Palin V.P. Nomination Puts Pentecostalism in the Spotlight
From the time she was a teenager until 2002, Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin attended a church affiliated with the Assemblies of God, the largest Pentecostal Christian denomination in the U.S. Pentecostalism emphasizes such practices as speaking in tongues, prophesying, divine healing and other miraculous signs of the Holy Spirit, which it believes are as valid today as they were in the early Christian church. Prominent Democrats, including CEO of the Democratic National Convention Committee Leah Daughtry and Director of Religious Affairs for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign Joshua Dubois, also are associated with Pentecostal Christianity. The Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted in the summer of 2007, makes it possible to examine the demographic, religious and political characteristics of Pentecostals in the U.S.
As the Landscape Survey explains in detail, Protestantism can be broken down into three traditions: the evangelical, mainline and historically black church traditions. Pentecostals account for significant numbers within both evangelical and historically black Protestant churches. Taken together, Pentecostals make up 4.4% of the adult population.* But they account for 8.5% of all Protestants, including 13% of members of evangelical churches and 14% of members of historically black churches.
Pentecostals display very high levels of religious commitment on such questions as frequency of church attendance. For instance, evangelical Pentecostals are more likely than evangelicals overall – and much more likely than U.S. adults overall – to report attending worship services at least once a week or praying on a daily basis. Pentecostals within both evangelical and historically black churches also are more likely than others in their traditions to report holding a literal view of the Bible, or experiencing or witnessing divine healings.
Pentecostals are more likely than other members of evangelical and historically black churches to express conservative views on abortion and homosexuality. But evangelical Pentecostals are more likely than other evangelicals to prefer a bigger government providing more services over a smaller government providing fewer services. And among members of historically black churches, Pentecostals are noticeably less Democratic than others in this tradition.
Pentecostal denominations are racially, socially and geographically diverse. Roughly two-thirds of Pentecostals in the evangelical tradition are white (67%), 19% are Latino and 7% are black. Evangelical Pentecostalism includes significantly fewer whites and many more Latinos compared with evangelical denominations as a whole (81% white and 7% Latino). Pentecostals within historically black churches also are more racially diverse compared with the historically black church tradition overall. Roughly two-thirds of those who belong to historically black Pentecostal denominations are black (68%), compared with 92% of members of these churches overall. Together, white (14%) and Latino (13%) Pentecostals account for more than one out of every four members of historically black churches.
Economically, evangelical Pentecostals tend to earn lower incomes and have less education compared with the public overall and with other evangelicals. Nearly half of evangelical Pentecostals (45%) report annual household incomes of less than $30,000, and 27% say they have attained less than a high school education. Among evangelicals overall, the comparable figures are 34% and 16%. Members of black Pentecostal churches also tend to earn lower incomes and to have less education compared with the public overall. But economic and educational differences between Pentecostals and other members of historically black churches tend to be smaller.
Geographically, Pentecostalism is centered in the Southern United States; majorities of evangelical Pentecostals (52%) and members of black Pentecostal churches (52%) reside in the South, as do 50% of evangelicals overall and 60% of members of historically black churches overall.
Religious Beliefs and Practices
On a variety of measures, Pentecostals within evangelical and historically black churches evince very high levels of religious commitment. Nearly seven-in-ten evangelical Pentecostals report attending religious services at least once a week, significantly higher than evangelicals overall (58%) and the public overall (39%). Among members of black Pentecostal churches, three-quarters say they attend church at least once a week, higher than the 59% of all members of historically black churches who attend religious services this regularly.
Overwhelming majorities of Pentecostals within both traditions also say that religion is very important to them (86% among evangelical Pentecostals, 85% among members of black Pentecostal churches). Large majorities also say they are absolutely certain that God exists (90 and 91%, respectively), and report praying on a daily basis (83% and 79%, respectively). Differences on these measures between Pentecostals and other members of the evangelical and historically black traditions tend to be relatively small.
Pentecostals within both traditions are more distinctive when it comes to views of the Bible and receiving answers to prayer, and especially when it comes to speaking in tongues and experiences with divine healings. Overall, more than two-thirds of evangelical Pentecostals (68%) say they believe the Bible to be the literal word of God, making this group more likely than evangelicals overall (59%) to take this point of view, and more than twice as likely as the public as a whole (33%) to express this belief. Three-quarters of members of black Pentecostal churches (74%) see the Bible as the literal word of God – even higher than the 62% of members of historically black churches overall who interpret the Bible literally.
Nearly half of evangelicals (46%) say that they receive a direct answer to a specific prayer request at least once a month, as do 50% of members of historically black churches, setting these two traditions apart from the public overall (31%). But Pentecostals are even more likely than other evangelicals to report receiving answers to their prayers (57% do so at least monthly), while a majority of members of black Pentecostal churches also report having their prayers answered regularly (56%).
Large numbers of Pentecostals report having experienced or witnessed a divine healing of an illness or injury (74% among those in the evangelical tradition, 75% among those in the historically black tradition). Overall, members of evangelical and historically black churches are much less likely to have experienced a miraculous healing (50% and 54%, respectively); the comparable figure among the public overall is lower still (34%).
Speaking in tongues also is a relatively common practice among Pentecostals in both traditions. Nearly four-in-ten (38%) evangelical Pentecostals say they speak or pray in tongues at least once a month. Roughly comparable numbers of members of black Pentecostal churches also speak or pray in tongues monthly (35%). This is a much less common practice among other members of evangelical and historically black churches; overall, more than three-quarters of evangelicals (77%) and nearly seven-in-ten members of historically black churches (69%) say that they never speak or pray in tongues.
Religion and Politics
Pentecostals express socially conservative views on both abortion and homosexuality. More than seven-in-ten evangelical Pentecostals say that abortion should be illegal in all (35%) or most (38%) cases. They are joined in this view by two-thirds of members of black Pentecostal churches (38% say abortion should be illegal in all cases, 28% say it should be illegal in most cases). By comparison, evangelicals (61% of whom oppose abortion) and members of historically black churches (46% oppose) generally are somewhat less likely to oppose abortion.
Roughly seven-in-ten evangelical Pentecostals (71%) say that homosexuality is a way of life that should be discouraged by society, as do more than six-in-ten members of black Pentecostal churches (61%). The comparable numbers for all members of evangelical and historically black churches are 64% and 46%, respectively.
Pentecostals tend to be more liberal, however, when it comes to their views about government’s role in the economy. Half of evangelical Pentecostals (50%), for instance, say they would prefer a bigger government that provides more services, while only 37% express support for a smaller government providing fewer services. This puts them at odds with evangelicals as a whole, who tend to favor smaller government over larger government (48% vs. 41%). Two-thirds of members of black Pentecostal churches favor a bigger government providing more services, as do 72% of members of historically black churches overall.
Six-in-ten evangelical Pentecostals also say government should do more to help the needy, even if it means going deeper into debt, while fewer than three-in-ten (29%) say that government cannot afford to do more to help the needy. Among evangelicals as a whole, 57% say that government should do more for the needy. Support for increased aid to the poor is even higher within historically black churches; 76% of Pentecostals in these churches say that government should do more for the needy, as do 79% of members of these churches overall.
Just as they are supportive of an active role for government in the economy, Pentecostals are just as supportive as other religious groups of an active role for religion in politics and public life. A 2006 survey by the Pew Forum found, for instance, that 79% of Pentecostals believe that religious groups should express their views on day-to-day social and political matters, and 87% agree that it is important for political leaders to have strong religious beliefs. The comparable figures for the general public are 61% and 63%, respectively. In the realm of foreign affairs, the same 2006 survey found strong support for Israel among American Pentecostals, with six-in-ten saying they sympathized more with Israel than with the Palestinians in the Middle East conflict, nearly 20 points higher than the public overall.
Despite the similarities in their views on social issues and the role of government, Pentecostal members of evangelical and historically black churches are very different in their partisan preferences. Evangelical Pentecostals tend to favor the Republican Party; when surveyed in the summer of 2007, 45% described themselves as Republicans or said they lean toward the Republican Party, while 35% favored the Democratic Party. Members of black Pentecostal churches, by contrast, overwhelmingly favored the Democratic over the Republican Party (60% vs. 23%). It is interesting to note, however, that members of black Pentecostal churches are noticeably less Democratic than members of historically black churches overall (60% vs. 77%).
While a plurality of members of black Pentecostal churches (41%) describe their political views as conservative, this group is less conservative than their Pentecostal counterparts in the evangelical tradition (57%). Relatively few Pentecostals in either tradition describe themselves as political liberals.
About the Survey
Unless otherwise noted, this analysis is based on results from the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted by telephone between May 8 and Aug. 13, 2007, among a representative sample of 35,556 adults in the continental U.S. Full methodological details are available in the full Landscape Survey report. Full question wording and survey results are available in the survey topline. Unless otherwise noted, the size of the groups from the Landscape Survey and corresponding margins of error (at the 95% confidence level) are as follows:
*Although this analysis focuses exclusively on members of Pentecostal churches and denominations, the influence of Pentecostal beliefs and practices is actually much larger than these numbers suggest. Many “charismatic” members of non-Pentecostal denominations and traditions, including Catholicism, have adopted certain ideas, beliefs and forms of worship from Pentecostalism. The Pew Forum’s “Spirit and Power: A 10-Country Survey of Pentecostals” report includes more information about the global reach of this movement.
This analysis was written by Gregory Smith, Research Fellow, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
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