Pentecostal Power in South Africa (full text speech)


Dr. Lawrence Schlemmer


Full Text


Dr. Schlemmer presented his research to the “Media & Religion” conference in Johannesburg, 11-12 November, 2008.


Dr. Lawrence Schlemmer

Thank you very much, Reverend. I appreciate very much this opportunity to talk about this research.


Just before I start, perhaps by way of introduction, and to touch on one of the themes posed in the questions posed at the end of the last session where people were talking about this disjuncture, this split, between the secular world of politics and the world of faith communities.


Now, in these surveys, in both the surveys because one was done in Cape Town and one was done in Gauteng, I started off with a question, very broad and open question, which was in a sense a trick question. But I wanted to see how Christians would respond. And that was a question on what do you feel is necessary to achieve a better life for all for yourself?


Now as you know, the largest political party in the country - we assume it's still the largest - with all good intentions had this as its slogan: A Better Life for All. And since then, this slogan has acquired a significance and an impact far beyond the realm of party. And now people tend to associate politics with a better life for all, and even supporters of other parties will use these words in interviews: a better life for all.


But they then associate it with political programs. So here we were interviewing a representative sample of Christians in Cape Town and in Gauteng and we posed this question. And 95% of them immediately slotted into the political mindset. And they'd say, "Oh, a better life for all. Right. We want this. We want roads. This and that, taxes." And so you got the entire political agenda being played back. It was all very interesting.


But I wanted to see whether people who are devout and with strong faith would say, "Hold on. The politicians might say that a better life for all is better delivery, etc. But actually I've got a different view about a 'better life' for myself and for all," and to introduce the religious agenda. But nobody did.


Because everybody assumed that politics has its place, and tha's secular. And you don't think about your own spiritual values or anything like that. You don't think of the need to express your spirituality in the life you're leading. No, you immediately think in the categories that have been given to you by the politicians - all the politicians, doesn't matter which party.


So when we got to the next question, which immediately went onto religious topics, the people would say, "Oh, this interview is not about politics." No, no it's not. "Oh, well, then, I would have answered the question completely differently." So even the most devout people, with deep faith, lapsed into the political agenda without so much as a hint of their own real agendas.
Now I think that's some of what the questioners were getting at. There is a strange kind of separation between the secular world of politics and the world of categories, goals, commitments that - not most perhaps, but many - religious people have. And the debates in the country do not bring them together sufficiently.


And I think I detected in some of the questions that this is a concern. And it is indeed a concern. I think that I personally respected the idea of a secular state that is neutral, but then it has to be neutral in its ideologies as well. Unfortunately, and this is difficult, you can't expect politicians to be neutral.


So there's a huge dilemma in society between the secular state and the kind of state that communities of faith would like. And how to bridge these two is one of the most complex questions that I can imagine.


Now having said that, it certainly helped me in doing these surveys to think more about this dilemma. I was asked to do this research by the Center for Development and Enterprise. And, perhaps by way of introduction, I could just tell you why they became involved in this and asked me to do it.


The sociologist Peter Berger, a very famous American sociologist who started off as an Austrian sociologist many years ago, became interested in Max Weber, one of the greatest sociologists the world has known. And Max Weber was particularly interested in the effects on the economy and community life and development in 19th Century Europe of Calvinism.


Max Weber wrote this very great treatise, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. He was not implying in that title that there was anything Christian about capitalism, necessarily, or that Christianity was capitalist or anything like that. But what he unpacked there was the fact that through a particular interpretation of their faith, the Calvinists in Switzerland, Germany, Scotland and elsewhere, and in parts of France where there were Hugenot communities, had somehow interpreted their faith in the context of the day-to-day world in such a way as to release an enormous amount of energy for other pursuits, including become very successful entrepreneurs.


Now, these entrepreneurs were very special entrepreneurs. They were not like the kind of people who have very recently landed the entire world in a dreadful problem, with the threat of recession and massive deaths from starvation due to greed and profiteering on Wall Street with derivative investments and sub-prime loans. That's not the kind of capitalism they were talking about. They were talking of independent, entrepreneurial spirit, where people would marshal the energies of the commitments as individuals and, with utter fairness and respect for their customers, deliver a good service and become very successful business people and eventually build very great companies. One these was the first really big multi-national company in the world, the Dutch East India Company, which then veered off the track, you see. It became involved in all sorts of dubious pursuits.


But happily it started a way station in the camp, which contributed to South Africa's development.


Peter Berger and other sociologists have discovered that something with very much the same kind of impact, the same kind of release of energy, has happened in association with the growth of the Pentecostal movement in Latin America, in South Korea, in parts of India, in Africa, and in fact in many, many parts of the world.


Can I just say that the early Calvinists had a particular interpretation that made this release of energy possible. And many of you will know this better than I do. I had to think hard back to Sunday School to remember the details. And that is that the Calvinists in that particular era had a dreadful need and an anxiety to be reassured that they were part of the "elect" of the Lord. And being part of the elect of God was obviously a major focus and commitment in their lives.


In the middle class communities of Switzerland, Holland, Germany, and Scotland, and more or less in the same time in America, they then said, "being respectable, a model citizen, and being a successful citizen is one way, perhaps, God is reassuring me that I am likely to be among the elect of God." But of course they would never know, because it is impossible to know for sure that you are in the elect of God.


And so it generated this anxiety, and this anxiety made people feel all the more concerned to be examples of success. And it was this anxiety that produced the energy, which was a theological anxiety. It was an anxiety about people's relationship to the Lord. And that kind of reaction is absolute dynamite.


Economists can prattle on and on and on about what is required of development in the world, and it never occurs the them that some of the most dramatic impacts on development have occurred not because of economic processes, but because of the results and consequences of religious experiences.


Now how do the Pentecostals fit into this mold? How does the experience of faith intersect with and influence social and economic processes? How does it affect people at the level of religious consciousness, lifestyles, among congregants, pastors and other Christians? What implications does the experience of faith in the religious community have for socio-economic progress?


Now this is particularly important in South Africa because we have what we can refer to as a massive alienated sector. People are unemployed. They have no purchase. They feel that they have no role in society. They spend their time looking for things to occupy themselves with, things to give themselves meaning. One of those things, unfortunately, is an extraordinary level of crime.


And quite frankly, and particularly at the moment, there is little policy or growth prospects in South Africa that can reabsorb this massive army of unemployed people. So the people have reached the conclusion that the main hope in this life is the people themselves. You can't look to government to rescue people from alienation.


And this means developing confidence and initiative for self-help within the social fabric. And the big question is what part can religion play?


With regard to the Pentecostal and Charismatic church - now, ladies and gentleman, I bear no particular grief for the Pentecostal churches. I am very sympathetic, but I am sympathetic to all churches, and other religious movements - I think the Pentecostal and Charismatic churches have attracted the attention of sociologists for the following reason: they are growing most rapidly among all levels and communities in society.


One of the religions that is growing very rapidly is Islam, and many people think that because Islam is growing more rapidly than Christian faiths, as a whole, that Islam is the fastest-growing religion. Well, within the Christian community of faith, the Pentecostals are growing far more rapidly than Islam.


That's the first reason. The second reason is that they have a known ability to imbue followers with a very great intensity of spirituality and commitment.


Thirdly, we are seeing particularly with the emergence of new churches - some of the older Pentecostal churches have become very established congregations - some of the new churches have a great deal of flexibility and organizational flexibility and have shown quite a degree of entrepreneurship themselves.


Fourthly, the pervasive effect of religion and religious organization on society. Now I ought to, as a sociologist, say that while your undergraduate sons and daughters at universities may prattle on endlessly about Karl Marx and his impact on society, the impact of religious activity, faith, on economic development and society far out strokes anything that the secular ideologies would promote and conceive of. And this (is so) throughout history, for the last many thousands of years.


In doing this research, I worked with and drew on international studies by Peter Berger, David Martin and others. The results I'm going to give you are based on sample surveys in Hout Bay, Gauteng. I chose Hout Bay because it has a large number of new Pentecostal churches, very small, not all of them in church buildings, and there's also a face-to-face community where different categories of the population come face to face and interact and people are not segregated into townships that are over the hill and out of site. They all live together, at least within talking distance of one another, sometimes shouting distance, unfortunately. But it's all there in one place. And so I thought it was a good place to start.


And we did intensive interviews among congregants in various communities. We included all the churches. We did interviews among Pentecostal businessmen, political role players. There were more than ten varied research inputs.


The context of the research is that South African churches are becoming more responsive to bottom-up needs. There are more and more overlaps and commonalities between the churches.


When I began doing research, which you'll see from my appearance was a long, long time ago - it feels like it was before the Great Trek - going in you could identify whether you were talking to a person from a Catholic congregation, or an Anglican congregation, or a Dutch Reformed church or congregation. It is now very different. The commonalities and the mutual influences have been so great that the differences today are really in size and in stages of formalization and in quality of faith, not in lifestyles. Therefore, it is very difficult to produce clear-cut findings.


The Pentecostal-church types that we investigated, the boundaries are not clear cut, but the study has covered. And you will know more about the boundaries than I do. The New Charismatics, some of them in small churches. The mega-churches. The community-based churches, which are not particularly charismatic but are Pentecostal in their basic outlook and in commitments. And then the older, classical Pentecostal churches, the Assemblies of God, the big, established Pentecostal churches.


And we also looked at the members of other congregations as well and asked them questions. We included the African Independent Churches, which show an interesting blend of influences, some of those influences are also Pentecostal.


Now, reluctantly in South Africa, we must accept that there are differences in the culture of worship between the townships and the suburbs. By that I don't mean that there are differences in the culture of worship between white people and black people. The suburbs are no longer all white, and certainly in Hout Bay, the townships are certainly not all black.


So there's great diversification taking place, but nevertheless, we detected very large differences between the suburbs -  which you can say are areas that are tending to be middle class - and the townships where there are fewer people tending to be middle class.


The conclusions from all the studies. First of all, South Africa's current political debate affects the attitudes of all people. Hence, that's why I asked that first question, what is a better life for all? And people jumped into the political categories.


But among church-goers I soon found in our interviews that the political categories are far more superficial and they do not invade their consciousness to the same extent as they would invade highly secularized, left-leaning people of a Marxist or socialist bent, or other people of a secular orientation. The political categories are in a sense kept in their place by the Christian congregant moreso than among secular people.


Another thing that we found is that religious commitment in general - and this is without distinguishing between Pentecostals, between Reformed churches, between Catholics, whatever - imparts a buoyant mood and spiritual capital. In other words, people have more spiritual resources, which means that they have more emotional resources. And they find it easier to cope with a whole range of problems than people who do not have religious commitment.


One of the early findings in Hout Bay, for example, where there were particular conflicts underway - there were labor conflicts and conflicts between the government and the fisherman, all sorts of complications - the people who were calmest, most constructive, and who eventually provided solutions to these conflicts tended to come from religious communities. Not in religious roles. They were not pastors acting as pastors but pastors in other roles who provided leadership in very stressed situations.


So these things seem to be correlated with social capital, confidence, patience and fortitude. Religion seemed to us to insulate from political and economic stress and passions, sometimes due to a kind of otherworldly withdrawal and asceticism. But the vast majority of Christians, including Pentecostals, without this withdrawal or fatalism were still able to respond to society, to respond to issues within society. They were much cooler about many issues that secular people were becoming very excited about.


The broader mindsets we found were that churchgoers reflect a flavor of self-reliance rather than dependence or entitlement. For that reason, many of the people, after my first question about a better life for all, when they realized that the interview was not about politics, they would say, "But why on earth should the government provide us with a better life for all. That is up to us. It is between us and our fellow human beings. Or it's between us and God. The government must provide services, but they can't pretend to provide a better life for people. Let's just make sure they do their job properly."


So there was a greater flavor of self-reliance. What we found is that signs of acute political aggravation were most common among secular people who said they never went to church or were not churchgoers or not Christians, not anything in particular - not Hindus, not Muslims, whatever.


So what we found in general with religion today is certainly not what Karl Marx said it was, and that is a form of alienated consciousness, a soporific, something that puts people to sleep, a drug that takes people's mind off the real world and the most important issues.


It's not a soporific. It does not produce false consciousness. But it does seem to cushion society from the harsh current realities and foibles of politicians.


The pastors in particular that we interviewed quite commonly expressed what they called, and some pastors merely referenced this, a "theology of encounter": the experience of St. Paul on the road to Damascus, the revelation. Now this message is very positive and affirming within congregations, and it seemed to be a theme that the pastors came back to quite frequently. We also found among the pastors that, because of the flexibility, there was an entrepreneurial quality to church building.


What we found is that in many of the community churches, the smaller churches where the pastors are more isolated and where they don't seem to interact with other pastors to be able to formulate guidelines and approaches, there was an uncertainly about outreach and social involvement. And many of the pastors in the small community churches were saying, "We live here in a sea of crime, in a sea of social decay. And the best I can do is to try to protect my community, my congregants, from being influenced. And that's about all we can do. We're trying to survive in a sea of social decay, in a sea of often criminal hostility. You can't expect us to go out and do good works among the very people we fear might harm us."


These were honest confessions by people in little churches, community churches, who felt that they had to maintain a space for the religious experience.


Now the congregants was where we found some of the most dramatic differences. If you look at the one question, How happy are you? Taking the people that were very happy, you'll see that among the old Pentecostals in the suburbs, 13% said they were "very happy." The New Pentecostals: 44%; mainstream churchgoers, who are generally more affluent than the old Pentecostals, and perhaps that's why they were happier.


Separatists, we didn't find many in the suburbs. Not enough to analyze.


But in the townships, you'll see the distinct tendency there for personal happiness to be higher among the new Pentecostal churches than among the other categories of the congregation.


In answers to the questions, it turned out that nearly six out of ten of the new Pentecostals in the suburbs felt that their personal skills and abilities had improved with their growth and religious development. And here again, you can see the same tendency appearing in the townships.


A very large official server started for the advertising industry where they asked all sorts of questions about adverts, and readership and purchases and things like that. And they placed people in what they called "NSM" categories, lifestyle categories, from one to ten, the top categories being the most successful. And then we were able to correlate that with religious affiliation.


And one of the remarkable things - you know, many people say today that one of the greatest single causes of dramatic success of the modern South Africa has been black-empowerment policy and affirmative action, and it's produced a new middle class very rapidly. And yes, it's had positive effects. But when you look at results like this, particularly results under the Pentecostal movement, you'll see that the impact of Pentecostalism on shifting people up the socio-economic ladder, up the ladder of lifestyle categories, has been more dramatic than any other development in society.


It certainly has empowered more people on a more diversified and widespread basis than any black-empowerment policy crafted by some sector of industry or whatever. Quite frankly, many statisticians have remarked in these large surveys that there's almost no recent movement that can compare with the impact Pentecostalism seen on a mass basis.


One of the findings throughout comparing the different congregations - the mainline churches, the Pentecostals, the Catholics, whatever - the Pentecostal/charismatic congregants displayed the highest intensity of spiritual engagement. On all the measures we gave, they came through as the most intense in their spirituality.


Among black people in the new congregations, there was the most intense spirituality and less engagement with the world. As a matter of fact, I would say that political parties might have a problem here because people were saying, "Don't talk to me about politics. I'm really not in the least bit interested."


They are very altruistic. They do believe in being Good Samaritans and helping as far as they can. They are happy and self-confident. They do, however, have some reserve with strangers and non-believers. They have the feeling that they are dangerous. In a sense, the danger of sin is "out there", and you have to be very, very careful about it. And living in some of the areas in which they live, you can understand that.


But they are completely devoted to the spiritual enrichment of their children, and the families there have very great stability and strength.


In the suburbs, the new Pentecostals, many, are well-educated. They are not all whites, not by any means. Many are well-educated, and edge towards progressive thinking on welfare. They have a fair interest in politics. They could talk politics very fluently in the interviews. They value education very highly. They are also optimistic and confident. For them, spiritual goals have utter priority, however. And there is this quality of spiritual arousal. It's an excitement that you can see in people's eyes.


Not only me, but many of our interviewers who have done thousands and thousands of interviews on all topics all over the country and in the rest of Africa, came back to me and said, "You know, somehow it's the expression in people's eyes - the sparkle - that struck us in this particular survey."


In the suburbs, they do derive satisfaction from material advancement. They are proud of their economic achievements. They're proud of managing their domestic economies well. But they're not economically ambitious. They're not hungry or greedy to become rich.


Both in the suburbs and in Hout Bay, the Pentecostals seemed to be released from stress. In some senses, they are quite laid back. It was because some of the things that are hugely stressful to people meant so little to them. For that reason, they seem to cope more quickly with the world.


However, the idealism has boundaries, just like the township areas and the small churches. They are very doubtful about too much contact with strangers, and they do have a certain aversion to the sinfulness around them. And that produces an almost Puritannical moral code. And many people in, say, the Catholic Church would say, in informal asides to us, "The Pentecostal people just reject the people that we really care about. The poor. The suffering. People among whom we're doing good works. The Pentecostals don't want to get to know those people."


This is seen as a lack of sympathy, but it wasn't. It was a sort of self-protective withdrawal.


We found in general that the effect of faith in boosting self-confidence, self-esteem, and strengthening personal agency and determination was quite dramatic across all categories of Christians. This is the act of faith. I'm not talking about that proportion of passive Christians that go to church only once or twice a year, if they go at all. These were active Christians.


One of the characteristics was a more harmonious work, family and other relationships. There seemed to be a greater self-discipline with regard to drugs, alcohol, sex and other temptations. And there was a kind of quasi-Calvinist pattern of deferred gratification. In other words, don't spend all your money now. Rather, invest it wisely. Marshal your energies so that you can do things better and have more effect.


And most certainly, tithing enters into this because people felt that tithing was a spiritual investment. But it provided them with a model of saving in other respects, as well. In other words, it's almost as if tithing gave it a greater impact to putting money aside for larger purposes, for constructive purposes.


As a result of all these things, there's something no doubt in our interviews. We found improved occupational success and improved work ethic. There was enormous emphasis on the importance education for themselves and for their children.


There was an improvement in health. And this is most spectacular. One of the biggest scourges of poverty in South Africa among poor people is ill health. They generally get sicker much more often than people who are not poor. And with the result that ill health was a reason why many people switched to Pentecostal churches or to churches that there was some form of faith healing, the testimony throughout was, "I never looked back. My health has improved consistently."


They held stern, conservative values in terms of public morality, and a criticism of the government stance on capital punishment, abortion, gay rights, progressive-rights issues. And the voluntary work among the poor, in the Pentecostal movement as opposed to some of the mainline churches, was mainly contained within the church community.


So onto my final thoughts on this. I'm not suggesting that these issues that I've investigated here are the reason why religious faith is important. Religious faith is important anyway, quite irrespective, and we know why. In addition to that spiritual value, Pentecostal commitment would appear to release energy for social or economic development. It seems to be a counter to the opportunism and over-politicization of issues in South Africa, because I do think we over-politicize most issues.


And it is very difficult to reconcile the rhetoric and the realities of public life with the commitment and needs of churchgoers. So it would seem to me that in our secular life, there is - and I believe that the rationality for this comes originally from St. Thomas Aquinas - a God-shaped hole in our public life. And while I don't expect or want the government to take sides in religion, and I want it to remain neutral. I do think it must create more space in its own rhetoric and in its own education of children through the schools and other agencies, for spiritual expression.


If one looks at, for example, the service and the things that are spoken about in social studies and primar schools today, in terms of the new curriculum, you'll find remarkably little space given to spiritual commitment. It is almost as if social structure crowds out spirituality and social experience. And that is what I mean by a "God-shaped" hole in our public life.


Now churches have a role in welfare provision. But welfare cannot be the end and be-all of their commitments. And one has to weigh it out, depending on the circumstances of different congregations and say, "Look, these people are struggling to rescue themselves, and you can't expect them to go on an outreach." But other people have far more resources, have already developed the confidence, and they can.


But whatever the case, there would be a great deal of sense in church-based development clubs with some form of coordination between individual churches and congregations, or maybe between faiths.


But I think that the Pentecostal churches should go on doing what they are already doing so well: protecting the social fabric from further decay, giving people who are otherwise sidelined in our society a powerful sense of purpose and mission. And they do, in this role, deserve more recognition. And the churches also deserve more respect because when politicians get up and promote and pronounce their grandiose ideologies and schemes and plans, they need to just make more space for another world of plans and commitments that they do not have the right to transgress.


Thank you.




Question: I'm interested to find out about the political influence of Pentecostal churches. Did you find whether there was any interest in political involvement or even support for holding accountable those Christians that are in positions of power?


Answer: There was much more interest among the middle-class Pentecostals than among the poorer people. As a matter of fact, the majority of poor Pentecostals indicated to us that they don't vote, and they don't really like interacting with politicians and activists. Now this could be because they are not as confident as middle-class Pentecostals.


But certainly there was a great deal of interest among middle-class Pentecostals, both black and white, but they were far less inclined to talk in political categories. Far less. People often take a political party as their base in the world from which they will then dispense their wisdom on politics and development. Pentecostals certainly did not do that. There is no great identification with any particular political party. I would suspect that most of them in the end vote ANC than vote for other parties, simply because that is the general trend. There is a kind of commitment in that direction. They do have very distinct attitudes on aspects of political life.


You remember that [the government] convened a group on "moral regeneration." That seems to me to be politically very empty. Now if the government were to allow that facilitation to the done by the churches or the religious movements, communities of faith, it would at least not be getting in the way of it. Quite frankly, there is very little impact from the political sector on moral activity however much people may go on tirades against corruption, that we all agree with. There seems to be a singular inability for government to project itself in this moral view.


And this is what these Pentecostals felt very strongly. They felt that government was failing, even though they didn't expect government to become the same congregation that they were. They felt that it was failing faith in general.


Question: What does this have to do with the media?


It has a lot to do with the media. I was once asked to do an exercise with a very large newspaper. I won't say which newspaper since it was confidential. I was interacting quite a lot with the journalists and editors and the executives on directions to go. And there was a singular blindness among the journalists to the fact that among, perhaps not a majority of people, but at least 30-40% of South Africans religion is very important.


And ever time the topic of religion or religious articles or a lesson from the scriptures in the paper on a particular day. Whenever that issue came up the journalists seemed to take the attitude that, "Well, you know, that's not really relevant. We need to get to the real issues! What are we going to do about this or that, and you know it was everything from unemployment to global warming."


And I just felt that there was a singular blindness, and religion is actually a vital aspect of community life.  If I organize a debate on democracy, they will cover it. But if I organize a debate on something to do with the religious commitments of people in a certain area, I doubt the newspapers would arrive at all.


I don't think it's the fault of government, but there is a secular tendency in the newspapers, which you find in the universities. And the university is probably where it starts, before the newspapers, because in your second-year student community you already have this huge swing toward a secular outlook.


So it's the degree to which the media is alert to the importance of religion that is the main issue I have in mind. I don't have solutions as to what they should say. But they should become more interested.


Question: How is the causal relationship established between Pentecostalism and socio-economic advancement?


In our surveys we asked the same questions of all people, and then we divided them into them into religious categories. Then, within those religious categories, we divided them into people with different intensity of religion on the basis of our observations. And we found differences in the categories.


You'll recall that media-products research that I showed you. They asked a whole lot of questions, and put people in lifestyle categories across the board. And they've been tracking these categories over the past few years.


We came and discovered that in their questionnaires, they actually found out people's religious congregations, but they had never analyzed (it). When we put those in the computers, we found that despite the fact that people were of the same background - they were not more educated or born to more affluent families - but they simply had achieved more progress in their lifestyles than other categories. So we did it by comparing statistical categories.

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