The Pentecostalisation of Public Spheres

On 14 March 2014, a research symposium on ‘The Pentecostalisation of Public Spheres in Africa and China’ was held at the University of Leeds, hosted by the Centre for Religion and Public Life. The rationale behind this theme is that Pentecostalism, an umbrella term for rapidly growing charismatic movements in global Christianity, is often argued to be a public religion par excellence. It refuses to accept the marginal and privatised role which theories of modernity as well as of secularisation use to reserve for religion. Pentecostal Christianity manifests itself publicly, engages with social and political issues, and in the meantime reshapes the public and political sphere by its dualist religious epistemology in which the world is the scene of a spiritual battle between God and the Devil. The symposium explored these religious dynamics, with case studies in a variety of African and Asian contexts presented by academics from all over the UK (Edinburgh, London, Oxford) and overseas (Kenya, Hong Kong), resulting in stimulating discussions. What follows below are my opening remarks at the symposium.

Opening remarks

More than 20 years ago, in September 1993, a conference was held here at the University of Leeds on the theme ‘The Christian Churches and Africa’s Democratisation’ – organised by Paul Gifford and Adrian Hastings. So when we gather today for a research symposium on ‘The Pentecostalisation of Public Spheres in Africa and China’, we stand in a tradition here at Leeds of studying Christianity in relation to questions of politics and public life. Yet as much as the title of today’s symposium marks continuity with that conference 20 years ago, it also reveals some striking discontinuities. These say much, not just about the specific focus of our programme today, but also about the focus of the field as a whole, and how this has developed over 20 years time. As a way of introducing the overall theme of our symposium and putting it in a broader historical and academic perspective, I’d like to briefly reflect on three major differences between this theme and the theme of the 1993 conference.

First, the general focus on Christian Churches in Africa that is explicit in 1993 is replaced by a more specific focus on Pentecostalism. This reflects the broader trend in scholarship on African Christianity, which over the past 10-15 years has developed a major interest in (neo-)Pentecostalism as a rapidly growing, fascinating phenomenon on the religious scene in Africa. Its dramatic growth in recent decades is now widely considered a signal that ‘the appropriation of Christianity in Africa has entered a new phase’ (Meyer 2004, 448). The 1993 conference featured only one paper on Pentecostalism – Ruth Marshall’s “‘God is not a Democrat”: Pentecostalism and Democratisation in Nigeria’. Also David Maxwell included Pentecostal churches in his discussion of the political role of Christian Churches in Zimbabwe. All the other papers focussed on the role of mainline Protestant and Catholic Churches (apparently, the African Independent Churches were not considered as playing a relevant role in processes of democratisation at all). Commenting on the absence of Pentecostal churches in discussions at the conference, Terence Ranger later writes that Marshall’s and Maxwell’s papers at least partly inserted those elements of African Christianity that seemed to have been excluded from the debate. Ranger then briefly highlights the significance of this inclusion: Pentecostalism – different from the mainline churches – offered ‘a form of modernity which contrasted sharply to that of the secular state’ (Ranger 1995, 32). Indeed, the link between Pentecostalism and modernity, and the idea of Pentecostalism as an alternative narrative of modernity in Africa, since then has emerged as a major area of research.

Second, the focus on democratisation that characterised the 1993 conference is now widened into a broader interest in ‘public spheres’. Partly this reflects historical developments: in the late 1980s/early 1990s, many African countries went through a process of political liberation, not from colonial rule but from the dictatorships and authoritarian systems that had emerged after independence. In many cases, as the papers of the conference demonstrated, mainline Protestant and Catholic churches and their leaders played a crucial role in the process of political transition. At that time, Paul Gifford (Gifford 1995, 5) contrasted the role of the mainline churches ‘that have challenged Africa’s dictators’, to what he calls ‘the newer evangelical and Pentecostal churches’ that opposed political reforms and supported dictatorial regimes. This view has later been nuanced by Terence Ranger (and also by Gifford himself). According to Ranger, against the background of weak African states experienced by their citizens as ‘violent, bankrupt and immoral’, Pentecostal-charismatic churches contribute to the development of a democratic culture by encouraging individual agency and participation: as a result of their contribution, ‘the personal has become the political, and the moral has become the democratic’ (Ranger 2008, 22, 28).

In her fascinating book Political Spiritualities (2009), Ruth Marshall offers a study of the political significance of (neo-)Pentecostal churches in Nigeria along similar lines. The key questions in her book and similar recent scholarship, as well as of today’s symposium, are not so much whether and how Pentecostalism contributes to democracy, but how democracy itself is appropriated and re-negotiated, and how the political is re-imagined, by Pentecostal Christianity and its ‘political spirituality’. Marshall’s analysis specifically focuses on how the Pentecostal programme of born-again conversion is concerned with moral subjectivation, that is, ‘the transformation and control of individual conduct and the creation of a particular type of moral subject’ (Marshall 2009, 131). This is essential to their broader political project, because the transformation of individuals is considered key to healing the land and building a ‘Christian nation’.

As much as Pentecostalism is concerned with individuals, it presents a political theology in which the nation as a whole needs to be born-again and dedicated to Christ, and in which politics is considered a primary field of the cosmological battle between God and the Devil. Hence the discourse of spiritual warfare as a way to combat the influence of Satan in the life of the nation enters the public domain, for example in debates on Islam and, as we have recently seen, homosexuality. In this way, Pentecostalism does not just manifest itself as a public religion in contemporary African societies, such as through a skilful use of modern media. More fundamentally, it reshapes the public sphere itself into a spiritual domain, challenging classic sociological distinctions such as between public and private, religion and the secular. Thus Pentecostalism presents a major transition from Jurgen Habermas’ original notion of the public sphere as a sphere for critical and rational debate, independent from either the state or the market.

Today’s theme of the Pentecostalisation of public spheres draws attention to these processes of negotiation and transformation. It also highlights the multiplicity of public spheres in contemporary societies, and related to that the different levels at which Pentecostalism ‘goes public’ – not just the level of what usually is called ‘Politics’ in a narrow sense of the word, but much broader and more diverse: from public space to the mass media and the digital blog sphere. A narrow focus on democratisation, as in the 1993 conference, wouldn’t suffice to explore this complex dynamic, of which the presentations today will discuss several examples.

Third, an obvious difference with the 1993 conference is the geographical scope which has broadened to include not only Africa but also China. The reason for this is partly, but certainly not only that the University of Leeds is building a relationship with the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where Pentecostalism in China is an emerging research interest in the Department of Cultural and Religious Studies. A focus on Africa and China enables a valuable comparative perspective between both regions. This is vital because Pentecostalism is a transnational network and discourse, and is intricately related to and part of processes of globalisation. At the same time it has very different historical trajectories and finds itself in considerably different cultural, religious and political situations in both regions. How this shapes the different ways in which Pentecostalism presents itself as a public religion in African and Chinese contexts is a question that we begin to explore today. I say ‘begin’, because we hope that this research symposium is the beginning of future research collaboration around this theme, for which in a workshop yesterday we already explored several opportunities. I hope you will all enjoy the presentations and discussions today, find them enriching and stimulating, also for your own studies and work in this area and in related fields.


Gifford, Paul. 1995. “Introduction: Democratisation and the Churches.” In The Christian Churches and the Democratisation of Africa, edited by Paul Gifford, 1–13. Leiden: Brill.

Marshall, Ruth. 2009. Political Spiritualities: The Pentecostal Revolution in Nigeria. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Meyer, Birgit. 2004. “Christianity in Africa: From African Independent to Pentecostal-Charismatic Churches.” Annual Review of Anthropology (33): 447–474.

Ranger, Terence O. 1995. “Conference Summary and Conclusion.” In The Christian Churches and the Democratisation of Africa, 14–15. Leiden: Brill.

———. 2008. “Introduction: Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in Africa.” In Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in Africa, edited by Terence O Ranger, 3–36. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

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