xbn .
Riot police and protester outside United States Capitol at evening, January 6, 2021 (photo by Tyler Merbler)

Pentecostals and States of Exception

Where these elements at Azusa Street helped believers create a sacred liminality that transcended racist law, in Pentecostalism today the Holy Spirit is often co-opted to anoint pastors as sovereigns who occupy states of exception as God’s anointed.

Lisa Gasson Gardner’s essay, which focuses on the role of feeling in Pentecostal-Charismatic (P/C) life, is a very good entree into thinking about the political theology of Pentecostals, in part, because it prepares readers to think with prominent historians of the movement, whose accounts have foregrounded feeling. The academic study of American Pentecostalism was, for two generations, dominated by a Marxist sociological account called Vision of the Disinherited: The Making of American Pentecostalism (1979)which portrayed early converts as a truly miserable lot: “The world of the early Pentecostals was one of share-cropping and tenant-farming, of backwoods cabins and ghetto tenements…of material squalor and spiritual despair. Rejected by the world, the Pentecostals in their turn rejected the world. They found salvation in a sublime experience of union with the Divine that carried them above their grueling, insipid lives” (240). (Spoiler, this union with the divine was just another variety of opiate, and led them to have “no impact whatever on the fundamental political economy or social relations of the American society.”)

Scene one: desperate, alienated, resigned (feeling) Pentecostals.

Whenever I stray into thinking history is a conservative discipline, I remind myself that historians can change their entire interpretations of a matter based on their assessment of a given movement’s mood. In Grant Wacker’s field-defining Heaven Below (2001), American Pentecostals got a truly remarkable makeover. Wacker noted their “sense of imminent catastrophe” (256), but overall posited that “a sense of inevitable triumph emerged from [Pentecostals’] feeling of chosenness…writers on both sides of the Atlantic could describe themselves as ‘hand-picked fruit,’ or as ‘diamonds in the Lord’s crown,’ … or as the ‘elite of the universe’” (265). Whatever else the pentecostal message meant, Wacker reasons, “it meant Good News.” Glowy, triumphant (feeling) Pentecostals!

Gasson Gardner’s essay invites us to check back in on the emotional life of Pentecostals.  This is a promising proposal, in part, because in a movement of more than 10 million, the number of P/Cs actually at the Capitol riot was excessively modest, but the math on Trump support is much stronger. There are signs that P/C support for Trump persisted despite the Riot, and some data even suggests that support for Trump extends to sympathy for Capitol rioters. Such sustained sympathy we can interrogate as feeling. 

A bit of data to substantiate said sympathy: Pentecostals are certainly part of the corps of evangelical voters who turned out in greater numbers for Trump in 2020 than they did in 2016. Additionally, Pew Research recently released data that suggests that, despite a lot of predictions in the press that evangelicalism would lose adherents over their alliance with Trump, this did not happen. One week after the Riot, polls showed 50% of Republicans “feeling sympathy” for the motives of the Capitol rioters, which they took to be patriotism and “defending freedom.” This sympathy led Aaron Blake of The Washington Post to name a real quandary: how could roughly half of Republicans report thinking the riot was “legitimate”—even though it was, he notes, “by definition illegal?” Similarly, how could some 60% report believing Trump “had done nothing wrong?”  What is their understanding of Trump or the riot that makes it possible to see the Capitol rioters as “mostly legitimate and even patriotic,” even if it what they did was obviously illegal?

While the question of why Republicans in general might feel such sympathy with illicit actions is beyond the scope of this essay, the group of essays in this symposium suggests that Pentecostals mobilize states of exception from the law (more on this below) as part of their sacred economy.  In what follows, I suggest that because Pentecostal tradition is based on a sacred state of exception, P/Cs can readily sympathize with the logic of disregarding laws for a higher purpose, like patriotism or freedom.

Because Pentecostals understand and value states of exception based on their ritual practice, their understanding of exceptionality does not fit a 1:1 correlation with established political theory about the “state of exception.” Still, to facilitate thinking with and about Pentecostal exceptions, a short review on how states of exception are purported to work is in order. German political theorist Carl Schmitt’s very influential formulation of sovereignty positions it as the foundation of polity, or the legal governing order. Schmitt’s oft-cited dictum—“sovereign is he who decides on the exception”—depicts sovereignty as a capacity of a ruler, for example a king who pardons a criminal or declares war. Schmitt’s account of sovereignty sees it expressed through suspensions of or exceptions to rule or norm. Such declarations of states of exception, like the pardon, for example, represent antinomian moments—featuring actions that would otherwise seem against the law. Where legality represents a static, existing order, sovereignty is ambivalently considered the force that founds or supports the order, while also one that can remain in reserve, ready to deploy again, either to break and remake the order. States of exception also mark moments of rupture or breakdown in the legal order, such as in transitions of sovereign power, or those which attend a state of emergency (Ausnahmezustand, literally “state of exception”). In such a state of emergency, a sovereign can suspend the law, for example, by implementing martial law for a time instead. The sovereign is curiously positioned as both within and outside of the law.

In Sovereignty and the Sacred: Secularism and the Political Economy of Religion (2019), historian of religions Robert Yelle argues that political theorists have overlooked evidence from history and anthropology which suggests that religions (plural) have long mobilized their own programs of exception. What anthropologist Victor Turner has called “ritual liminality,” a concept supremely influential in anthropology, is—quite similarly—the suspension or inversion of norms and/or legal codes. Christianity has exhibited many forms of ritual liminality; Yelle highlights ancient Israel’s practice of Jubilee, as the time that reverses legal fiscal codes to return the land to former owners and cancel debts. As another example, Yelle uses the historical feast of fools, in which work stopped and merrymaking happened, when masters were lowered to servants while servants could play at being masters. It is really important to recognize these sorts of festivals have a sacred status that can be thought to rival that of law. Yelle’s thesis is stunning, in part, because he suggests that such (actually, polyreligious) sacred states of exception may have important implications for political theorists about what it takes to make systems of governance just, ethical, and resilient: legal codes and their forms of rationality alone may not be enough. There’s nothing like Jubilee, for instance, in our modern economy, but our profound debt crisis suggests that maybe there should be.

In my forthcoming book, I describe how early American Pentecostal rites of the Holy Spirit forwarded—and were defined by—just such a sovereign, rule-suspended economy. Scholars have long-noted that Pentecostal rites in the Holy Spirit enact liminality. But the Azusa Street Mission Revival (1906-09)  suspended, and even upended, the legally protected racial hierarchy of the early 20th century. This Revival is considered by adherents of American Pentecostalism the fountain of global Pentecostalisms. In addition to a glut of emotion and “ludicrous gymnastics,”  the Los Angeles press especially noted conspicuous racial intermingling in the Mission’s altar and the fact that its leadership was predominantly black. Because the racial integration and other inversions of the Azusa Street Mission Revival publicly challenged the racial order of Jim Crow, historian Gaston Espinosa has named “transgression” the defining legacy of Azusa Street. Importantly, African American William Seymour’s preaching valorized interracial unity and love as superior states of grace, suggesting that this transgression was not just outside of, or a suspension of law, but instead a transcendence of racist law.  While historians have understandably asked how long such interracial harmony lasted (Espinosa argues it lasted through the three-ish years of the revival), this question misses the sacred economy this revival created: a state of sacred exception that exists above the law. (In Galatians, the gifts of the Holy Spirit are described, interestingly, as charisms against which “there is no law.”) In particular, the Azusa Street Mission Revival helped define the Holy Spirit as a deity that upends social norms.

Scene Two: The Los Angeles Herald gave the public hyper emotional, disorderly Pentecostals.

If, as Yelle asserts, political sovereignty is similar to sacred sovereignty, it is important here to note that early Pentecostals did not actively theorize themselvesas outside or above the law. And yet, key memoirist of the Revival Frank Bartleman influentially rhapsodized Azusa Street in a manner that suggested something like popular sovereignty:  “The mission had no pope or hierarchy, we were ‘brethren’…We had no priest class, no priest craft. We did not have a platform or a pulpit. All were on a level… We had no ‘respect of persons.’ The rich and the educated were the same as the poor and ignorant… All were equal..We were delivered right there from ecclesiastical abuse. As the movement began to apostatize, platforms were built higher… The kings came back to their thrones, restored to sovereignty. We were no longer ‘brethren.’” Joe Creech has shown that Protestants of the period constructed homologies between church sovereigns and political sovereigns and proved allergic to both. Bartleman depicted the revival as free from hierarchy, and suggested its integrity depended on the absence of “kings.” Kingly sovereignty, meant in a robust political sense, was antithetical and ruinous to Pentecostalism’s sovereign liminality;  people who were exempted by the Holy Spirit from relations of domination—or “abuse”—were also free from racial segregation laws. It is hard, given this early history of profound racial integration of which they are very proud, to explain how Pentecostals have since played a leading role in religious surrogacy for Trump. But I think a key aspect connects both Azusa Street and Pentecostal perception of Trump as a divinely-appointed protagonist. Today’s Pentecostals have inherited a tradition of Spirit-authorized state of exception and re-conceptualized how it works.

Dara Delgado’s essay gives clues to how this is so. She highlights how “anointing” now often exempts Pentecostal preachers from accountability, which idea, she notes, they can sometimes glean from biblical figures like King David. Delgado is right in her account: Pentecostals can see King David as someone who transgresses (for instance, in committing adultery with Bathsheba and killing off Uriah), but nevertheless remains a protagonist in the biblical narrative. To be anointed in this sense seems a lot like occupying a state of exception. There are times that Pentecostal leaders will invoke sacred status precisely as she describes, with appeals to being God’s anointed. (Christianity Today’s The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast demonstrates how megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll abused his power and expected to get away with it in a manner that seems tyrannical.) Some P/C preachers imagine anointing means that even grave sins do not disqualify them, or others (like Trump), from being appointed to leadership. It is fairly clear to see how this version of exception has moved from something like popular sovereignty into the person of the pastor.

Such haphazard interpretation reveals key distortions that seem to plague Pentecostalism’s political theology in practice, and which do not reflect the sacred liminality that defined Pentecostalism at Azusa Street. First, the Hebrew bible does not actually grant David an exception from the law. He suffers judgment  for killing Uriah when the baby he has with Bathsheba dies. 

More importantly, this episode from David’s life is not the best—it’s not even a good—model for the sacred liminality of Pentecostal worship.

A different David-centric scene better illustrates how sacred liminality (again, as a program of exception) was mobilized at Azusa Street. 2 Samuel 6 features a scene in which David dances before the Lord to celebrate the return of the ark of the covenant, but first David takes off his kingly robes. As king, he abdicates the vestments and decorum which mark his exceptional status and dances with abandon before the Lord. Michal, one of his wives, takes issue with: “How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, going around half-naked in full view of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!” She thought David’s “leaping and dancing before the Lord”  made him foolish. The king had debased himself before “slave girls.”

David replies, in part: “I will be even more undignified than this. I will be  humiliated in my own eyes.” David’s willingness, as king, to be undignified, to be himself humbled, inverts Israel’s hierarchical order. His humiliating worship maximizes the contradistinction between Yahweh’s divine sovereignty and David’s sovereignty. It may be that David’s self-directed anti-monarchy is what makes him Israel’s most faithful king.

There’s symmetry between the holy foolishness, anti-monarchy, and inversion of order in David’s worship and the worship of early Pentecostals, but Delgado faithfully names how Pentecostal exceptionality is more often used today. Where these elements at Azusa Street helped believers create a sacred liminality that transcended racist law, in Pentecostalism today the Holy Spirit is often co-opted to anoint pastors as sovereigns who occupy states of exception as God’s anointed. In some cases, this exceptionality descends into durable license to transgress even good codes and laws.

Such slippage is particularly dangerous when sacred registers of exception and authorization crash into political sovereignty. Leah Payne’s account of P/C shofar-blowing on January 6  shows that Pentecostals’ grasp of sovereign exceptions can  be utilized to invoke a political  state of exception. Schmitt’s examples of states of exception include the capacity of a sovereign to declare an emergency, suspend law, and wage war. If Pentecostals’ Holy Spirit transcended law to create unity, Pentecostals model of sovereign exception also includes the divine right to declare enemies and wage war. And as a divinely anointed leader, Donald Trump spoke about November’s election as an emergency that threatened the integrity of the nation. Shofar blowing at the Capitol in January was a form of sympathetic magic: a ritual that uses objects or actions resembling or symbolically associated with the event or person over which influence is sought. Shofar blowing evinces that the charismatics in Washington on January 6 saw resemblance between the political struggles engulfing this nation and the Biblical battle in Judges 6-7, in which Gideon and only 300 Israelites fight off a large Midianite Army. By blowing the shofar, P/Cs used ritual to invoke power—divine influence—over the transition of power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden. An overwhelming majority of P/Cs in the US, millions and millions of them, stayed home that day. But what sympathy they have for the rioters and Donald Trump is facilitated by their own understanding of their maximum value for sovereignty, especially when based on popular sacrality and divine anointing, and their relatively wan purchase into the legal system.

Gasson Gardner is right, this is a mess. But it is a mess with discernible parts and logic.

For about ten years, scholars of Pentecostalism vehemently disagreed about whether Azusa Street was really “the quintessence” (Gastón Espinosa) of Pentecostalism. Scholars who interpreted Pentecostalism as a set of new ideas  (about speaking in tongues, for example) tended to assert its progenitor was not William Seymour, son of formerly enslaved people in Louisiana, but Charles Parham, a segregationist who rejected Azusa Street for what he described as a horrible and shameful display of wantonly ardent interracial relations and fanaticisms. Perhaps the Capitol Riot evinces the persistence of a version of white Pentecostalism that Azusa Street made it possible to imagine was vanquished.

At the same time, Dan Ramirez’ essay gives hope that Azusa Street’s spiritual economy will hold. His essay reveals the continuation, to the present day, of a long tradition of emotive coritos that, when sung by Mexican immigrant protagonists, turns undocumented—or “illegal”—believers into sacred sojourners. Ramirez’ Migrating Faith: Pentecostalism in the United States and Mexico in the 20th century (2015) traces the beginning of this tradition, started by the earliest Mexican converts to the movement whom (he notes) “possessed the insouciance to believe that their words and deeds carried cosmic significance”—though most were migrant laborers. These protagonists have long been welcomed into an unofficial web of care helmed by Latinx church communities: a nearly invisible state of sacred exception. If this kind of sheltering has not engendered the development of sanctuary style organizing that challenges immigration law on the part of hispanic Pentecostals, it is worth noting—as Ramirez does—that protecting immigrants via an exceptional status has actually helped  “scores of thousands,” in contrast to the “mere scores of people” aided in transit by the storied Sanctuary movement, which animates direct legal challenge to unjust immigration laws. When immigrant Pentecostals rehearse their journeys to their co-religionists, they do so in emotional songs that challenge US law. When they sigh or weep or protest that they are already “daca-mented,” for example, sacred emotion (tears, longing, and anger) becomes part of the ritual economy that defines sacred liminality as not just outside the law, but above it. These voices are critical to Pentecostalism’s composition of popular sovereignty: without diversity, any iteration of US popular sovereignty is indistinguishable from white supremacy. By the standards of Azusa Street,  undocumented immigrant Pentecostals much more faithfully perpetuate Pentecostal exceptionality: it’s no secret our immigration laws need reform.

Conclusion: Resilient, Spanish-speaking, Exceptional Pentecostals.

Feeling fresh, feeling novel: What Charismatic-Evangelical Christian Practices Can Teach Us About Truth in the U.S.

Intense feeling is characteristic of Donald Trump’s political presence. The Trump rally, replete with chanting, screaming, and a long, rambling speech is an affect-laden performance. For people trained in charismatic-evangelical communities, Trump’s intense performance feels true.

What Did Trump Know? The Presidency, Prosperity, and Pentecostals

I submit that Trump intuited that Pentecostals, especially those with an affinity for prosperity, revered the materially “blessed.” Consequently, his purported wealth and public persona made him particularly desirable, if not enviable.

The Trump Shall Sound: Politics, Pentecostals, and the Shofar at the Capitol Riots

Almost a quarter of a century after that night in Pensacola, Trump supporters brought their shofars to a “Jericho March” at Washington D. C. in a manner resembling that decades-old revival meeting. Like the Brownsville attendees who cheered for Gideon’s victory, the Jericho March called to mind a biblical story of Joshua at Jericho, another conquest with the sound of a shofar.

Pilgrims or Settlers? Pentecostal Politics at the Crossroads

Pentecostals’ political commitments reflect processes of memory and amnesia, assimilation and identity… the stronger the memory of sojourning, migration and exile, the healthier the entrails of compassion for the soujourner’s wellbeing; the greater the distance from the memory of a wandering past, the greater the buy-in to a nationalistic Malthusian ideology that, among other things, paints the sojourner as law-breaking menace to the host society.

Pentecostals and States of Exception

Where these elements at Azusa Street helped believers create a sacred liminality that transcended racist law, in Pentecostalism today the Holy Spirit is often co-opted to anoint pastors as sovereigns who occupy states of exception as God’s anointed.

Like what you're reading?

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!