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Members of the Spirit of Faith Christian Center Choir sing during the White House National Day of Prayer (May 7, 2020) in the Rose Garden (Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen)

Pentecostals-Charismatics, Political Theology, and the Capitol Riot

Together, we hope this symposium opens up new horizons of discourse for political theology. Given the global reach of Pentecostals and Charismatics, our inquiry into American Pentecostal and charismatic networks is but a beginning.

Many Americans were stunned by the vivid violence and chaos of the January 6 Capitol riot. Then President Trump spent the two months prior to this event vehemently asserting that he’d won the election “by a landslide.” He used his Twitter account (later permanently suspended) as a megaphone to communicate to his staunch supporters. In many ways, the Capitol riot was the climax of a long political deception by a sitting President who refused to accept his loss in the 2020 presidential election. This battle over Trump’s claim of election fraud has cost taxpayers $519 million so far. About 70% to 80% of Republican voters, or 3 in 10 Americans, believe that the election was stolen from Trump regardless of the fact that courts, including the Supreme Court, have rejected Trump’s election challenge cases. Why do they believe this “unreasonable belief” (to borrow an expression from Ross Douthat)? Political commentators and analysts have come to different conclusions, ranging from human psychological need for social order, collective narcissism, media propaganda, the ineffective election system, to polarized and partisan politics. This socio-political context of the Capitol riot is indeed very complex.

One significant segment of Trump supporters that we would like to highlight in this symposium are the Pentecostals and Charismatics (P/Cs). When New York Times columnist Ruth Graham covered the phenomena of prophecy-oriented voters in a February 11 article, she did not specify that her article chiefly concerns orators from within the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement. Instead, the article routinely refers to  “evangelical Christians.” Yet, prophecy for Trump, as phenomenon, is discernibly a P/C movement. Jeremiah Johnson, whom Graham highlights in the first part of her article, is a graduate of a Pentecostal university in Florida, Southeastern Assembly of God University. Michael Brown, also cited in this article, is a known Pentecostal teacher with a high public profile, resulting from his historic association with the Brownsville Revival, which took place in Pensacola, Florida between 1995-2000. Many of the other figures in Graham’s article, like Cindy Jacobs and Paula White, are also Pentecostals. But placing P/Cs within the larger category of “evangelicals” obscures many of the theological aspects distinct to P/Cs which made them early adopters, staunch supporters, and steadfast allies of Donald Trump.

This symposium focuses on the specificity of P/Cs’ theological imagination. Today, Pentecostal-Charismaticism is a global phenomenon. According to the Pew Research data from 2011, there are more than half a billion P/Cs in the world. In this data set, interestingly, the categories of P/Cs and Evangelicals are distinguished.  As of late, the number of P/Cs in the US has more often been lumped together (in Pew and PRRI research, for example) with “evangelicals,” making it hard to separate these two groups demographically.

The Trump era has given rise to new metanarratives about evangelicals. In a recent essay in The Atlantic, columnist Emma Green asserts the Jericho March “is evidence that Donald Trump has bent elements of American Christianity to his will, and that many Christians have obligingly remade their faith in his image.” Recently, historian Kristin Kobes DuMez has persuasively argued that toxic masculinity has been—not a bug—but a defining feature of American evangelicalism. In this symposium, we’d like to go deeper into the question of what made specifically Pentecostal theology particularly receptive to Trump. We collectivity posit that P/C  theology shares extensive elective affinity with the apocalyptic character of the Capitol Riot, as well as with the performative and spectacular logic of Trump’s rallies. Moreover, we note that P/Cs’ longtime lexicon of spiritual warfare, one vivid example of which is visible in Paula White’s “angelic warfare” prayer, has an unmistakable correspondence to the aims and goals of the March and the Riot. It will be our aim in this symposium to make these resonances clearer through historical, sociological, ritual and cultural theoretical analyses.

In this symposium, five scholars of religion reflect on theological, sociological, and historical aspects of P/C traditions in light of the January 6 riot. Dara Coleby Delgado looks into the figure of Darrell C. Scott, Black campaign surrogate and senior pastor of New Spirit Revival Center in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.  As a Black American and self-identified P/C, Scott represents politically conservative “Black voices for Trump.” However, he and his congregation embody a particular Black Pentecostal aesthetic that attends to a religio-racial and social conservatism often overlooked by Democrats and Progressives when vying for the so-called “Black vote.” Daniel Ramírez seeks to understand Latino Pentecostal electoral behavior and finds the tension between pilgrim and settler paradigms to help explain the distillation of loyalties wrought by the Trump movement. Leah Payne analyzes the shofarists at the Capitol riot as revealing P/C ritual acts for what they are and always have been: potent instruments of political and theological power. Lisa Gasson-Gardner examines feeling as an entry point to the assemblage that spins together white evangelical Christianity and Trump supporters. Feeling—intense feeling—has become a marker of truth in contemporary political discourse.

Together, we hope this symposium opens up new horizons of discourse for political theology. P/Cs are a significant force in the world today and their political imaginaries, intertwined with their theological beliefs, pose challenges and new insights into governance—not only in the US, but also in Brazil, Nigeria, and Malawi, to name just a few examples. Given this global scale, our inquiry into American Pentecostal and charismatic networks is but a beginning.

Symposium Essays

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.

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