U.S. a Mission Field For Latin American Pentecostals

As we await the president’s immigration announcement and The Conservative Freakout, I ran across (h/t/ Sarah Posner) a new Pew analysis of the growth of Pentecostal Protestantism in Latin America–featuring a Q&A with religion professor Andrew Chesnut–and learned a lot.

I wasn’t really aware of Pentecostalism’s ethnic/racial advantage over Catholicism in Latin America. Here’s Chesnut:

[T]he Pentecostal preachers tend to sound more like their congregants. They are often unlettered and they speak to their flock in the same way that people in Latin American speak to each other. They also tend to look like their congregants. So in Guatemala, many preachers are Mayan, and in Brazil they are Afro-Brazilian. By contrast, in the Catholic Church, most priests are part of the elite. They are either white or mestizo and many are actually from Europe.

I also didn’t know how important the “health and wealth gospel” was to Latin American Pentecostalism. The former emphasizes faith healing; the latter is a version of the familiar “prosperity gospel” you hear in the U.S. from people like T.D. Jakes.

And finally, I didn’t know how thoroughly “charismatic” worship practices had spread among Latin American Catholics in response to Pentecostal inroads. Again, here’s Chesnut:

Starting in the late ’60s … the Catholic Church embraced charismatic Christianity. That has been the church’s primary response to Pentecostal inroads. The Catholic Charismatic Renewal offers the same ecstatic spirituality, the same healing, but people get to keep the Virgin Mary, and saints as well. So on paper, the Charismatic Renewal offers the best of both worlds.

This strategy has been somewhat successful. It hasn’t stopped losses to the Pentecostal churches, but those losses would have been much more acute if it hadn’t been for this renewal movement in the Latin American Catholic Church.

But here’s the most interesting data point:

Pentecostalism is now overwhelmingly anchored in Latin America, rather than the United States. In Brazil, for example, the Assemblies of God has 10 million to 12 million members, while the American Assemblies of God church has 2 million to 3 million. So now, the Brazilian church is the big brother and the United States is seen as mission territory.

Many [Latin American] churches are now sending out missionaries to the United States, as well as to Europe and Africa and even Asia.

Since Pentecostalism originated in the U.S., and not all that long ago (specifically, in Los Angeles in 1906), this is a re-import into the U.S., undoubtedly reinforced by immigrants. Since Pentecostal Latin Americans are generally more open to conservative political appeals than their Catholic (or more recently, unchurched) brethren, you’d think Republicans would be a bit more open to them as well. But you don’t get the sense GOPers much differentiate among those people who don’t look or talk like them.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.