Pentecostals and Sexy-Time
John Steinbeck opened his 1939 classic Grapes of Wrath with a pentecostal evangelist who explained, “I use ta get the people jumpin’ an’ talkin’ in tongues, an’ glory-shoutin’ till they just fell down an’ passed out….An’ then-you know what I’d do? I’d take one of them girls out in the grass, an’ I’d lay with her.” Representations of pentecostals in popular culture throughout the twentieth century, from Upton Sinclair’s Eli Watkins to Sinclair Lewis’ Sister Sharon Falconer to Steinbeck’s Jim Casey have all blended faith with fornication.
And, of course, these novelists have not been far from the mark. Pentecostal/charismatic leaders Charles Parham, Aimee Semple McPherson, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, and Ted Haggard were all involved in highly publicized sex scandals. How should we understand this phenomenon? For years I have been trying to understand if there is a relationship between pentecostal/charismatic faith and sex. So far I have three theories:
Unlike many other evangelical groups, pentecostals/charismatics are much more affirming of the body. Their holistic worship and embrace of the physical makes them more susceptible to physical temptation than more ascetic, body-denying groups.
Pentecostal/charismatic leaders are no more prone to sexual indiscretions than any other leaders. However, they have been better at using mass media to create celebrity ministers who thrive in the spotlight. Although all religious movements have occasional errant leaders, because so many pentecostal ministers are in the limelight, their foibles receive a disproportionate amount of attention.
Pentecostals are notoriously independent and they generally refuse to submit to any outside authority or oversight. When you combine their independent streak with the power and money that comes with the kinds of religious empires that they have been so good at building, trouble may be inevitable. Sex certainly seems to come with power and money in many other parts of American culture.
But I am still not sure that I buy any of my own theories. Why do pentecostal leaders have so much trouble with sex????