The Politics of Pentecostalism

by Luis Aránguiz Kahn. Originally published at Pensimiento Pentecostal.

Pentecostalism is a movement that surged in the beginning of the 20th century simultaneously in different parts of the world and in the middle of the diversity of the protestant and evangelical churches. In general terms, its social base was made of the poor, marginalized and discriminated. In the case of South America, there were two points of beginning. In Brazil by the hand of Luigi Fransescon, and in Chile it was brought about by Willis Hoover. From there on the movement has expanded geographically to the entire Southern Cone, but it has also had a notable quantitative growth in the different countries in the zone. There has also been an influence from external Pentecostalism, especially from The United States.

By the nature of movement there coexists an ample heterogeneity of churches, practices and believes in the interior of the Pentecostalism. This, in methodological terms, complicates the analysis of the phenomenon and the possibility of offering an explanation that stretches over its diversity. Therefore once more, if we speak in general terms, it is possible to notice that the Pentecostalism has arisen from a political derivation that can reveal itself in two ways, and which will not be unknown to anyone familiar in any way with this type of church.

On the one hand, it is possible to observe the existence of a Pentecostalism which calls itself “apolitical”. Within this category every church and believer would fit who, in the name of a moral dualism which sees the behaviors of non-Christians as mundane, rejects the political field (especially in its partisan version ) by considering it mundane, that is to say sinful. In those who maintain this form of thinking, there exists a tendency to reaffirm the status quo. Even when the political field is avoided, the “apoliticals” tend to champion the political groups which uphold the conservation of order.

In this way, for example, it is not strange to encounter Pentecostals who support anti-Marxist dictatorships in the previous century, as seen in the cases of Guatemala and Chile. In the same way today it is possible to encounter Pentecostals who support parties which are morally conservative, in order to avoid legislations which approve homosexual marriage, abortion and euthanasia. In a certain way, whether they want it or not, the “apoliticism” ends up being more a distant horizon than a way of living, well examples like these show that although one avoids forming parties or participate in them, inevitably one will participate in the public square. Therefore the query that remains is understanding this apoliticism as a fundamentally political act.

On the other hand, there is a “political” Pentecostalism. For matters of local context, the Pentecostal churches and believers have been conditioned to the dichotomy of left/right which drags along a symbolical field constructed during the cold war in regards to the tension between USSR/USA. Given that in general Pentecostalism was not from the beginning formed from intellectual reflection but through a spiritual experience, this core dichotomy by its nature negatively influenced the production of a reflection attentive to the signs of the time. In these days this did not prevent that some believers and churches would opt for a left-winged way of thinking.

But at the same time today it does not seem strange to hear Pentecostals reject anything that sounds or seems “left-winged”, binding it for example to the grand leftist symbolism of the Soviet communism and its persecution of Christians. Therefore while this spectrum of Pentecostals who once were friendly to leftist projects, now perhaps continues to be wed to “progressive” projects; also the “conservative” Pentecostalism survives, in whose interior there have been groups formed with major political push, interested in permeating parties morally conservative and including interested in putting together their own parties. There is already evidence of politically conservative evangelists in different countries in the zone such as Argentina and Brazil.

Having said that, this tension should not deceive us. The fact that Pentecostal believers and churches have in different ways gained access to political parties, or have opted for externally supporting one or another candidate or government, should not make us lose sight of that these derivations of the Pentecostal comprehension of the presence of the church in society, and which in our days bit by bit the possibility of constructing a Pentecostal way of thinking consistent with regard to the role of the believers and the churches in the public and political sphere. These two derivatives have shown that the Pentecostalism have thought of “the political” as only an institutional, partisan key, but have been incapable in making it a societal key, beyond the structures of the government. It has considered its ideal polis more than zoon politikon which constitutes it.

From this point perhaps it would be advisable rethinking the “apoliticism”, now not from a moral dualism, but from a political theology which comprehends it as an eminently political act. This turn of the screw could help the Pentecostals to consider their political actions beyond the paradigm conservatism/progressivism and thereby reformulate its understanding of the place it has in society at the same time reaffirming its proper roots: the work with the dispossessed, marginalised, whose only change of life comes through to the intervention of the churches in embodies a political prowess in seeming hidden from the eyes of those who aspire to unlawfully hold power.

Because in the poor – in spirit – is the Kingdom.

Translated from Spanish by Rebecca Harlén.

Luis Aranguiz Kahn holds a degree in Spanish Literature and a minor in theology from the Catholic University of Chile, and is currently completing a master’s degree in International Studies at the University of Santiago, Chile. He has worked academically in texts and lectures on literature and religion, evangelical analysis of political discourse in Chile and his master’s thesis will be in the general field of evangelicals and international politics. Luis comes from a family of traditional Chilean Pentecostalism and was a university leader at a Pentecostal youth group and a preacher at his local congregation. He is the editor of Pensamiento Pentecostal.

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