Pentecostal movements are located in a multitude of societies throughout the world, but have made the biggest impression in the USA, Brazil, Latin America, Africa and Asia.
Studies of Pentecostalism, and other forms of Evangelical Christianity, in the West have argued that it is part of a Christian-liberalisation trend that is part of the wider process of modernisation, and have claimed that this will be replicated in the areas of the developing world where these movements gain ground.
This fails to account for the possibility that this 'liberalisation' may be a local trend, contingent on other societal factors. It also rests upon the belief that as Pentecostalism spread to developing countries from the West, its form and nature will remain the same. A comparative study by Paul Freston (2001) indicates that forms of Pentecostalism differ widely just within the developing world, let alone in relation to the West.
D. Martin argues that Pentecostalism acts, in developing countries, as a vehicle for the ‘mobilization of the "damned of the earth"’ (D. Martin, 2001, p.3), through which the members of the lowest classes can liberate themselves, not through a socio-economic revolution, but by their integration into a religious movement. The social ideals embedded in Pentecostalism encourage followers to make themselves respectable by rejecting a life of vice and excess for one of thrift and responsibility, especially in relation to family life. A multitude of personal, spiritual biographies collected by D. and B. Martin during their fieldwork recount the stories of men who, having entered the movement, stop their womanising and excessive spending on alcohol and gambling and take up a responsible position both in their family and the Pentecostal community. While many relapse to their former style of life, those that continue to adhere to the Pentecostal principles not only gain social status by becoming respectable, taking a larger role in family life and the community; but also gain economic rewards by cutting down their expenditure on luxury goods.
This social mobility offers the oppressed a new sphere of life (civil/religious) in which they are not entirely bound by their economic status, and allows them to take more control of their lives in the other spheres. Not only are the desired modes of life congruous between a Pentecostal and an aspiring member of modern society, but the goal of conspicuous consumerism is also shared. New cars and large churches are seen as evidence that ‘a big God "has done great things for us"’ (D. Martin, 2001, p.14), bringing success in the economic sphere to be a reward for and sign of devotion and not distinct from it.
For Latin American Pentecostals, specifically those of the lowest classes, their most important authority figure shifts from a distant and different political leader or factory owner to their pastor, who is both like them and speaks the same language as them. I read this as a mode of glocalisation whereby individuals can reconstitute the factors that direct their lives to a more local level. The Pentecostal also has the ability to transcend this authority figure, as Pentecostalism rests upon personal readings of the Bible and does not impede those who wish to diverge from existing sects.
In this way Pentecostalism provides a sphere in which individuals can have greater control over their identities and can critically engage with the religious sphere, thereby giving them greater control over how they are positioned within it.
The three most important aspects of Pentecostal Churches in Brazil, in relation to modernity, are its relation to national politics, its use of the media and the professionalisation of its hierarchy. As with all other aspects of Pentecostalism, different churches take different stances on their position in the political sphere. Out ‘of the six main churches, only three’ (Freston, 2001, p.20) are engaged with national politics, operating a ‘brother votes for brother’ (Sylvestre in Freston, 2001, p.22) policy, whereby congregations vote for Pentecostal candidates as directed by their pastors. However, Pentecostal leaders in politics have tended to distance themselves from actually directing political power themselves. Their aim and justification is to encourage the ‘moralisation of public life’ (Freston, 2001, p.36), and to control the spending of taxes on Catholic ‘idolatry’ (Freston, 2001, p.22). The introduction of some of the Pentecostal vote into Brazilian politics opened up a powerful electoral force, which brought a new voice to the political sphere, especially in relation to social issues. This move was not an attempt to politicise Pentecostalism, instead it was a recognition that the political sphere was a powerful force in the lives of the population, and so it was felt necessary, by some churches, to get a foothold in the process. Closely associated to the political manoeuvrings of some churches is their use of the media. In fact ‘nearly half of the Protestant Congressmen since 1986 have had links with the media’ (Freston, 2001, p.17). While only a small proportion of those in the media have any electoral activity, those that do bring the relationship between the conversionist community and public life into sharp relief. The huge reach provided by television networks not only gives Pentecostal leaders greater access to their congregation, but also opens up a new avenue for conversion.
When the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God purchased the fifth largest television network in 1989, they were able to beam their messages directly into the homes of believers and non-believers throughout the nation, and cable and satellite has allowed the project to stretch beyond state boundaries. Despite the constant work of local pastors on the ground, the use of new technology provided a huge tool in their drive for mass conversion. The professionalisation of the hierarchy of this form of Pentecostalism is inherent to their ability to enter politics and use of national media, as both require a more standardised message than is offered by Pentecostal churches that overly encourage personal interpretations.
D. Lehmann sees, in the case of The Universal Church, the organisational structure as closer to a ‘Leninist model of a political party built on democratic-centralist lines’ (Lehmann, 1996, p.123) than to a traditional ecclesiastical structure, where there is a mixing of a large number of unpaid, dedicated followers who provide the man-power to support the organization, who are directed by a increasingly bureaucratised hierarchy. The higher cadre often take itinerant roles where they leave the bureaucratic system and engage with the smaller churches personally, which, perhaps, indicates a more organic structure than is prevalent in classical views of modern organisations. D. Martin’s work on the micro-sociology of Pentecostalism suggests that its religious ethos and lack of strict doctrine allows individuals to make and locate identities for themselves, where previously they were just members of an amorphous, oppressed class. Three techniques seem to be in operation here: first, by making themselves ‘respectable’ they can raise themselves up in the economic sphere, by curbing spending on a lifestyle beyond their means; second, they gain access to a new sphere of life (civil/religious) where their status is governed more by their devotion than by their economic position; and third, the authority figure in this new sphere is not a ‘generalised other’ but someone they can both relate to, and hope to transcend. ‘In converting to Pentecostalism individuals empower themselves in ways which have concrete consequences for themselves and for society’ (B. Martin, 1998, p.128).
B. Martin argues that Latin America operates a largely post-modern economy that demands workers to have ‘micro-entrepreneurial initiative, an individualized and more feminized psyche, a high level of self-motivation, and the flexibility with which to face insecure employment and self employment’ (B. Martin, 1998, p.129). The autonomy, individualism, mobility and self-determination encouraged by Pentecostalism has a much closer relationship to the demands of a post-industrial society, than one dedicated to the Fordist production line of modern society, and the argument that Pentecostalism is closer to post-modernism than modernism is also supported by the growth of modern communications in Latin America ‘where middle-class Pentecostalism is currently fast expanding’. This relationship is also borne out on the organisational level, as we see the rapid adoption of new communication technologies as central to their survival, and a rejection of the notion that politicians are expected to wield direct authority, as opposed to exert influence on national social life, while remaining in traditional political structures. The Pentecostal movement seems to encourage the growth of social, political and economic life that is specifically different to that normally seen in modern society.
Whether this is best seen as a post-modern movement, or as part of reflexive/second stage modernity is hard to say, however, Bernice Martin’s argument that the notion of self and identity encouraged by Pentecostalism is part of a wider post-modern movement in Latin America is perhaps the most convincing, as it not only takes a more subtle view of the Pentecostal individual, but also takes into account shifts in the wider society.
D. Martin, Pentecostalism: The World Their Parish, 2002, Blackwell: Oxford
P. Freston, Evangelicals and Politics in Asia, Africa and Latin America, 2001, CUP: Cambridge
D. Lehmann, Struggle for the Spirit, 1996, Polity Press: Cambridge
B. Martin, From pre- to postmodernity in Latin America: the case of Pentecostalism, in: eds. P. Heelas et al, Religion, Modernity and Postmodernity, 1998, Blackwell: Oxford