A Pew Puzzle

It’s not fair. It’s not pretty. But I get it—Anglicans get more seats in the US Congress than Pentecostals do. What I DON’T understand is the Catholic question. Any ideas?Pew congress faith

Here’s what we know: the Pew Research Center released its new numbers for the religious makeup of the new US Congress.  As usual, Protestants are heavily overrepresented in power, some denominations more than others. Anglicans, for example, make up almost five percent of Congress, even though they only make up one percent of the (adult) population. On the other hand, groups such as Pentecostals don’t get a fair shake. They are only 0.4% of Congress, even though they are five percent of the population.

It’s ugly, but at least it makes sense. Anglicans tend to be richer and whiter than America as a whole, whereas Pentecostals have traditionally been poorer and blacker. Not that it’s fair, but it isn’t a shocker to anyone who understands American politics. Money and power have always gone hand in hand.

But what’s the deal with Catholics? They represent a whopping 30.5% of Congress, even though they are only 21% of the population. What gives?

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A Brazillion Creationists Out There

How powerful is creationism worldwide? Some pundits have suggested that creationism is unique to the USA. But recent news from Brazil indicates that global creationism may be gaining steam.

The latest report from Brazil comes to us from the National Center for Science Education. Proposed legislation in that country would introduce US-style creationism to Brazilian public schools. My Portuguese is no good, but according to the NCSE report, this bill insists that schools include creationist science, including “the ideas that life has its origin in God, the supreme creator of the whole universe and of all things that compose it.”

Why? Because, in the words of the bill’s sponsor, “the creationist doctrine is prevalent throughout our country.”

Is it? Some science pundits, such as Bill Nye, contend that this sort of creationism is “unique” to the United States.

In this case, The Science Guy is flat-out wrong. Creationism—even if we limit it to just the Christian kind—is a global phenomenon. And the reasons for that globalism matter.

Pundits like Bill Nye might assume that creationism thrives in those corners of the globe that have not yet been incorporated into the global conversation. In some isolated regions, this theory goes, the obvious truths of evolution have not yet penetrated.

But that explanation gets it backward. The reason for thriving creationism in Brazil is not due to ineffective science education. It is due, rather, to explosively effective religious education. That is, Brazilian creationists are not simply religious primitives who have been isolated from the gospel of evolution. Instead, they are religious innovators who have been connected to a global gospel of creationism.

As usual, historian Ron Numbers—my grad-school mentor—put it best. In his book The Creationists, Ron captures this experience with a pithy chapter title: “Creation Science Floods the World.”

A growing force in Brazilian politics...

A growing force in Brazilian politics…

Throughout the twentieth century, conservative evangelical Protestants have successfully spread their religion throughout Latin America, finding a particularly congenial home in Brazil.

As a recent study from the Pew Research Center for Religion & Public Life makes clear, US-style evangelicalism has aggressively moved into Brazil, courting the country’s Catholics and converting them in large numbers.

For a hundred years, evangelical groups have spread via missionary organizations into Brazil. As Andrew Chestnut of Virginia Commonwealth University explains, groups such as the Assemblies of God have been particularly successful in Brazil. With this Pentecostal denomination, at least, Brazilian locals have taken over and made it their own. And they are now asserting their power politically.

For instance, the author of the recent creationist legislation, Marco Feliciano, is an Assemblies of God pastor. And he insists that Brazilians are on his side. Poll numbers back him up. According to the NCSE report, fully 89% of Brazilian respondents think creationism should be taught in Brazil’s public schools. Nearly that many, 75%, think ONLY creationism should be taught.

I’ve argued in the past that evolution educators often have a missionary zeal to spread the truth about evolution. This news from Brazil suggests that evolution’s missionaries are just not as good as the creationist types.

Berger on the Pentecostal Elephant in the Room

Peter Berger at American Interest has offered this week a helpful reminder about the importance of understanding Pentecostalism.  Berger’s article reminds us of a few looming intellectual traps that anyone hoping to understand Fundamentalist America must avoid.  The first is that conservative religion in America is some sort of monolith.  Far from it.  The first generation of Protestant fundamentalists that I’ve studied vehemently disputed the legitimacy of the Pentecostal style.  One typical fundamentalist writer in the early 1920s dismissed Pentecostalism as a kind of “hysterical fanaticism,” arguing that “Disorderly confusion in the assembly is not of God.”   Another agreed: “Usually people carried away by this movement are of a nervous, mystical, hysterical temperament, such as are considered a bit queer.”

Historian Grant Wacker has called this division the “Travail of a Broken Family.”  As Berger notes, even among the Pentecostal tradition there are a variety of sub-traditions.  As a generalization, though, Pentecostals emphasize an immediate connection with, and a baptism by, the Holy Spirit.  Pentecostal worship can be characterized by distinctive physical manifestations among worshippers, including “jerking,” laughing, or glossolalia (“speaking in tongues”).  The faith has also long been known for its emphasis on divine healing.  But beyond those headline-grabbing outward signs, Pentecostal faiths are also focused on a very “fundamentalist” reading of the Bible.  And although Pentecostals can be less noticably political than their evangelical cousins, they often have equally conservative political and cultural beliefs.

Berger’s article also reminds us of the danger of dismissing any intellectual tradition much different from our own.  As Berger notes,

I think that even today the notion of Pentecostal scholarship, especially if undertaken by scholars who are themselves Pentecostals, must strike many people as an oxymoron. Evangelicals in general are still widely regarded as backwoods provincials, like those described with contempt by H.L. Mencken in his reports on the 1925 “monkey trial” in Dayton, Tennessee—or, in the profoundly revealing 2008 comment by Barack Obama about folk in small towns (revealing, that is, about him, not about the people he was talking about): “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” These stereotypes were never empirically correct, and now are grossly incorrect. What has been happening in recent decades is the emergence of an increasingly sophisticated Evangelical intelligentsia, some of it based in a network of Evangelical academic institutions, publishing houses and journals, some (more interesting) infiltrating secular elite academia. Pentecostals are still lagging behind other Evangelicals in this development, but they have started to move in the same direction in America and elsewhere.

I would add that another disturbing part of this tendency to ignore the intellectual aspect of Pentecostalism is its heavy load of racial and class prejudice.  In the United States, Pentecostal churches have long been popular among low-income folks from ethnic minorities, especially Latinos and African Americans.  If those of us outside of conservative religion dismiss all emotive, traditional worship as mere snake-handling, we risk misunderstanding the cultural experiences of huge numbers of people who don’t have a lot of money or a lot of cultural clout.  This is the sort of misunderstanding that fuels the bitterness of America’s culture wars.  When activists on each side wholly misunderstand one another, the amount of wiggle room for compromise and mutual respect vanishes.  Berger’s article reminds us of the importance of approaching different cultural traditions with a healthy dose of humility and open-mindedness.