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Episode Summary

We’ve talked a lot on Theory of Change about the political manifestations of fundamentalist Christian viewpoints in American politics, but the religious origins of these ideas are also important to understand. And right now there is no bigger force within American Christian fundamentalism than Pentecostalism, a movement of unaffiliated churches that together represent the fastest growing Christian sect in the world.

But Pentecostalism is a broad movement with no centralized authorities handing down doctrines and many church organizations with history of labeling themselves as Pentecostalism now are refusing to do so. To the extent that many people know anything about Pentecostalism , it’s through ministers who are famous for scandals or for their feel-good music.

Joining the program to talk in much greater depth about Pentecostalism, its origins, and its rapid growth is Elle Hardy. She’s a freelance journalist whose book Beyond Belief: How Pentecostal Christianity is Taking Over the World has just been published here in the United States. The video of our discussion is below. A transcript of the edited audio follows.



MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thanks for being here today.

ELLE HARDY: Thanks for having me.

SHEFFIELD: All right. So, as I said in the intro, I think a lot of people are aware that Pentecostalism exists, but in terms of what it believes or more particulars about it, I think people generally, unless you’re adjacent to it don’t know a lot about it. When did Pentecostalism get started? It got started in the United States and it’s been growing all over the world, but just tell us a little bit about the early history and what you found with that.

HARDY: The person who is essentially considered the founder of Pentecostalism, William J. Seymour, the son of freed slaves from Louisiana. He had a revival called the Azusa Street Revival in 1906 in Los Angeles, and that’s considered the founding moment of Pentecostalism.

But I actually think that his mentor, who was a white man in Kansas actually probably has a better claim. Pentecostalism was really coming out of the very American nature of religion in the late 19th century, where Mormonism and other things came from. It was people moving across the country, that frontier culture bringing in new ideas. But it really came out of Methodism, and it was really about harnessing a, for want of a better word, the power of the Holy Spirit.

And it was new and radical and it was speaking to people’s needs at the time. And it’s speaking to people’s needs now. And that’s really what is behind this explosive growth. It speaks to people’s needs here now. And largely from, 1901-1906 through to now, it’s the idea of health and wealth. It’s the idea that you can have a good life in this life too.

So it really is the faith of the global working poor, and when it started with William J Seymour, these were pretty radical ideas, it was speaking in tongues, it was having the Holy Spirit descend upon you. So you’re born again, accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior and have a full immersion baptism usually, but then they filled again with the Holy Spirit and that comes comes through things such as you got the nine gifts of the holy spirit. Prophecy, miracles, healing, and most notably speaking in tongues.

And that’s what the Pentecostals were really keen on. And that’s what they’re most famous for today, even though definitely not as many people speak in tongues anymore.

SHEFFIELD: But just for those who don’t know what that concept is, what is the idea of speaking in tongues?

HARDY: So it means that you’re filled with the Holy Spirit and that spirit is speaking through you in a language that you don’t understand, or that you might only understand in that moment.

The original Pentecostals thought that they were being given the tongues to go and preach and convert people in foreign lands. That’s what happened in the Bible. That’s where the Day of Pentecost comes from, when the Holy Ghost 50 days after Jesus rose from the dead, the Holy Ghost came down to the disciples and gave them his gift of tongues to go out and convert people in foreign lands.

And so the original Pentecostals thought that’s what they were getting. They thought they were speaking in Chinese. And a lot of them set sail for places like China and died horrible deaths of dysentery and other things because they were so ill-prepared. They really thought that they’d been given this gift and the end of days were coming and they had to come out and help all these poor people who hadn’t heard the good news.

These days, it’s much more of a personal commune with God or, God speaking through you or a personal conversation that you’re having. And it definitely doesn’t have that power over people anymore. But often because it is a part of that conversion process– and the conversion being born again is really significant for Pentecostals and for anyone of the evangelical faith, because it becomes a real clear demarcation of life before and after they found God.

And because so many people are converting, when they’re converting, they’re taking on God, it’s often a matter of getting their life together. It’s often them saying, ‘I’ve decided I’m going to this church, I’m going to stop drinking. I’m going to try and knuckle down and provide better for my family,’ and things like that.

So people really have that before and after moment. So when the spirit descends on them, they might really feel as though they are having this particular moment of commune with God or something like that. And it winds up being very profound, but it isn’t as widely practiced as it used to be, or it isn’t as critical to the faith. But it’s still very much there.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah and the traditional Christian interpretation of the gift of tongues as a doctrine, it was to speak in language that actually exists, to actually spread the gospel, that was the point of it. And so Pentecostalism as a movement, it’s sort of a re-interpretation of a lot of traditional Christianity, while also claiming that it is the actual restoration of the ancient Christianity. I think that’s something that you found in your research, that people see themselves as the true heirs of Jesus, right?

HARDY: Yeah. But I think everyone does, don’t they? (laughs). Everyone that’s that’s pretty into their faith thinks that they’re doing it in the right way. So. Yeah. That’s an interesting question, probably one of the really notable things that modern Pentecostals are doing, Hillsong’s probably the most famous, modern Pentecostal congregation, even though they don’t say the Pentecostal anymore, they dropped that label and left the Assemblies of God a while ago, but they’re, they’re charismatic and they say they’re non-denominational now, but they’re they’re spiritual–

SHEFFIELD: Well, actually can you just step back just to say, what is the Assemblies of God for people who don’t know what that is?

HARDY: Ah, sure. That was one of the original founding umbrella movements that came out of early Pentecostalism and they first really started calling themselves that, and it was quite famously maybe a bit similar to the Southern Baptist Convention or something like that. Around the world, they would often be a collective, so there’s no Pentecostal Pope or Archbishop of Canterbury, but this was as close as you’d have to some sort of hierarchy and something keeping people in line. And, as I think we can go into later on, part of the rolling series of crises that we’re seeing at the moment is because these charismatic leaders, charismatic in temperament as well as theologically, just going out and doing whatever works to get people through the door.

And they’ve been very off the leash and we’re starting to see that even churches like Hillsong that, that lack of oversight is really coming back to bite them.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. So, so your book. Just tell us you, you reported it on Pentecostals in different countries. Tell us a little bit about which countries you were focusing on and why you did.

HARDY: Sure. So I think should move to my publicity spiel here. 12 countries and eight U.S. states I think. So I went to the different corners of the earth where Pentecostalism is really kicking off and changing and making a difference. I wasn’t able to go to all corners of the earth because a fair bit of my research was during the pandemic.

But I want us to tell the different stories in different places. If there’s two countries in the world that probably best represent Pentecostalism now, it would be Brazil and Nigeria. Brazil was, I think there were 3% of the country were Pentecostal in 1980. It’s now 30%. And really growing fast, I think it could be in the next decade, if all this continues, it’ll overtake Catholicism. And that’s pretty wild, 500 years ago that the Catholic church came to Brazil and in 40 years they’ve taken a third of the flock.

SHEFFIELD: The Brazil angle also, the rise of Pentecostalism there is directly tied to the political career of Jair Bolsonaro. That’s who voted for him.

HARDY: They were very influential in his election, definitely. Incidentally, so was WhatsApp. WhatsApp has been changed globally now because there was such a misinformation campaign that was being used by that.

And it’s not like it’s not like Facebook where you can see it happening. These are private numbers. I think you can only forward a message onto 32 people or something now, because in Brazil, everyone was using it to send these really unhinged rumors about that schools now are going to make your five-year-old boys start wearing a dress and become a girl.

And there was all that, that really awful moral panic stuff that unfortunately we’re seeing pop up in the U.S. just this week at the moment. [Interview was recorded April 7, 2022.] And that was certainly very central to his rise and he played into it.

His wife is Pentacostal. He is still officially Catholic as far as I know. But he went during the election campaign and got dunked in the Jordan river and said that he’d been born again. And that was certainly speaking to not just the Brazilian people, but also the evangelical caucus in Brazil, which is really growing in influence and popularity. And it was saying, ‘I’m with the program,’ and unfortunately for the people of Brazil, it worked and he got elected.

SHEFFIELD: So you looked at Brazil and then you were mentioning you briefly mentioned Nigeria. Why don’t you talk a little bit about that for a second?

HARDY: Yeah. So Pentecostalism is huge in Nigeria. It’s hard to get exact numbers, but the country is more or less 50-50 Christian- Muslim. And this is really a, it’s always been fairly prominent, but certainly since the seventies Pentecostalism has really just swept through so many Christians denominations and is really by far the most powerful denomination there.

And what’s really interesting, and my friend, Ebenezer Obadare, who’s a really brilliant Nigerian-American sociologist. He’s at Kansas State, I believe. He wrote about this. And he helps me with the research in my book. And what Pentecostals have really done– Nigeria is a very complex country between the Muslim north and Christians in the south. And Pentecostals, some of these really big, powerful Pentecostal preachers are effectively becoming kingmakers. Now they don’t want the power themselves, but Muslim politicians, Christian politicians, anyone has to come and bend the knees to get their their say-so.

And what they asked for in return is to define the world in spiritual terms, it’s to talk about things in terms of spiritual warfare, it’s to talk about battles of good and evil. It’s to be able to demonize your opponents. Not simply say that they’re your opponent and their idea is bad, to say that they are evil and possessed.

SHEFFIELD: So I’m sorry. I want to make sure that everybody can keep up with the terms here. So you mentioned spiritual warfare. What does that mean?

HARDY: So it’s an idea that came from a very influential American Pentecostal figure, C Peter Wagner, who died a few years ago.

And it came out of his time as a missionary in Argentina, understanding Pentecostalism in the global south, which is where most of the world’s Pentecostals are, and understanding that it needs to fit in and feel and look like the local culture. And a lot of places, particularly in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa for example, local folklore and customs is much more spiritually defined than, say, in the west. And people will talk about things in terms of good and evil. So he came up that there was this idea that we’re in a spiritual contest, where the bad spirits have come down into the earth, and we basically need to get rid of them to create the kingdom for Jesus to come back.

But he came up with three different ideas of spiritual warfare. So there’s the kind of personal level where you’re possessed by something, usually in the form of illness. And then there’s a cult level, so that is “new age-ism” sorts of things.

But then there’s strategic level spiritual warfare, and that’s the really big thing. And that’s an idea that you’re starting to see really creep into American, particularly the radical right Republicans. You’ll start to hear them talking in terms of spiritual warfare. Most notably Paula White Cain did, she was looking at demon sperm and things like that, that’s pure spiritual warfare.

So strategic level spiritual warfare says that institutions can be possessed. So that’s really taken on– it combined very well with MAGAism shall we say? So it’s saying the Democratic Party is possessed. Originally it was meant to be like, oh, the Las Vegas strip is possessed, now it’s the Democratic Party, it’s your local school board.

And it’s really empowering believers to go and wrest control of these spirits. So you’re getting people charging into school board meetings with guns and saying, ‘I hear that people are reading Harry Potter in this school and we have to take on,’ and it’s really become quite a dangerous idea that’s just saying to people, you’ve got to stop this any way you can, this is evil personified right here.

And yeah, by saying that whole institutions and whole areas can be possessed has been a very dangerous turn that we’ve seen in Christian ideology in the last few years.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, exactly. And and it’s important also to look at where, when these ideas become more regnant what can happen when you believe in literal spirit doings in the physical world. Unfortunately it’s common in a number of African countries to believe that various people are witches and people will get attacked for supposedly being a witch. And it’s led to, unfortunately, people getting hurt or killed. It’s really terrible.

HARDY: Yeah. One of Pentecostalism’s greatest strengths is that it looks and sounds and feels like the local culture. So Pentecostalism will look very different in Korea to Nigeria, to Brazil.

And that’s why people like it, it feels much more authentic. It feels much more often it’s working class, it’s bubbling up from below with you. It’s the people’s faith. It’s not brought to you on high by some white priest that’s been educated in Europe and that is very much a strength and what a lot of people like about it, but it does tend to take on a lot of demonology and folklore.

And you can get to a biblical literalism with this kind of stuff that you can find justification for anything in the Bible. The spiritual warfare comes from Ephesians 6:12. It speaks of a struggle, which is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of these dark worlds, and against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. So, you can take that to apply to almost anything, but it does tend to breed a certain amount of– or it tends to appeal to people, potentially with their paranoid view of the world or a very suspicious of elites and things like that.

So you can understand how it’s becoming very much an ideology of the modern moment, whether you are in a very poor town in Nigeria, or whether you’re in Dallas, Texas.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And I’m actually going to play just a little video of that. You mentioned Paula White. Paula White was actually a senior member of the Trump administration. A lot of people don’t know that–

HARDY: She was a spiritual advisor. I didn’t think she was an actual member of the–

SHEFFIELD: She actually got an official title. She had some office in the, some title in the Office of Public Liaison actually, believe it or not.

HARDY: Oh really?

SHEFFIELD: Yes. She was his faith advisor first and then she became a government employee toward the end of the administration. Yeah. And this clip that I’ve got here, it’s it’s Paula White referring to and I’m sure you’ve seen a talking about demonic pregnancies.

(Begin video clip)

PAULA WHITE CAIN: Hey-hey! Hey-hey! Hey-hey! We interrupt that which has been deployed to hurt the church in this season, that which has been deployed to hurt this nation in the name of Jesus! Forgive us (audience claps) for our sins. Come on, I need you guys to pray!

We cancel every surprise from the witchcraft in the marine kingdom, any hex, any [00:40:00] spell, any witchcraft, any spirit of control, any Jezebel. Anything that the enemy desires through, through spells, through witchcraft, through any way that is manipulation, demonic manipulation. We curse that! We break it according to the word of God in the name of Jesus!

We come against the marine kingdom. We come against the animal kingdom, and the woman that rides upon the waters! We break the power in the name of Jesus, and we declare that any strange winds, any strange winds that have been sent to hurt the church, sent against this nation, sent against our president, sent against myself, sent against others, we break it by the superior blood of Jesus right now in the name of Jesus!

We arrest every infirmity, affliction, fatigue, weariness, weakness, fear, sickness, any self-righteousness, any self-serving action, God. Let pride fall! Let pride fall. Let pride fall! In the name of Jesus! We command all Satan — satanic pregnancies to miscarry, right now. We declare that anything that’s been conceived in satanic wombs, that it’ll miscarry. It will not be able to carry forth any plan of destruction, any plan of harm.

(End video clip)

SHEFFIELD: All right. Yeah, so that’s that’s a really disturbing video.

So maybe there are different components there. Can you talk a little bit about some of that based on what you know?

HARDY: That’s a very typical Pentecostal moment there. The show is a big part, so it’s really about getting people into a frenzy. The “marine spirits” has become quite a big thing.

SHEFFIELD: What does that mean? What do they mean by that?

HARDY: It’s I think it’s something that came out of Latin America that I can’t remember exactly, but it’s just being adopted wholly by these people. I’ve spent a lot of time recently for something that I’m working on at the moment on people who practice spiritual warfare and believe in spiritual warfare.

And in the United States, It’s just sick people. This is people who can’t get healthcare, and it’s much easier than perhaps living with the fact that your country screwing you over– your boss is screwing you over. You’re never going to be able to afford the healthcare that you need, whether it’s mental health or some sort of physical ailment. And it’s bankruptcy or you just have no hope.

So yeah, I get why people turn to these kind of things and it’s always just asthma, diabetes, schizophrenia, things like that, people that are trying to seek help within spiritual warfare.

It’s throwing a lot of ideas at the wall and seeing which one sticks and yeah, like I said, I understand why it’s really becoming prominent in the United States, especially at moment.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And then we’ll get into that a little bit more, but I did also want to just circle back on some of the history, so after they got started on a much smaller scale in the beginning of the 20th century, they had some pretty significant growth in the Southern United States.

But things didn’t really take off until the 1960s and 70s. And one of the things that’s interesting about the history is that there was a lot of intersection with the hippie counterculture within Pentecostalism that it absorbed a lot of the ideas or phraseology in things that they were interested in.

Can you talk about that a little bit? And some of these people that brought some of those hippie ideas into Christianity, again, the original hippie movement was explicitly anti-religious in many cases.

HARDY: Yeah. So what we call the second wave of the Pentecostal movement and it was basically at the end of World War Two, some new ideas started to emerge that you didn’t have to wait for God’s blessings to come on you. You could bring them on demand, and the laying of hands and things like that really started taking off. But this really got going in the 1960s, a young man called Lonnie Frisbee, he was a hippie, took tons of LSD, had out a pretty awful life to begin with.

Like a lot of Americans, especially at that time, had gone to church and had a vaguely Christian upbringing. He went up to Haight-Ashbury and he was there for the summer of love and like a lot of people saw it for what it was, which was, there were horrific rapes, it was very consumer led.

It was a huge cultural moment, but for people that went up there, a lot of people, it wasn’t a very good time, it was quite horrific, it was this extreme, just letting everything off the leash and then being quite horrific. And so he came back down the California coast and was really looking for something more, but he was, yeah, he was a dude of his time, he had the huge beard and the flags and was playing music.

And for various reasons, came into the orbit of a Pentecostal preacher and started speaking at this guy’s church, and singing, and bringing this basically hippie culture and Christianizing it. And it turned out a lot of people wanted that: dudes in California, whole communities of surfers just going into the ocean together and getting baptized with Lonnie and some other people.

And then the movement started taking off in music and acting communities. So John Wimber, along with St. Peter Wagner, the spiritual warfare guy I mentioned earlier, John Wimber is probably the other most influential American Pentecostal thinker. He was in a band that wound up becoming the Righteous Brothers.

He actually wound up being the manager of the Righteous Brothers. And he grew up Midwestern, fourth-generation, non-believer but he had a crisis, he was just drinking and taking drugs and living this insane rock and roll life and had a personal crisis and went to a Bible study as a broken person but then took it on him and became a very hardcore charismatic Pentecostal.

And he started bringing ideas in about putting on a show, which was what Pentecostals have always been very good at, but he had this quite famous speech about ‘when I was doing the devil’s work.’

So before he was converted: ‘The devil, let me do his stuff. He let me drink and take drugs and play with women and do whatever he said. Now I’m a Christian, I want to be able to do God’s stuff.’

So he was really famous for saying ‘want to do the stuff,’ which was direct participation in the miracles. It was healing. It was all of the stuff that really gets people going about Pentecostalism. And he really changed that. So it really became Christianity on demand. And when you think about it, that really aligns very well with the changing nature of America during the sixties. Hippie culture might’ve been coming on there, but consumer culture was really getting going then as well.

And it really started riding the wave and from there we that’s how we get to churches like Hillsong, which is very much about about the products and about the customer always being right. And if you buy a ticket, you deserve to see show and all those sorts of things.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And you mentioned Hillsong, for people who’ve never heard of them, they’re primarily known for their music. In fact, they literally took their name from a concert series that they started. They weren’t originally called that.

And music is like the through line, the one thing that all of these groups really have in common is the centrality of music in the worship. Using that as a way of motivating people to create feelings that they are then told our confirmation of the truth. In other words, that feelings are reality. That if you feel good about something, therefore it is true.

One of the people that you talk about in the book, she’s a gospel singer and also a mega church pastor in Brazil who led a very strange life. Talk about her a little bit, if you could please.

HARDY: So my Portuguese and my Brazilian Portuguese is terrible.

So I think, and it’s pronounced Floor-de-leash, spelled Flordelis (dos Santos de Souza) in English. She was a congressperson, I suppose you call her as the equivalent in Brazil. She came from the favelas like most Brazilian Pentecostal preachers. She wasn’t–

SHEFFIELD: That’s the slums, the urban slums, just for those who don’t know.

HARDY: Yeah. So she was married young had three kids. Her husband split up when she was in her early thirties and she wound up taking all these children in from the favelas that might’ve been orphaned or things like that, including one young man called Anderson, who was her teenage daughter at the time’s boyfriend.

She took him in. Then she wound up getting together with him. It’s complicated trying to think of the actual, proper names there. So it was her daughter’s boyfriend who she adopted as part of a 55 children adoption. So it was her adopted son and then they wound up getting together and getting married. So she wound up marrying her adopted son who was the ex of her daughter.

She was a gospel singer and she does have quite a beautiful voice. And they went on to form a church movement and he was the pastor and they were very charismatic and very good looking. And then she ran for parliament. And then one night, a couple of years ago, he was murdered after they got home from dinner and there is a– I won’t give away the ending, but there was a very long saga. It’s still is going on in Brazil at the moment, about who killed him and why.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. It’s really a disturbing story, frankly. So she’s one of the preacher musicians that you’re talking about. But we’ve mentioned this church called Hillsong which if you’re not in a large urban area, the only chance you’ve really heard of them is like on YouTube or something like that, that you may have stumbled on some songs. So what is Hillsong? They’ve been in the news a lot.

HARDY: Yeah. So I mentioned a luck cause it’s on my mind. Most people would know them, not from YouTube, it was Justin Bieber’s church for awhile and he most notably with

SHEFFIELD: My audience doesn’t really follow Justin Bieber I’m guessing (laughs)

HARDY: I think it’s most famous for Carl Lentz, who was a Hillsong New York city preacher who got Justin Bieber at a bad moment in his life. I think he’d been in trouble for trashing hotel rooms and various things. And some NBA players started going to Hillsong New York and then Justin Bieber was born again by preacher Carl Lentz and they were photographed everywhere together, shirtless, ripped, tattoos, trendy, sunglasses, the lot. And they became most famous through that.

So it’s a very largest Australian church that started in 1983 with 45 people in the west of Sydney, where I grew up, in a small little church and they just had a very expansionist mindset from the beginning. Pentecostalism and evangelicalism, I should say in Australia is very tiny. Especially until Hillsong. There certainly were always a small amount, but in Australia it’s considered unusual. It’s considered a very American faith.

Most Australians, if they are Christian, it’s probably about 50% Catholic through Irish, Italian ancestry, and probably half Church of England through general English ancestry. So there just isn’t that culture.

But Brian Houston, the founder really wanted to expand, and they started making this really cool music. So, a former child star Darlene Zschech was the lead singer at the church as it started growing, and they started producing music that sounds like whatever’s on commercial radio at the time. And they’ve really moved through musical styles.

So when you hear things like Billie Eilish on the radio at the moment Hillsong are making music that sounds a bit like that. And they’ve just been really good at just moving with the times making music that sounds like what you’re hearing in the secular world, and it’s a way of saying that church can be uplifting. It can be good.

It doesn’t have to be like Reverend Lovejoy from “The Simpsons,” it’s boring you into submission. It’s good music that shows that you can be a Christian person in the secular world. You can have the good stuff too. They’re also very famous for their sermons, which are really uplifting, they sound much more like Tony Robbins than Pope John Paul II’s, and that’s what they really pioneered.

And it’s just about going to church feeling good, just taking two hours out of your Sunday, everyone’s busy working two jobs or studying or doing the side hustle or whatever. So it’s about you go here, you get uplifted. They’ve always said that Pentecostals preach Monday, not for Sunday.

So it’s about inspiring you to go through your next week and live your life. And then you walk out of church and that’s kind of it, you feel good about yourself. And then you get on with your day and Hillsong with the music, with the sermon style, with the fact that it’s in big cities, that it has the celebrity following, they’re really good at social media.

So, you might follow your local preacher on Instagram and every morning when you wake up without fail, they’ll have some inspirational quotes or something. And Hillsong has just been really great at understanding what modern religion is in the modern world. And unfortunately, a lot of that comes out of what we were talking earlier, which is that consumer culture, the customer is always right, people want to get something, people want bang for their buck. And so they’re buying into this Hillsong stuff and they’re getting what they want.

SHEFFIELD: The other thing is that you mentioned the consumer culture, there is a kind of a less noticed aspect of Pentecostal theology that I was pleased to see that you did pick up on, because a lot of people don’t mention it, is this idea that was really taken from health self-help books of the 1950s including Norman Vincent Peale, this idea that if you can name it, you can claim it.

What does that mean?

HARDY: Sure. That’s basically what “prosperity gospel” is. And you mentioned Norman Vincent Peale, prosperity gospel, as we know, it basically comes out of his book. He was a preacher in New York City in the early 1950s. And so he must famously wrote “The Power of Positive Thinking.” So that is, basically the idea that if you think and wish hard enough for something, it’ll come your way. And that has some that goes back to New Thought in America, in the 19th century, but he really picked up on it. And interestingly, someone who was in his congregation was young Donald Trump’s father, was quite taken with his preacher and used to take his family every weekend.

And it’s kind of wild how much you can see that today, that prosperity gospel really came out of that. The idea that you can think your way into good things. Pentecostalism is, as I mentioned earlier, it’s really not that hell fire preaching. It’s really inspirational. It’s really, self-help like, and it really just sees that positive, only you can turn this around.

Australians seem to have come up with a lot of bad ideas lately. So we’ve given you guys Hillsong and “The Secret.” Do you remember “The Secret” in the kind of early 2000s? It was like on Oprah and it’s basically, if you just wish hard enough for something it’ll come to you. But that came out of this same thing as well. And it’s what you put out into the universe, you get back. And so the idea of prosperity gospel is that it’s that you give money to your church, you pray hard enough, you do all those sorts of things and you’ll get it back manifold your way.

But I suppose really interesting to me, prosperity gospel is pretty big in the Global South. And understandably so. If you’re dirt poor and you have nothing, you sure as hell aren’t getting heads, no matter what you do in a lot of places, cause inequalities is baked in and poverty is just baked in.

So I certainly don’t blame people for taking on these ideas. But quite interestingly, in Brazil where prosperity gospel is a really big part of the Pentecostal faith there. There’s some evidence that it works People that go to evangelical churches tend to get their lives together. Like I mentioned, it’s not just your kind of stock-standard Catholicism that you might’ve grown up with.

For most people that are Pentecostal in Brazil now, you are making the choice to be born again. You were making having that moment, you were having that clear demarcation of your life before and after. And a lot of people, it is, it’s almost going to an AA or something like that. You’re making a commitment and you’re going every week.

And people in the church are noticing if you’re not there, and you get into this community and people just seem to get their lives together. And then they give testimony that because of all this, because of all their faith and their seeding and stuff, they got their life together. And so it pulls more and more people into their orbit. So there is, quite strangely, some evidence that it works.

SHEFFIELD: It’s creating a network and we should definitely talk about this aspect. The roots of Pentecostalism as this sort of revamped Christian fundamentalism, the roots were in poverty-stricken people, lower income people, that’s where it came from.

And that’s where the big growth is, especially in Latin America and Africa. It’s in some ways, the last resort for people whom societal institutions have failed, the government is corrupt or non-functioning and they can’t get a job.

So here’s this church is telling them that not only can we– whether or not you believe the idea of “seeding” works or not, the very least they are giving them some sort of social connection, which they may not have had at all before.

HARDY: Yeah. Tithing is essentially taxation, and in a lot of places, Nigeria, Brazilian favela, South Africa places like this, you’re often not really getting anything, if you are even paying tax, you’re not really getting anything from the state, whereas you are from your local church.

For starters, you’re getting healthcare by way of miracle, these promises of prosperity, the community aspect. So if you’ve got like a tiny little street vendor business, people from your church going to patronize you. Most churches, and it’s not unique to Pentecostalism, most churches might have a small medical clinic onsite. They might have some schooling, childcare, it’s really popping up as a big thing, which is essentially, you’re a single mom or a family. And, you’re working two, three jobs to try and keep food on the table. What are your kids doing after school while you’re working on these jobs, are they going to be running around in the streets?

You don’t want them doing that. If you’re going to a church where they can go to music practice one afternoon, soccer practice another afternoon, and it’s essentially becoming childcare through these churches. So they really are parasite institutions forming in a lot of places in the world.

Even in the west, this is the same as well. Because people, people are just being let down by states and quite deliberately so. And of course, then various evangelicals and Pentecostals, they get into state that are politicians will say, that’s part of the point, they don’t want the state offering these things.

They say, go to your local church and find your community and they’ll help you out. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, but that certainly most of the appeal globally is in these services and, whether by miracle or materially, that the services that the churches are giving and just helping people get through their lives, because, for most people, life sucks, it’s pretty hard. And I’m giving you a bit of uplift and giving you a bit of the stuff you need here, as well as in the next life.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And so, yeah, whether you believe you have been healed or anything like that, at the very least you’re getting an entertainment show. So in other words, if you can’t afford to go to some big celebrity concert, you can get all the lights and magic by going to church. And it’s free in many cases.

HARDY: Well yeah. And that’s, it’s the uplift of it, it’s making you feel connected to people around you, and your faith, and your pastor. And yeah, people just, people don’t want to feel like shit, sorry, I don’t know if I’m allowed to swear, but that uplift is so important and that’s such a big thing for people– going in and feeling uplifted again on Sunday morning and ready to tackle the week. And that has that, that is a really huge thing in Pentecostal churches, has been since the beginning. And it very much is now.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah and it’s something that a lot of the other faiths or sects, they’re in many cases, not really responding to these innovations that the various localized Pentecostal churches are coming up with.

But you did talk about a little bit about an Islamic congregation in Nigeria. What are they doing?

HARDY: Sure. So it’s called NASFAT. And they get very upset with me when I say that it’s born again Islam or charismatic Islam.

And that’s actually not my expression, I should say. I believe it’s Ebenezer Obadare, I believe that came from him. But yeah, so a big part of my book is really talking about how good Pentecostals have been at existing in the modern world, as we’ve talked about, and about that they very much understand that they are operating in a marketplace of ideas.

And this is something that NASFAT has taken on. So they’re an Islamic sect, and they basically got together in Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria and in Africa, it’s well over 20 million. And they saw these really massive, hundreds of thousands of people can fit into some of these big outdoor Pentecostal churches.

And they saw what was happening and the Yoruba people, who are mostly the people who live in and around Lagos, has very traditionally lived Christian and Muslim cheek-by-jowl. A lot of people will have a Muslim mother and a Christian father, and that’s just quite normal. It’s never been in conflict.

So a lot of these a lot of young people might’ve been going to mosque on Friday to make mom happy, and then church on Sunday with dad and grandma. And they realized that over time– these new Pentecostals who really only took off in Nigeria in the seventies with all the promises of healthcare by miracle and and prosperity and all these things that we’ve talked about and the good music and the uplift, all of that stuff– people slowly stopped going to mosque on Friday and they were just going to church on Sunday.

SHEFFIELD: And it wasn’t even about doctrine or anything like that. It shows just how little, and how tenuous of a connection that a lot of people have with regard to religious doctrine that they’re not there for that. They’re not there because they feel strongly that this is the truth. They’re there for other reasons.

HARDY: Yeah. I think a lot of people are probably just spiritual, so they might believe in higher power and good and evil, and things like that. And then you can get that in the Abrahamic religions and other places as well. So it was much more about the way that Pentecostalism, I think, was making people feel. And NASFAT realized this, and they saw that their numbers, a lot of kids suddenly stopped coming on Fridays.

And so they decided to, to basically ‘Pentecostalize’ a little, and again, it’s Contentious. And they don’t like saying that, especially when there is quite a hardline fundamentalists, Islamic movement in the north of the country. So they don’t want to get blown up. But they certainly took some of the ideas of having these energetic sermons.

So, you might see an imam running up and down the aisles, going ‘praise Allah’ and being very Pentecostal style, which is, as we saw with Paula White Cain earlier, that really frenetic, feel good, just getting people up, really getting into things.

And bringing people along with them, getting people up and getting people excited, and really feeling this. And they started getting more into ideas about prosperity and things like that. And it was basically, because they’ve seen faith customers, I suppose you could say, just walking out the door into the churches across the road. And this is their way of keeping people on board with them.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And I can say, having been born and raised in Mormonism though I don’t identify with that tradition anymore, there have been concerns among African Mormons that their conversions have just stopped or trickled, it’s much harder for them now to compete with Pentecostalism. And so they’ve been asking the central church of Mormon church to have more flexibility in their services and the types of things that they can do. Because that’s not the way that Mormons traditionally have done things.

HARDY: Yeah. It was funny. I was actually chatting with some friends the other day, and a friend of mine said, why on earth would anyone outside of America be a Mormon, but obviously historically understanding that religious traditions, but Mormonism really coming from its place in time in America.

But yeah, we suddenly seen that there was a very prominent Australian football player, Israel Folau, who was a Mormon, he’s from a Pacific Island background, and he’s converted to Pentecostalism now. It’s just has that amazing power. This is a great, no-so-secret of religions, right?

You don’t convert atheists, you convert people who already believe. So that’s why it’s tearing through Latin America, because there’s such a history of Catholicism there. That it’s much easier to just say to people: ‘Hey, you like God? You can come to our church, you can keep your saints and your Mother Mary and stuff, if that’s important to you, but come here and we’ll give you, Catholicism plus.

And they seem to be doing that really well with other denominations of Christianity, and indeed other religions. The head of the peak Muslim body in Nigeria said to me that the numbers are so hard to come by in such a large country, but he believes that over the last decade or something, they’ve lost a million Muslims to Christianity. And interestingly, quite a lot of the big prosperity preachers in Nigeria grew up Muslim.

And so, yeah, I think just around the world where we’re really seeing Pentecostals sweep up people who might be nominally Christian or go to other churches. And we’re really seeing moves into Asia now, particularly into the Philippines, which is a very Catholic country.

I think that has a good chance of going away of Brazil, and just Pentecostals really coming in and sweeping through and speaking to people in here and now.

SHEFFIELD: And speaking of Asia, you also did some extensive reporting about Pentecostalism in South Korea, where it’s identified as Presbyterianism, but in particular, among people who had managed to escape from North Korea. Talk about that a little, please.

HARDY: Yeah, so it’s really interesting. First of all, it’s mostly Christians and Pentecostals within that group who were running the underground railroad to get out of North Korea. And understandably so in, this is through China where, if they’re getting caught, they’re probably going to spend the rest of their life in a pretty unpleasant jail, or potentially face the death penalty.

And so it really takes a true believer to set up these organizations. Human rights workers offer the amazing work they do, are not necessarily going to put their lives on the line. So it’s really people of faith who are running these. So along the way, and it depends how much you pay, basically how quickly you get along that railroad that you wind up in Seoul, in South Korea.

So sometimes it can take years and often, the only thing that they’ll let you read is the Bible and people are coming to God in all sorts of different ways. Sometimes they just have to, someone’s not going to keep you in a safe house and risk their life if you’re not going to convert, but often people do see the light, it is a very big moment, again, that demarcation, it’s almost like being born again, just the fact that you’re leaving North Korea.

But they get to the south and they’re given some government money and some training, but life is pretty hellish for most North Korean refugees themselves. They speak a dialect that’s really outdated, it’s almost walking into America and speaking like Elizabethan English at times.

They can only really get menial work. One girl whose story that I followed, she was able to get a job at a café and then she said she didn’t know what a latte was. She’d never experienced this. So that’s about the best job that you can really get is working in a cafe and not understanding. They have horrific health problems and things like that.

The state stipend isn’t all that much, people are just overwhelmed. Seoul is a huge, technological, mega city. It’s very competitive. It’s very capitalist and people just don’t cope. The only place that they really can come together and get some semblance of community does tend to be mega churches. And then the mega churches, on the other hand, are trying to get them in the door as well, because they’re great fundraising tools.

There is a real connection between Korea and America, and a lot of Korean Americans, and a lot of Americans, evangelicals, give money to these churches to help rescue people from North Korea. And so they, they want a certain amount of North Korean refugees to be sitting at their church and say: ‘Hey, look what we’ve done.’

And so it really becomes quite an awful system. North Koreans call it showing your face or selling your face. You’ve got to turn up to church each week. They’ll give you a bit of a small stipend so that you’re seen at the church, there’s a dentist that your church will give you some free care. Women will drop off clothes and home wares and things that they’ve used and don’t want anymore so that North Korean refugees can have it.

And then what happens is this kind of becomes his life and they hate it, but it’s really, for a lot of people, that’s the only thing they can do.

So then they go church shopping, because they’ll have church services throughout the day. So you go around to all the different mega-churches and sit there for two hours and get your money, and a bit of clothes, and a bit of food. It’s pretty miserable for them, but it’s, again, it’s that sort of contradiction that I’m trying to unravel, or at least just highlight in my book. That it’s a really awful system, and in a lot of ways quite exploitative and stuff, but also at the same time, the churches are the only people providing this.

It’s often that the churches are the only game in town that are providing this kind of organized community for better and for worse.

SHEFFIELD: And there’s also a lot of cross-pollination among the American Pentecostals. So there’s this woman named Yeonmi Park who has become a big figure in American right-wing circles.

She’s a former–

HARDY: She’s the one that was on [The Joe] Rogan Experience?

SHEFFIELD: I believe so.

HARDY: Yes. And she is very famous for– embellishing stories is quite a big thing, telling people what they want to hear, just so that, you can get out of there, you’ve sold your face for the day. But yeah, she’s quite famous for making simply fantastical things that just did not happen. Because people want to hear these stories.

SHEFFIELD: And the other thing also though, is that, for a North Korean refugee in South Korea, that they feel like that if they are, if they’re seen as a Christian, that they are perceived as more integrated, less weird and strange.

And there actually is a similar dynamic in the United States as well with Latino immigrants to the United States. Historically, of course, they are coming from more Catholic countries. But a lot of the immigrants that are coming to the United States, they have been recently joining up with Pentecostal churches as a way of assimilating with working class whites that they work with in their various jobs or working class blacks that they work with.

And so, as a way of saying: ‘I’m not one of those weird Catholics with the saints and the idols,’ as the Pentecostals often will deride them as. They do it as a way of showing their assimilation to American culture and rejecting their ancestral one.

HARDY: Yeah, not necessarily rejecting, I think it’s much more in the sense that an American academic, whose name escapes me, wrote about this a few years ago and she called it “spiritual citizenship.” And I must say it’s not unique to America around the world. It’s really the faith of migrants, whether it’s internal migration or migration across borders.

But yeah, there, there is suddenly a sense within some Latino communities in the United States that Pentecostalizing and Americanizing your faith makes you a little bit more American than a little bit less deportable.

But there, once again, I don’t know if it’s this entirely cutting calculation. And it’s again that Pentecostals just seem to speak to the here and now about health and wealth, all those sorts of things that if you’re a struggling farm worker that’s just moved here from El Salvador is going to be quite important to you.

SHEFFIELD: So you, you talk a bit about this idea of, this strong Pentecostal believe in faith healing and things like that. One of the, probably the best examples, of that is this Pentecostal church in Northern California. It’s called Bethel. It’s in this smallish city called Redding. They’re becoming very well-known within the charismatic Christian world, but knowledge of them hasn’t broken through to people who are not adjacent to that. Tell us a little bit about what Bethel is and what do they do.

HARDY: Sure. So they are, they’re a mega church in Redding, which is in the Pacific Northwest. Something like at least 11% of the town are members of the church, which is really huge. They had the last mayor of the town, they have the board of commerce, anyone who’s anyone in the town is basically a part of the church. They also have a very big biblical college, they really give these kids this idea that they have the power of faith healing and send them out in the community and they’re in such a frenzy.

I wrote about one woman in the town who started an anti Bethel or Bethel-watch Facebook group just because the kids came out one day, her mother was in a wheelchair and they came out and said, can we lay hands and heal you? And she said, no. And they put their feet under the wheelchair and wouldn’t let her move on and insisted on healing her anyway. And it’s obviously quite traumatic, feeling that powerless and feeling without your consent that people are doing this to you.

And and that is, shall we say, not uncommon in the town. Charging into emergency rooms and trying to heal people. Bethel reportedly recruits from medical conferences. They get some into the town and they have a lot of doctors in the town who work in the hospitals, Pentecostal or charismatic and go to the church.

They recruit them from all over the country. So when people from various healing groups associated with the church charge into the emergency room, they don’t tell them to get out. So these people will come around and try and lay hands and heal people in the local hospitals. And that’s– the people who aren’t of faith that is pretty upsetting. And I think understandably so.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And then they also have been talking about th they’ve been trying to create a program where they teach people how to resurrect people from the dead.

HARDY: This is controversial. I don’t know if it’s a program. There is a belief that some people within the church do believe. It was quite famous with one of the Bethel singers. I think her daughter called Olive died and they were trying to bring her back from the dead a couple of years ago, made a lot of mainstream news.

They’re much more into, even though everyone denies it, but there is there’s evidence. There are varied things like grave soaking or grave sucking where you roll around and try to suck up the anointing of a deceased person into your spirit and laying hands on tombstones and things like that. That’s certainly something that is, is practiced in some circles within the church but largely denied.

When you ask them about it, people don’t really like talking about it, even though, there’s there’s a blog post from the wife of the Bethel Redding pastor Bill Johnson, from 2006 or seven talking about it. So it’s definitely a spiritual element within the church, but they do not like talking about it with outsiders.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, not to some heathen Australian like yourself.

HARDY: (Laughs) Definitely no.

SHEFFIELD: So just before we wrap up here, I do want to talk about this sort of idea of –it’s like this melding, and we’ve talked about it briefly a bit earlier– this idea that the truth and reality, everything is fungible basically.

And that, if you just believe enough, you can be healed through faith healing, or if you want something enough, you can get it. It will be given to you. Like some of them have this phrase become worthy and then you will get the thing that you that you want. And Pentecostals, this belief certainly manifests in Donald Trump’s persistent lack of concern about whether what he says is true or not. It seems like from his standpoint it doesn’t matter whether he is saying something that he knows not to be true because it’s like a spiritualized version of that phrase from “Seinfeld:” It’s not a lie if you believe it.

And we saw that also with Pentecostalism in the COVID-19 pandemic, especially through this guy named Sean Feucht and he’s a Bethel guy, he’s a musician there. He ran as a Republican for Congress. But he created a national brand for himself by deliberately holding concerts in defiance of local COVID-19 restrictions in a number of places. And that was something that you encountered as well, a lot of skepticism. You mentioned when you were talking to the Bethel people, there was this woman that was talking to you about, oh they are trying to set a narrative.

And then you asked her who is they? And what is the narrative? And she couldn’t really tell you.

HARDY: Yeah, very much. It’s about it’s about the vibe of the thing, right? It’s the sense that, and that’s why it aligns fairly well with populist politics. And it’s not just Pentecostalism, but all sorts of people.

And there’s that there’s a bigger list of questions. And it’s above my pay grade (laughs), far smarter people than me do this stuff for a living. It’s what you feel versus what someone else thinks. And Pentecostalism is really about feeling, and what your vibe is on things.

And that’s very much what’s going on with things like MAGA and just the radical kind of right in general, they’re very anti elitist and disdainful of expertise, feeling besieged by people telling you about your car’s too big and you’re contributing to climate change and you should get this vaccine and things like that.

And there’s just a lot of people who just feel like they’ve had enough of that. And Pentecostalism is certainly the theological wing, I suppose you’d say, of that movement, where it’s just saying no, you don’t have to believe in all of that. You can just believe in this. And some people prefer that.

SHEFFIELD: And what your feelings are, that is the actual truth. Common sense, whatever that means, that’s more important than, scientific studies or things that you can prove. And if somebody was, let’s say in some other Christian denomination– your subtitle of your book is how Pentecostal Christianity is taking over the world. If you’re a Christian who’s not that, what would you say to them? Or do you have any advice for them?

HARDY: It wouldn’t have advice, cause I’m just trying to, trying to be a good journalist and show, not tell. But Pentecostalism isn’t exactly a denomination, but a lot of other Christian movements that are probably really seeing the infusion of Pentecostalism into their faith– you’ll see Southern Baptist s talking much more about the Holy Ghost and things like that now. And trying to almost Pentecostalize some of their practice with the uplift and with the music and all those sorts of things. So I think it really is having an outsized influence and yeah, this is, I guess the the sadness I think for me, I know I’m not a person of faith myself, but it’s really seeing just so much in modern Christianity is really just about being that marketplace of ideas, being very consumer led. Being so much in and out of our material world.

And while it’s very understandable, particularly for the working poor that we’ve talked a lot about. It is, I think, yeah it’s my mind, I guess it is maybe unfortunate that it’s taking on such a modern consumer-led market force, neoliberal, I hate the word, but role in, in society. I’m a middle-class liberal white westerner, so maybe that’s just easy for me to say. So yeah, it’s probably not really for me to decide, but I suppose it’s just a wider question of what is religion in the modern world.

And does it need to be so worldly, I think to me is an interesting thing. But again, it’s not really, it’s not really for me to decide. Is that?

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. I guess that’s a topic for another book perhaps by another person, I guess.

All right, I appreciate the discussion today and let me just for the last time put up on the screen your book is called Beyond Belief: How Pentecostal Christianity is taking over the world.

And we’ve been talking here today with Elle Hardy, the author, and she is on Twitter at ellehardy. So you got anywhere else you want to plug before we go? Or is that it?

HARDY: Nah, this is just it for now. Yeah, I’m unfortunately I’m a journalist, I’m always on Twitter. So if ever I’m putting things out, I definitely am posting it there.

Thank you so much for the chat. It’s it’s been really cool chatting with you.

SHEFFIELD: Thanks for being here. Okay. All right. So that’s the the program for today and these are serious issues that we’re going to be talking about. How can you integrate people who have a viewpoint that the system has failed them. That’s a question that we’re going to be looking at. How can the system reform itself and how can people who see this stop people from turning to extremism? So I appreciate everybody for joining us today on Theory of Change.