speculative. Playing a Pentecostal version of the Kevin Bacon game, some have linked Palin to such controversial movements as the Latter Rain of the 1940s and the so-called Third Wave. Because the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement remains a loose network of congregations, parachurch groups, and denominations, this connect-the-dots approach reveals some interesting associations. What it does not show is how much Governor Palin has internalized the beliefs and ideologies of these movements and leaders. This past June, Palin said, “There’s been so many words, Ed, over the state of Alaska,” implying that she shared Pastor Kalnins’ belief in Alaska’s prophetic destiny. Yet Palin left the Wasilla Assembly of God in 2002, three years into Kalnins’ pastorate. It is unclear whether she was comfortable with the new direction he was taking the church.
Research by the sociologist Margaret Poloma suggests that the sorts of religious phenomena that have worried progressive bloggers are relatively uncommon in the Assemblies of God. According to a 1999 survey only a minority of AG pastors have “regularly experienced prophecy, healing, deliverance” or other dramatic manifestations of the Holy Spirit. Over eighty percent have never or rarely experienced holy laughter. While these findings say nothing about Palin or the churches she has attended, they suggest that anxiety over Pentecostalism in American culture is somewhat misplaced.
Lost in the discussion of Sarah Palin’s religion is an appreciation for the diversity of American Pentecostalism, past and present. After hearing Palin talk about the Iraq war and her soldier son, it is jarring to read a 1917 resolution from the Assemblies of God defending conscientious objectors. Noting the incompatibility of military service with Pentecostal faith, it states: “Scriptures such as ‘follow peace with all men,’ ‘resist not evil,’ ‘thou shalt not kill,’ or ‘love your enemies’ had ‘always been accepted and interpreted by our churches as prohibiting Christians from shedding blood or taking life.’” During World War I Pentecostal pacifists were investigated by the federal government and harassed by their fellow citizens. Though such radicalism faded in the face of nationalist pressures, it lives on in the witness of the Pentecostal Charismatic Peace Fellowship.
More enduring is the relationship between African-American Pentecostalism and movements for equality and social justice. Few Americans know that Martin Luther King’s last speech took place on the platform of a Pentecostal church. When King went up to the mountaintop he was speaking from the pulpit of Mason Temple Church of God in Christ, the final resting place of Bishop C.H. Mason, the founder of black America’s largest Pentecostal body. Fewer still know that the 2008 Democratic National Convention was organized by Pentecostal minister Leah Daughtry. Together with Barack Obama’s faith outreach coordinator Joshua DuBois she has combined progressive politics with black Pentecostalism (including a dash of liberation theology). Though some African-American Pentecostals have gravitated to the prosperity gospel and the new Christian right, most remain committed to the values of racial equality and economic justice. Some even work as community organizers.
Few Americans know about the interracial origins of the Pentecostal movement. At a time when white and black churches had little contact with each other, the Azusa Street revivals of 1906 brought together both races under one roof. So unprecedented was this mixing that one observer wrote that “the color line has been washed away in the blood.” Scholarly treatments of early Pentecostalism have warned against romanticizing the racial harmony of this era. Though the early years of the movement “saw a remarkable degree of interracial fraternity,” Pentecostalism never achieved complete integration. In the late 1920s, white Pentecostal pioneer Charles Fox Parham became a public advocate of the Ku Klux Klan. By that time, the movement had divided into two racially homogeneous camps. While whites flocked to the Assemblies of God (formed in 1914), the once biracial Church of God in Christ became a black denomination.
Although whites and blacks seldom worshipped together, a pattern of interracial influence continued to shape Pentecostalism, and by extension, American popular culture. As Paul Harvey notes in Freedom’s Coming, “the Azusa Street revivals spun off a corps of black and white evangelists who spread the new gospel and encouraged cultural interchange in religious settings.” Such mutual borrowing was especially apparent in gospel music, where “two streams of musical religious culture traveled beside each other, never merging, but often intersecting.” In the world of black popular music innumerable musical innovators came from Pentecostal backgrounds, including Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Little Richard, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Together with white Pentecostals Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis (who borrowed liberally from African-American sources) they helped reinvent American popular song.
Though such racial interchange had a profound impact on worship and music, Pentecostal voters have remained racially split. In the 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape survey 45 percent of Pentecostals in predominantly white denominations identified with the Republican Party, compared to just 23 percent of those in black Pentecostal bodies. Though Pentecostals in white denominations are somewhat less Republican than other white evangelicals, they are far more conservative than their black co-religionists.
In the decades ahead an influx of Latino, Asian-American, and African Pentecostals promises to reshape Sarah Palin’s childhood denomination. In 1999 ethnic churches made up 26.8 percent of all Assemblies of God congregations, up from 21.8 percent in 1993. By 2030, only 50 percent of AG churches will have a white majority. While the number of white congregations has steadily decreased, the number of ethnic churches continues to grow. Without an infusion of Latino, Asian, and black congregations, the AG would be facing a decline in membership.
In the final analysis, the diversification of formerly white denominations may end up pushing Pentecostalism in a more moderate direction. Though somewhat more Republican than Latino Catholics, Latino Pentecostals are not as conservative as their Anglo brothers and sisters. In 2006 a majority of Hispanic evangelicals gave their votes to the Democrats. Currently, Latino Protestants are leaning toward Obama, suggesting that the demographic changes in the Assemblies of God may bode well for the Democratic Party. Bishop Muthee’s support for Sarah Palin notwithstanding, the influence of global Pentecostalism may move the American electorate to the left.