In his interesting piece in the Washington Post last Friday, September 12th, 2008 entitled, "Faith Based Condescension," columnist Michael Gerson takes issue with recent media coverage of Governor Sarah Palin's Pentecostal roots. Early in his article Gerson writes,
"...liberals have been drawn, helpless and mesmerized -- like beetles to the vivid, blue paradise of the bug zapper -- toward criticizing Sarah Palin's religion. Palin's former Pentecostal church is called a "shout-and-holler tabernacle." Reporters press Palin's former pastor to reveal if she has ever spoken in tongues, the way it was once asked if candidates had ever used drugs...Palin sounds most like President Franklin Roosevelt, who prayed on D-Day that, "by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph."He continues,
"The media treatment of Pentecostalism (Palin's main religious background) and Bible church evangelicalism (her current affiliation) has had the quality of a National Geographic special on a newly discovered Amazon tribe. You might not suspect that Pentecostalism -- grown from the admirable, racially integrated roots of the Los Angeles Azusa Street Revival of 1906 -- is one of the fastest-growing and most influential forms of mainstream Christianity. There are now between 250 million and 500 million Pentecostals in places from Latin America to sub-Saharan Africa to rural Alaska....While most religious people in America don't speak in tongues, many pray for healing in times of sickness and trouble, and most are offended when sneering elites attack the religious practices of their friends and neighbors. "Then he concludes with a trenchant observation,
During the first Pentecost -- the one recorded in Acts -- Christians spoke strange languages in public. Many observers dismissed them as drunk. The critics of religion, as is often the case, did not get the last word.Statistically speaking, Gerson is quite right. In its press release in October 2006 announcing the publication of the results from its ten country public opinion survey on Pentecostalism entitled,"Spirit and Power," the highly respected and very mainstream Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life noted that at least one quarter of the world's two billion Christians consider themselves Pentecostal or Charismatic, as do 23% of the inhabitants of the United States. The preface to the report points out that Pentecostals/Charismatics rank second only to Roman Catholics in the number of global Christian followers.
I think the actual numbers may be higher. Many Roman Catholics testify to profound Holy Spirit experiences but their numbers are not always included in such summaries. Many U.S. pastors of ostensibly non-Pentecostal/Charismatic churches come from Pentecostal/Charismatic roots but have intentionally "re-branded" themselves and the churches they serve in an effort to sidestep the social stigma and religious prejudice they encountered earlier in their lives. Very often, these leaders continue to lead Spirit-filled lives in private without being publicly identifiable by research methodologies like those used by the Pew Forum.
In any event, even if one accepts the Forum's statistics, it is clear that over the last century Governor Palin's stream of Christian faith has moved from obscurity to ubiquity. Both the Pew Forum and the Religion News Service have recently pointed out that Barak Obama has integrated two openly Pentecostal members into the highest levels of his own campaign: Joshua DuBois as his Religious Outreach Director and Leah Daughtry, CEO of the Democratic National Convention Committee. So far, the same members of the media who have publicly scorned Governor Palin's spirituality have been silent about Senator Obama's affiliations. I suspect their attacks are more political in motivation than philosophical, sociological, or theological.
Be that as it may, Governor Palin's recent nomination has not only affected the political debate in our country but has also raised doctrinal issues for certain non-Pentecostal/Charismatic Evangelicals. As David Gushee, Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University asks in his article entitled, "The Palin Predicament," in today's online edition of USA Today,
The GOP’s evangelical base rejoiced when the Alaska governor joined the McCain ticket. But how can the theological vision that women are subservient to men jibe with a Palin vice presidency?He continues,
It is an uncomfortable fact that many of the theologically conservative Christians who have endorsed Palin's nomination would not be willing to endorse her or any other woman for service as pastor of their church. Women cannot serve as pastors in groups such as the Churches of Christ, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Presbyterian Church in America, most non-denominational Bible churches, and an influential advocacy group called the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood(CBMW)...at the local church level many congregations would not accept Palin or any other woman even as associate pastor, or deacon, or youth minister or Sunday school teacher in a gender-mixed classroom. The most conservative would not consider it appropriate for her to stand behind a pulpit and preach a sermon, or teach from the Bible, or lead a praise chorus, or offer a prayer, unless her audience consisted entirely of women or children.In my view, Dr. Gushee paints with too broad a brush when he asserts elsewhere in his article that only more modern elements within evangelicalism have permitted women to function in leadership positions. From the earliest days of both the classical Pentecostal revival a century ago and the more recent Charismatic renewal, women have been allowed to exercise whatever gifts God granted them within their faith communities. I do agree, however, that the Sarah Palin phenomenon is giving rise to fresh and ardent discussions of many topics theological as well as social and political.
As late as yesterday evening, Sunday, September 15th, the ABC World News broadcast contained a video report entitled, "What Does Palin's Faith Mean for U.S.?" It opened yet another window that people around the nation can look through for a glimpse into one genre of Spirit-filled worship. During that piece, University of Rochester religion professor Anthea Butler notes the connection between a deep, personal work of the Holy Spirit and a greater role for women in all areas of life,
"Sarah Palin, if she was just a plain Evangelical woman, would have a tough time thinking that she could be VP," said University of Rochester religion professor Anthea Butler. "An evangelical woman might have issues with submission. What's gonna happen with my kids? But a Pentecostal woman is saying God is calling me, I'm gonna answer this call."All of us who exult in genuine moves of God's Spirit and who long to lead other people into such fullness should make it a point to pray during this season that these journalistic forays, however imperfect or polemical they may be, will result in many more people coming into a personal encounter with the Creator who longs to be their Redeemer. I think the Apostle Paul would agree. He wrote to the Corinthian Christians,
"...if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!” (1 Corinthians 14:24-25Let it be, Lord...!
For more online information regarding Pentecostals, including links to many other websites, check out the Pew Forum's page on Pentecostalism.