The Spirit of Pentecostalism or Fundamentalism?

The fate of the religious right--and the Bush presidency--may be determined by this question.

BY: Deborah Caldwell

 

Scenes from two evangelical Christian congregations: In the first church, members sit quietly in their pews and follow along intently as the minister preaches a long sermon based on a biblical text. As they pray, they ask God to cleanse them of their sins.



In the second church, members sing and sway to Christian pop music, clap and "amen" as an evangelist preaches about getting right with God. They lapse into a mysterious, ecstatic language, surge forward to the altar to be prayed over, and fall backward, "slain in the spirit," as they are overcome with joy.



The first church is

fundamentalist;

the second is

Pentecostalist.

Politically speaking, the first church is affiliated with people and groups like Jerry Falwell, Bob Jones University, and the Christian Coalition. The most prominent politician from the Pentecostal movement: John Ashcroft.



In a sense, the fate of the religious right--and the Bush presidency--may be determined by this question: Will John Ashcroft be guided more by the spirit of Pentecostalism or fundamentalism? This may seem like an arcane theological debate, but it relates to bread-and-butter issues like gay rights and poverty and, more specifically, to whether George W. Bush's notion of "compassionate conservatism" will be seen as an empty slogan or a defining theme of his administration.



The confirmation of Ashcroft as attorney general clearly proves that conservative Christianity has gained the acceptance that members long craved. Falwell demanded that acceptance when he started the Moral Majority in the 1970s; Pat Robertson, who is a Pentecostalist, gained a little more when he ran for president in 1988 and then formed the Christian Coalition. But neither of them was ever elected to office. Now, after all these years, religious right leaders have managed to push their views--anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, pro-traditional family, anti-public schools, anti-evolution--to the center of the political arena. By contrast, when Ronald Reagan appointed a fundamentalist, James Watt, to the Cabinet, it was as Secretary of the Interior--not exactly ground zero for the culture wars.



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