Pentecostals and Sexy-Time

Pentecostals and Sexy-Time
Matt Sutton

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????


John G. Turner said…

Is that a future book title?
deg said…
I think those are some interesting ideas, Matt, but I'm not sure it has much to do with their Pentecostalism, per se. There's plenty of Pentecostals who don't engage in this sort of activity, so I guess I'd need some data on sexual activity being higher among Pentecostals in general to sign off on it.

Celebrity, it seems to me, is the key variable for these televangelists and mega-pastors. Like professional atheletes, arena rockers, or Washington politicians, these folks have a great deal of money, star power, influence, charisma, and often willing admirers. Mix those together and you've got more chances at "sexy time" than the average Joe or Jane.

I still wonder why they risk it all on various trysts, given their high profile and standing as "holy men" for their flock, but there's no lack of literature and music out there about why certain folks don't keep - as my upright Methodist grandmother put it - "their horsies in the barn" when it would be in their best interest to do so.
Manlius said…
Good thoughts.

I'd go with the power and prominence theory. Pentecostal leaders have a lot of power, and with that power comes, shall we say, "opportunities". Notice that the sexual sins they're prone to are often arrogantly excessive or weird. In this manner, some politicians (Clinton, Sen. Craig, Spitzer, etc.) also come to mind.

The Catholics have obviously had their own unique problems with priests and sexual sin, and I suppose their unique clergy culture has played some part in it.

I would suppose that your run-of-the-mill Protestant minister is more likely to have your run-of-the-mill discreet affair. I'm not saying that isn't bad, as many families are terribly devastated by such behavior, but the lesser flamboyance of such is less noteworthy.
Sam MB said…
This is older than Pentecostalism. Frances Trollope circulates a similar gossip about a revivalistic preacher run out of town for rumors of sexual indiscretion: 9 or 10 months later, there were seven fruits of his labors among young women. Trollope says it's because these ministers have special power over younger women, comparing that power to the power of aristocrats in Europe. This is ca. 1829.
Andy Walpole said…
Although not a very religious country we have our own Pentecostal church ministers committing adultery over here:

I don't think that there is anything in itself more likely to cause a Pentecostal minister to commit adultery then, say, a Catholic priest.

It is the case though that they tend to have a high profile, so when they do fall for the "sins of the flesh" then their actions become more noticeable to the public.

There's no figure as wretched as a hypocrite...