Main content | Sidebar | Links

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Harvey Cox on Brazilian Protestants and democracy.

I've been so busy that I keep forgetting to let you know that Harvey Cox's James Luther Adams Forum on Religion and Society [pdf], delivered at Harvard Divinity School in March, is available at the JLA Foundation website. Although initially promoted with the title, "James Luther Adams: Unitarian Evangelical or Evangelical Unitarian?," Cox decided instead to ask how well Adams's theories about the Protestant roots of voluntary associations — and the rise of democratic politics — apply to Brazil, where booming Evangelical and Pentecostal movements are challenging the religious and cultural status quo. The crente churches, as they're called, are showing signs of challenging the political status quo, too.

I especially appreciated getting yanked out of my North American context to be reminded that Protestantism — which has so comprehensively shaped U.S. religious politics, left and right — brings with it a set of political assumptions that simply don't exist in every culture. For one thing, as Cox puts it, "Blessed are the list makers": Protestants track and organize people. For another, the Protestant emphasis on conversion and personal decision breaks people out of inherited roles. Check it out.

Copyright © 2007 by Philocrites | Posted 6 June 2007 at 9:31 PM

Previous: Christian Century on Barack Obama's church.
Next: Who in the UUA decides what congregations want?





June 7, 2007 09:24 AM | Permalink for this comment

Cox's analysis is totally naive as he seems to ignore that the growth of Pentecostal churches in Brazil and in Latin America at large has been largely due to the incredible amount of dollars invested by US Evangelical churches with some help from US foundations, in order to remove the social ground under the feet of Liberation Theology, which was seen as a political threat to US dominion in what the US Administrations they consider their "backyard". LT's contradictions in not parting ways with the hyerarchical Church and the decline of Marxism have, of course, helped in the process, but the growth would not have been so explosive if it had not been backed by big bucks.


June 7, 2007 09:59 AM | Permalink for this comment

Cox has been studying Brazilian Pentecostalism and liberation theology for more than two decades. I am in no position to assess his interpretation, but he has studied the phenomenon on the ground at length and has published academic articles and books on it. Incomplete or even wrong? Maybe. Naive? That seems unlikely.

In the Q & A following his lecture, several of us asked Cox about the politics of Protestant movements in South America. I recall him observing that North American Evangelical allies often expect their conservative, pro-U.S. politics to flourish in South American Protestant churches, but that the South Americans have tended either to stay aloof from electoral politics or (increasingly) to take up what Cox called center-left positions. The crentes tend to be resistant to U.S.-sponsored neoliberal economics, for example.

Philip Jenkins makes a similar point about the charismatic orthodoxy that is spreading so rapidly in Africa, with aid from American Evangelicals: "People [from the Global South] who are conservative on sexual issues and gender and family issues are not necessarily conservative on other stuff. A lot of conservative [Northern] Anglicans and evangelicals are making the discovery right now that they're dealing with [Southern] people who are rock solid on morality issues, homosexuality issues, but who are way to the left of the Democratic Party on economic issues."

The crentes aren't "liberal" in theology, but Adams's interest in the religious roots of democratic, voluntary associations isn't dependent on liberal theology; instead, liberal theology is made possible by the emergence of voluntary associations in a liberal society. It seems to me that Cox is looking for the emergence of that precondition in Brazil.


June 7, 2007 10:31 AM | Permalink for this comment

We have, BTW, a small UU group made up of native Brazilians only who meet irregularly in Sao Paulo, and one former Evangelical minister who is now a Christian Unitarian.


June 7, 2007 10:48 AM | Permalink for this comment

I want to clarify that I was referring to the argumentation in the essay you linked to in your article, not to Harvey Cox's career.

It is very, very hard to turn a Latin American (who is not wealthy or a member of the military, or both) into a supporter of the USA. But the important thing for Evangelicals was not to grow support for right-wing policies (except in Central America, where they actively support people like Evangelical "born-again" dictator Efraín Ríos Montt in Guatemala, who has favored massacres of leftist peasants, or right-wing leaders in El Salvador and Nicaragua), but to draw people from the ranks of Catholic liberationism. If they need to support people like Lula, so be it: it makes them more popular. But their target is those members of base communities who were struggling for real social change in Brazil. By attracting these people who are disappointed by constant frustration and what seems an endless fight and diminishing hopes for their rights, and promising them to be wealthy by trusting Jesus, they are actually serving the Conservative cause much better than if they openly proclaimed their loyalty to US policies.

And the so-called "Universal Church of the Kingdom of God" is a real danger for many people and most honest Protestants disliked them and denounce their methods as profoundly sectarian and exploitative. They are manipulative and are building a multimedia empire by taking money out of the pockets of their faithful.

Scott Wells (Boy in the Bands):

June 7, 2007 11:43 AM | Permalink for this comment

The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God is a menace in the United States, too.

Fun fact: if you look up Church -- Universalist in the Washington, D.C. phone book, you get the local Universal Church of the Kingdom of God outfit.


June 7, 2007 07:47 PM | Permalink for this comment

I have a couple of observations based on personal experience with Pentecostals in West Africa. I believe that Pentecostal values and democracy are more associated with free markets than Cox recognizes.

African countries I have visited have an economic system which might be called "Socialism for the Rich". The rich and well-educated and their allies in the military arrange government jobs for themselves with lucrative opportunities for corruption. They typically justify this with left-wing rhetoric, calling it, say, "African Socialism". Many of these folks belong to Methodist or Anglican churches. They despise Pentecostals whom they see as lower class.

However, despite all the socialist rhetoric, most people make their living in very free markets. They don't want to. They would rather have the Oxford education and government job. But they have to if they want to eat. Every African city has large markets where traders and artisans, often women, scrape what living they can by selling at freely negotiated prices whatever they have to sell. In my observation, it is precisely these traders who are most likely to become Pentecostals.

It is easy to see why it works for them. Pentecostal ethics encourage accumulation of capital. You aren't supposed to spend the day's profits getting drunk. Pentecostalism can also cut people off from tribal obligations, thus allowing the development of more individual wealth. I remember attending a large Pentecostal service in Ghana where the theme was, "you don't have to share your money with your relatives who don't accept Jesus." Cox doesn't allow the possibility that someone might work hard, stay sober, and actually get that new stove.

It is fair to say that most "neo-liberal" development economists would rather see money going to hard-working poor women than to well-educated, corrupt men. So they want to increase poor people's access to global markets. But it isn't just conservatives who feel that way. Most NGO aid workers in the field are pretty left-wing, but they still, in my experience, support the "profit-seeking, capitalist" poor women over the "corruption-seeking, socialist" rich men.

So maybe Pentecostalism will help make Africa less poor. The Puritans in Boston made out okay financially. I can also see Pentecostalism as supporting democracy. But I don't see it supporting socialism, or at least not in Africa. In my experience plenty of African Anglicans support socialism, but the Pentecostals just see the Anglicans as parasites.

(This is all just based on personal experience, nothing scientific.)

Comments for this entry are currently closed.