Daniel G. Hummel on Paula White and the Mainstreaming of American Pentecostalism

Pastor Paula White delivers the benediction at the close of the opening day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Monday, July 18, 2016. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Daniel G. Hummel works at Upper House, a Christian study center on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of “Covenant Brothers: Evangelicals, Jews, and U.S.-Israeli Relations.” This article originally appeared in Sightings, a publication of the Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of BCNN1.

Late last month, Paula White, televangelist and personal pastor to President Trump, was picked to head the White House’s Faith and Opportunity Initiative, a unit in the Office of Public Liaison tasked with outreach to religious groups.

For close observers of the Trump administration, this move was hardly a surprise. Paula White is not only a frequent visitor to the White House but a confidant of the president. She was in attendance — and mentioned by name — when President Trump announced the creation of the Faith and Opportunity Initiative more than a year ago. White’s long relationship with Trump, which began in 2003, and her central role in his 2016 campaign as chairman of his Faith Advisory Board, were enough to overcome her lack of previous government service and her polarizing reputation in religious circles …

And her Pentecostalism.

Seeing Trump’s support of White solely as a new high watermark in their 15-year relationship ignores what White’s ascension in American public life teaches us about American religion, namely the mainstreaming of Pentecostal Christians among the Christian right.

Rewind time a few decades — back to the 1970s should be far enough — and we see that the theological and historical lines dividing various subcultures in conservative Protestantism (including charismatics, Pentecostals, evangelicals and fundamentalists) had real political consequences.

As historian Neil J. Young recounts in his history of the religious right and interfaith politics, as late as 1982 a meeting of evangelical and fundamentalist political leaders contemplated if including Pentecostals into their upper ranks was “too much to expect.” Of course, there were already Pentecostal or charismatic leaders in the Christian right, but the evangelical-fundamentalist “truce,” in Young’s words, that helped create the Christian right made these two communities the movement’s gatekeepers.

Before situating White in the more recent Pentecostal-friendly Christian right, it is important to acknowledge the historical reality that Pentecostals were at one time marginalized in the broader Protestant world (and still are in some places).

The distinguishing theological mark in Pentecostalism is the prominent role it gives to the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity. Speaking in tongues, baptism by the Spirit, miraculous healings and supernatural blessings of wealth are all variations on Pentecostal teachings on the Holy Spirit (charismatic Christians share these beliefs, but they are distinguished by their membership in non-Pentecostal denominations).

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Source: Religion News Service