Americanizing in Tongues

Benjamin Ortiz

More than 10,000 Pentecostalists attended a crusade in Manaus, Brazil.
“I think that Christ was a heavy radical.” As a statement of politicized spirituality by a religious Latino, this comment suggests progressive associations with Catholic liberation theology, especially for those familiar with ’80s Latin American solidarity movements.

But Arlene M. Sánchez Walsh—a DePaul University professor of religious studies—records these thoughts from John Luna, a 50-something Southern California Chicano and member of the Vineyard ministry, a post-denominational strand of evangelical Christianity labeled charismatic. Where Luna challenges his church to “walk a picket line or be willing to do a sit-down,” another Latino evangelical—Cruz “Sonny” Arguinzoni, a founder of Victory Outreach Pentecostal ministries—clarifies his political outlook for Sánchez Walsh: “The Kingdom of God is not a democracy.”

In these instances of fieldwork from Latino Pentecostal Identity: Evangelical Faith, Self, and Society, Sánchez Walsh captures a sense of diversity among Latinos and within burgeoning Pentecostal and charismatic ministries, which claim 5 million of the 37 million U.S. Latinos. Spanning more than a century, the history of Latino participation in American Pentecostalism runs from retrogressive to radical chic, as the Christian evangelical movement has come to recognize pop culture, consumer merchandising and immigrant ministry as growth areas to seize on a growing sense of disappointment with Catholicism and alienation from mainstream Protestantism.

With imminent changeover of the papacy, priestly scandals and crises in Catholic dogma, it is significant that in Latin America (home to almost a third of the world’s Catholics), a quarter of the population is now Protestant. And evangelical Christians are making the greatest inroads by seeking converts among marginal populations in such places as jails, halfway houses and migrant-worker fields and among gangs and drug addicts.

“The idea of a monolithic progressive Latino political consciousness, free of spiritual impulses, has never existed,” she writes. “Indeed, for nearly a century, classical Pentecostals (Assemblies of God), Pentecostal social missions (Victory Outreach), and, more recently, charismatics (the Vineyard) have served as alternative vehicles for spiritual attainment and social service.”

Sánchez Walsh constructs a trenchant history while maintaining rigorous analysis. Separating the rhetoric of easy accommodation from the history of Latino subordination and gender inequity within these churches, she challenges readers to understand Pentecostalism as one route to empowerment and social engagement that U.S. Latinos have made their own while preserving a sense of ethnic difference.

Yet the story of Pentecostal and Latino assimilation into evangelical Christianity is not one of a simple conversion narrative. Sánchez Walsh disputes media coverage, scholarship and conventional wisdom that Latinos share a Catholic ethos, especially given generations of Latinos have been neither Catholic nor mainstream Protestant. At the same time, Sánchez Walsh points out, “Latino churches tend not to incorporate themselves into the larger political right culture of conservative evangelicals. Latino evangelicals tend to be much more mainstream and less conservative on social issues. For example, they would want public education, amnesty for immigrants, more resources for education in urban areas, gang prevention, a whole host of issues that keep them from the Christian right.”

Central to Latinos in Pentecostalism is the ideology of the Holy Spirit—with its subordination of racial and social differences to spiritual insight—and the transcendence of language barriers through speaking in tongues.

Moreover, Pentecostalism has provided opportunities for higher education through Bible colleges, leadership and employment, and a cultural bridge for immigrants, sometimes through cooptation of folk and pop culture into a Christian mold. Still, Sánchez Walsh criticizes the anti-intellectualism, legalism and insularity of Pentecostalism. And her work is meant to counter similar protective shields in academic, cultural and political contexts that dismiss religious ideology and the position of experience one might have from within a community of faith. “To view evangelicals as a monolith is wrong,” she says. “And it is another kind of orthodoxy to draw the line of authenticity at religion as somehow having a simple ulterior, right-wing motive.”

Ben­jamin Ortiz is a writer based in Chicago.
More articles by Benjamin Ortiz
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