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Pentecostal Roots Can Guide Ashcroft Well

February 04, 2001|DONALD E. MILLER | Donald E. Miller is executive director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at USC

The Senate approval of John Ashcroft as attorney general signals an important shift in the religious demography of the United States. For years, the religion of choice for members of Congress and major presidential appointments was from the so-called Protestant mainstream denominations--Episcopal, Congregational and Methodist churches. But in the last several decades, the religious landscape has changed.

When John F. Kennedy ran for office, not only was there fear that he might be controlled by the pope--an obviously ridiculous notion in retrospect--but it reflected the fact that Catholics had come of age in this country. Likewise, Jimmy Carter's election signaled the respectability of Protestant evangelicals, a scary thought to many people.

But now we have a Pentecostal, a member of the Assemblies of God, holding one of the nation's most influential political posts. What if he consults the Holy Spirit in making judicial appointments? Is there a danger that he might start speaking in tongues during congressional testimony?

Such fears reflect a well-kept secret. Pentecostals are the fastest-growing group of Christians in the world, and they include a number of well-educated, thoughtful and socially responsible people.

Several years ago, I launched a research project with Tetsunao Yamamori, the head of an international relief and development organization, to study rapidly growing churches in the developing world that had active social ministries within their communities. In soliciting recommendations of churches to study from a broad-ranging panel of experts, 85% of the congregations turned out to be Pentecostal or charismatic.

During the last three years, Yamamori and I have journeyed to nearly 20 countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Everywhere we have heard that the mainstream churches are in decline, although there is of course the exceptional congregation. And equally remarkable is the fact that tongues-speaking, Bible-reading, prophecy-oriented Christians are involved in feeding and clothing the poor, ministering to people with AIDS, starting nursery schools in squatter camps and doing what they believe to be the ministry of Jesus.

Somehow this does not jibe with our stereotypes about Pentecostals. According to the movies, they are supposed to be wrapped up in religious ecstasy, avoiding the pain of their low-class surroundings. Even in sociology textbooks, Pentecostals are the obvious illustration of religion as compensation for cultural deprivation. Religion is the opiate of the people, is it not?

In fact, Pentecostalism is a complex phenomenon. In many countries, we found several different layers, including an older tradition, imported from the U.S. after the 1906 revivals in Los Angeles. But we also encountered amazing examples of work being done by Ashcroft's denomination, the Assemblies of God, in cities as far-ranging as Johannesburg, Calcutta and Sao Paulo, where medical aid is being provided, children are being educated and tens of thousands are being fed and clothed.

By citing these examples, I do not mean to throw my support behind Ashcroft's views on gun control or abortion. However, it is important to realize that many Pentecostals, especially in the last five to 10 years, have awakened to their social responsibilities. They refer to it as the "whole gospel." In their view, man's physical and spiritual condition cannot be separated. It is this tradition--the one of compassion and of the Good Samaritan--that hopefully will guide our new attorney general.

Equally important, I trust that Atty. Gen. Ashcroft will remember the origins of his Pentecostal roots--the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles--that ignited Pentecostalism worldwide in the first decade of the last century. This was a highly interracial movement, setting an example for many Christians who were worshiping in segregated congregations.

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