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Tejano Democrats endorse Hillary in 2016 (photo by Terry Ross)

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.

They got us out of that terrible place after 59 terrible days. Thank God, today we finally enjoy our freedom. At the same time, our hearts are saddened because I know the conditions our companions are suffering at this precise moment there in that terrible place: Adelanto Detention Center. I beg your prayers for each of them. The immigrant community has always existed and I believe it will always exist. If we look at the Bible in the book of Exodus, we can look at the suffering of the people of Israel when they were in Egypt. They were being oppressed by the Egyptians. They were not Egyptians oppressing Egyptians. They were Egyptians who were oppressing a foreign people.

—Rev. Noé Carias, pastor of Iglesia Pentecostés Cristo la Roca de Poder, Asambleas de Dios(Assemblies of God), to La Red de Pastores y Líderes Latinos del Sur de California, (The Latino Pastors and Leaders Network of Southern California) on Los Angeles, October 21, 2017 

This testimony of an Assemblies of God pastor, one month after his release from a notorious privately run migrant detention center, speaks to the desperate plight of non-citizens in xenophobic times. It also echoes a hope for broad deliverance. This perspicacious statement highlights dimensions of solidarity in the face of punitive scapegoating, which solidarity stretches back to the origins of the modern Pentecostal movement. It is a solidarity that has often flown under the research radar. As analysts fret over the recent electoral activism of certain Pentecostal and Charismatic sectors in U.S. public life (including frenzied religio-political rallies), they should exercise caution as they examine what is new and not-so-new in this new class of protagonists. Important nuances will need to be sorted out. But now, as almost ever, the different patterns of social and political engagement exercised by Pentecostals often elude scholars and journalists. Their historical recovery will help illuminate a still unfolding and open-ended story of a people on the move. To be sure, some Pentecostals, whom historian Robert Mapes Anderson once characterized as the “disinherited,” have found a home in American Zion and now stridently seek to defend it. Others, though, continue their search for, as Hebrews 11:10 describes,“a City whose Builder and Maker is God.”  

Carias’ testimony reminds one of the Gospel passage—about shepherds suffering with their flock (versus hirelings fleeing from or even enabling predators)—and reflects memories of sojourning and captivity. His exhortation to this gathering of the Latino Pastors and Leaders Network of Southern California elicited the usual call-and-response pattern, which verbally signal reception and affirmation, as it would have in any Spanish-speaking evangélico setting. The same affirmative response followed the testimony, that same night, of a young Guatemalan-American recounting her story of a harrowing adolescent journey on the fearsome “Bestia” train through eastern Mexico, and a subsequent educational journey that took her from ESL classes in Los Angeles to the Assemblies of God’s Latin American Bible Institute to (Mennonite) Fresno Pacific University and finally to Fuller Seminary. Her application to Fuller’s MA program in 2012 coincided with the start of Barack Obama’s DACA program. This speaker appealed explicitly for solidarity with Dreamers, reasoning that, “when one member of the body suffers, we all suffer,” and labeling herself to this crowd as a “DACAmented”—here DACA forming a pun for being documented. Although folks had gathered for the awards ceremony of a songwriting contest, they clearly relished, in 2017, what the announcer characterized as “testimonios desafiantes” (provocative testimonies). 

Many of the entries in this songwriting competition revolved around the theme of migration. The songs dug deeply into Scripture and Christian experience (linking, for example, today’s migrant experience to the ancient stories of Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Daniel, Esther, and Ezekiel), and ran the gamut of popular musical genres. The performance and recording quality was uneven. One composer stole away from his dishwashing job to piece together fragments on his phone. This was hardly the stuff of Dove Awards or Hillsong Worship, the bastions of the contemporary Christian music industry; these new songs reflected a bottom-up cry from globalization’s existential edge. It remains to be seen whether any of these new offerings will endure. It took decades for the classic songDivino Compañero del Camino” to seep into the evangélico marrow. That ranchera standard echoes the EmmausRoad travelers’ offer of hospitality (“Stay, Lord, for evening draws nigh!”); frets over menacing shadows, temptors and storms, and confidently looks to the Divine Companion of the Road for support (even at moments of death—in this way the song foreshadows composer Antonio Rivera’s own demise on a bus ride in northern Mexico). It will take years to see whether any of these newer songs become popular enough to continue the tradition that “Divino Compañero” represents. But it is clear that Carias’ testimony, the troubadours’ new lyrics, and Pentecostal standards about the road traveled and to be traveled contrast sharply with the vision cast on the other side of the social and political divide, a vision that projects the recovery of a once great and virtuous America. 

The divide is lamentable but understandable. It is the divide between the pilgrim and the settler experience. This is the divide that Brown Pentecostals find themselves straddling. As they carve out a place in American Zion, Pentecostals’ political commitments reflect processes of memory and amnesia, assimilation and identity. My thesis on this is a simple one: the stronger the memory of sojourning, migration and exile, the healthier the entrails of compassion for the sojourner’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. 

Much has been made of a surprising jump from 2016 to 2020 in Latino electoral support for Donald Trump in Florida and south Texas. Analysts are casting about for culprits and explanations. Among these: Latino Florida’s sui generis demographics and many Tejanos’ reliance on the carceral industry and law enforcement for livelihoods. Yet, it is important to note that in regions of recent political and physical trauma, the electoral outcome is different. Today, California’s ascendant, progressive Latinx leadership can be traced to Pete Wilson’s draconian Proposition 187 (1994), that sought to expel undocumented children from public schools, deny prenatal care to undocumented women (most of whom were merely following Church dictums on matrimonialrelations), and force teachers, social workers and other public servants to report suspected undocumented immigrants among the populations they served. In California, harsh legislative agendas have given rise to progressive leadership. Similarly, we can credit Wisconsin congressman James Sensenbrenner’s proposed felonization of undocumented migrants and their succor (H.R. 4437, 2005-2006), Arizona’s harsh “Show Me Your Papers” legislation (SB 1070, 2010), and Maricopa Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s humiliating policies with inciting the rise of impressive leadership among Dreamers and union organizers. (To be clear: Latino Pentecostals joined these protests.) Such legislative aggression can help to explain the decidedly different outcomes in these states and Nevada in 2020. It remains to be seen whether the Trump-inspired massacre of immigrants at a Walmart store in El Paso skewed the region’s vote in a different direction from that of south Texas. What would happen if Texas Republicans tried their own version of SB 1070?

Clearly, much data remains to be parsed, especially at the more organic level of pastors, congregations, and laity, versus the more elite ones of self-styled spokespersons like Samuel Rodríguez, a key figure in Trump’s evangelical court.  For example, how can we collate electoral choices made by folks who are intimately tied to vulnerable non-citizens in the pews and at home? To get at this question, analysts must recalibrate their research and survey tools. Also, if we broaden the historical study of the “political” to include other spheres beyond that (electoral) one from which one-third of Latinos are formally excluded (owing to non-citizen status), we can better appreciate the thriving solidarity that has seen pilgrim communities through perennial cycles of political scapegoating and opportunity. By contrast, the solidarity of the Pentecostal congregation has, for undocumented Latinos, been the one constant variable throughout the decades. It kept believers knitted together when many were uprooted in the Great Repatriation of the 1930s and in the nefarious Operation Wetback of the 1950s. It provided church hostels and trampolines along labor migration pathways that connected border and Midwestern cities during the Bracero Program. It allowed, first, the social enfranchisement of thousands and then their later political enfranchisement through such mechanisms as the Immigration and Reform and Control Act of 1986. It served to integrate scores of thousands of Central Americans fleeing their region’s U.S.-induced conflicts in the 1980s and 90s (in contrast to the mere scores of people aided in transit by the storied Sanctuary movement). And owing to its transnational dimensions, it catalyzed the explosion of Pentecostalism in that region. Small wonder, then, that many of the interviews of caravanning migrants captured on Spanish-language media today are inflected with Pentecostal hope and lament. Small wonder that Rev. Carias and others ministering in migrant holding centers and shelters have testified to bonds of fellowship akin to those celebrated and sung about by apostles Paul and Silas’ in Philippian and Roman jails.  

Which returns us to Zion’s songs, whose corpus provides a ready index of changing Pentecostal identities. While the aforementioned Pastor Network’s contest explicitly foregrounded the migration theme, many early Pentecostal songs took this for granted, framing the uprooted experience of Okies, African Americans, and Mexicans in Biblical motifs of valleys, exoduses and arrivals. They also heralded a promise of cosmic come-uppance, when, as proclaimed in Mary’s Magnificat, God would send the rich away empty. When one listens in on political rallies today, though, one strains to hear new versions of “This World is Not My Home, I’m Just a-Passing Through.”  Today Pentecostal worship is often led by performers who sing about the believers’ dominion over all human spheres, prefaced, of course, with the sap of personal and collective enrapture, and ultimately bent toward the anointing of political agendas and personalities. This musical evolution mirrors the shift in paradigm from pilgrim to settler model, from songs modeled on say, Psalm 137 (“we wept when we remembered Zion”) to ones that mirror instead Jeremiah 29 (”seek the peace of the city whither I have cause you to be carried away captives…for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace”). To be sure, both postures carry scriptural warrant: Psalm 137 laments bitter exile and Jeremiah encourages homesteading. On the far end of this spectrum, perhaps we would find resonance between imprecatory Psalms and the animus that drove some Pentecostals into the Capitol on January 6. The inclination towards one or the other mode of worship depends on one’s social location (or view of one’s social location) on the pilgrim-to-settler spectrum. The full spectrum is visible in Pentecostalism today, and scholars would do well to remember the movement’s breadth. At this juncture, the paradigm shift bears monitoring in the case of Latinx Pentecostals (of several generations), torn between following many of their white coreligionists in their reclamation of a once-Great America or tending to the vulnerable and least of Americans. Will the shalom (wellbeing) of their adopted land be capacious enough to include the wellbeing of the sojourner? Time will tell.

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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.

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