F. Anthea Butler Attacks Bruce Wilson

From Sarah Posner’s FundamentaList:

Bruce Wilson is the blogger who discovered the tape of John Hagee’s sermon about the Holocaust being part of God’s will — which led to McCain’s rejection of Hagee’s endorsement. Now Wilson has written a post about the “weird theology” at Palin’s Assemblies of God church. Wilson’s piece, which attempts to tie Palin to numerous strands of Pentecostalism and charismatic evangelicalism, some of them controversial, appears to be an effort at tit-for-tat for the right’s demonizing of Obama over his relationship with Jeremiah Wright.

But a religion professor and expert on Pentecostalism tells me that if Wilson had turned that piece in as a paper, she would have given it an F. Anthea Butler, professor of religion at the University of Rochester, said that the piece “mixed up a whole bunch of stuff” and that Wilson “doesn’t know enough about any of it” to accurately discuss how influential various guest speakers at her churches may have been on Palin’s viewpoint. “You can see every heretic known to man speak in every Pentecostal church,” said Butler, but that doesn’t mean the average person in the pews buys the theology. “[Wilson is] conflating a couple of things to make them sound dangerous,” said Butler. “I think he’s confused.”

However, neither Butler nor Posner deign to tell us how exactly Wilson is “confused”. I would have avoided the polemical term “weird”, and the article linked by Posner does in places move somewhat awkwardly between discussing Sarah Palin and her churches and providing a wider introduction to the “Third Wave” of neo-Pentecostalism. There is, though, also a lot of interesting information that goes much deeper than the baffled exoticising of standard Pentecostal practices that was seen in the mainstream media when the Palin VP announcement was made (as complained about by Michael Gershon). And like a lot of other investigative blog pieces, Bruce’s piece is a work-in-progress which gives pointers for others to follow up; this is a general distinction between on-line blog journalism and on-paper research, including – Butler take note – academic papers. Jeff Sharlet understands this, commenting on another article by Bruce:

There’s a lot more work to be done here, but Bruce has gotten a great start…Reporters meanwhile, need to ask questions about these possible connections; editors need to think about longer features on the Latter Rain and Third Wave movements. I should add that Bruce mentions my work on Ted Haggard and New Life church, included in my recent book, The Family. One of the mistakes I made, though, was in taking too seriously Haggard’s disavowal of Latter Rain leader C. Peter Wagner, with whom Haggard built the World Prayer Center (also discussed at some length in The Family). As Bruce is beginning to piece together, Wagner’s theological influence reaches much further than those who praise his books.

The reference to Jeremiah Wright in Posner’s piece is also off-base. Bruce (like me) is interested in the role of the Christian right in American politics. That means investigating Palin’s church associations, and what others may have written about Wright and Obama is neither here nor there. Besides, although it would certainly be wrong to “demonize” Palin in the way that Obama was attacked from some quarters, it should also be remembered that Wright indeed has some alarming views (I wish I’d picked up on some of these when I wrote about Obama and Wright back in 2004!), and it was reasonable that Obama should have had to clarify the extent to which he identifies with them – and to disavow some if he wanted to be taken seriously. American politicians are learning that associating with certain churches and seeking endorsements from particular pastors can carry risks and costs as well as electoral benefits. Democratic strategists might think it’s better not to make anything of Palin’s religiosity lest it offend swing voters or re-ignite the Wright controversy, but that’s their problem, not ours.

I found this paragraph in Bruce’s piece to be particularly significant:

…Mike Rose, senior pastor of Juneau Christian Center has a long relationship with Rodney Howard-Browne, credited with being the instigator of the outbreak of ‘Holy Laughter’ around the world, including the Toronto Airport Revival. Thomas Muthee visited Wasilla Assembly of God and gave 10 consecutive sermons at the church, from October 11-16 2005. As both Palin and Wasilla AoG Head Pastor Ed Kalnins have attested, Thomas Muthee ‘prayed over’ Sarah Palin and entreated God to “make a way” prior to Palin’s successful bid for the Alaska governorship. Muthee made a return visit to the Wasilla Assembly of God in late 2008. Thomas Muthee’s Word of Faith Church is featured in the “Transformations” video which details an account on how Muthee drove “the spirit of witchcraft” out of Kiambu, Kenya, liberating the town from its territorial demonic possession and enabling a miraculous societal transformation. The “Transformations” video set is used as an argument for social improvement through spiritual instead of human means, and as the best method for fighting corruption, crime, drugs and even environmental degradation.

This suggests that Palin is hardly “the average person in the pew”. She’s enjoyed a religious anointing from Muthee; why should we not think that she “buys the theology”?

(I blogged Palin’s churches here)