Pentecostals Could Influence Swing States

Thursday, 17 Jul 2008 02:19 PM

By William McKenzie, The Dallas Morning News

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When Reunion Arena closed last month, most of us in Dallas focused on the end of an era for the basketball showcase. But the religious revival held at Reunion on the night of its last hurrah also had plenty to say about the future, politically speaking.

According to Pastor Lynn Godsey of Ennis, Texas, the evangelistic rally brought in 13,500 largely Latino worshipers, half of whom he estimates were Hispanic Pentecostals. Defined by their preference for healings, miracles and speaking in tongues, Latino Pentecostals are a fast-growing branch within the larger world of Latino evangelicals. (Not all evangelicals subscribe to speaking in tongues, healings, direct revelations by the Holy Spirit and miracles.)

From a political standpoint, Pentecostals are worth watching, including Latino Pentecostals. Presidential elections are increasingly broken down into winning niches of voters, particularly in swing states.

When you consider where Pentecostals are most concentrated, they certainly could be influential in swing states. A New York Times breakdown shows they congregate the most, percentagewise, in Arkansas, Oklahoma and West Virginia. After that, it's Arizona, Virginia, Texas, Alabama, Kansas and Oregon.

Texas is not a swing state. Neither is Oregon. But some of those others sure will be in play this fall.

Consider West Virginia. It's absolutely a swing state, where every vote matters to the McCain and Obama camps.

According to the Times map, 14 percent of West Virginians are Pentecostals. Southern Methodist University political science professor Matthew Wilson attributes that number to it being a mountain religion, coming out of Appalachia and the Ozarks.

The backroom strategists for John McCain and Barack Obama can hardly overlook such a sizable part of a state they both desperately want - and need - to capture.

But Pentecostals aren't as reliable voters as Baptists or Catholics. Pentecostals tend to live more on the margins of society, so they haven't always been strongly connected to the political universe.

What's more, they've traditionally put a premium on personal piety and second-coming theology. That combination usually leads believers away from a Reinhold Niebuhr-like view of establishing justice in a sinful world.

But some of those traditions may be changing, and that's important for this fall's election. John Green, who studies religious voting patterns for the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, says Pentecostals' political views are in flux.

They still emphasize traditional families and the sanctity of human life. But young Pentecostals are looking at a broader range of issues, like reducing poverty.

That's been the message I've heard in talking to Pentecostal pastors. They describe younger Pentecostals as being both pro-life and pro-women's rights. Or, as Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference told me, they combine a social conservatism with an economic populism.

What does all this mean for the fall election?

John McCain has the edge among Pentecostals, but this is not a done deal.

McCain's strategists would be smart to emphasize to Pentecostals his belief in conservative social values and his dedication to finding a better set of immigration laws. The values part would reassure Pentecostals that he won't unravel the social order. And his devotion to fairer immigration laws will show he's not one of those Republicans who is out to demonize immigrants, some of whom worship in Pentecostal iglesias in cities like Dallas, Los Angeles and Chicago.

As far as Barack Obama goes, he could play to the younger Pentecostals who have an interest in a fairer economy. And there are black Pentecostals he could win over in large cities.

Bishop T.D. Jakes' Potter's House in Dallas has a Holy Ghost-flair, as do a number of charismatic black congregations. In swing states, those voters become part of the mini-universes he needs to win.

The bottom line is I'd bet on McCain prevailing among Pentecostals. But I wouldn't bet everything I own. Pentecostals, especially the Latino Pentecostals who can fill up arenas like Reunion, are going to be a fascinating niche vote to follow.

William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News.

Copyright 2008. The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. Reprinted via NewsCom.

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