Statement by Dan Barker Co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation
I used to be an Assembly of God preacher, before I saw the light and left that wacky world. Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin has been a member of an Assembly of God church for most of her life, and has not distanced herself from that theology. Many Foundation members have urged me to disclose what I know about those beliefs, from first-hand experience. My ordination was from a closely related Charismatic church, but the Glengrove Assembly of God in La Puente, Calif., hired me as an associate pastor in the mid 1970s, where I preached, led the choir, and trained young people in evangelistic outreach.
I loved it. We were so special! We had the correct interpretation of Scripture and a vivid confirmation of the Holy Spirit telling us we were indeed living in the end times and chosen by God himself to be his humble servants fighting a holy war for the souls of men. God loved everyone, of course, but he loved us even more because we had a real, personal relationship with Jesus. What a privilege to be on the front line of God's army, in the right denomination, in the right time of history.
The Assemblies of God are the largest pentecostal denomination in the world. The word pentecostal" comes from an event that Christians believe happened on the 50th (pentecost) day after Passover, seven weeks after Easter. According to Acts 2, a "rushing mighty wind" blew over the Christians and "tongues of fire" sat upon them. They were "filled with the Holy Spirit" and began to speak in other tongues. Everyone thought they were drunk, but Peter said, no, this is the fulfillment of prophecy. He told the Jews to "repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins." This was the day that the "good news" (evangelion) was first preached, with "about 3,000 souls" converted on the spot. Pentecost was the birthday of evangelism.
While most Christian churches concentrate on God and Jesus, the pentecostals go a step further. Besides being "born again," they have a second religious experience: baptism with the Holy Spirit. "Spirit filled" Christians are post-graduate believers, a class above the merely saved. They believe they are in direct communication with God, not figuratively or merely through reading the bible. They feel that they are talking with God and that he answers. When I spoke in tongues and prayed "in the spirit," I felt the confirming presence of a wise and loving "person" in my mind and heart. It felt wonderful. It felt special.
It is spooky.
Pentecostals are "gifted" people. Besides speaking in tongues, they also practice other "gifts of the spirit" (charismata) described in the New Testament, such as "interpretation" of tongues, prophecy, faith healing ("The prayer of faith will save the sick," James 5:15), miracle working, and discernment of "evil spirits." I saw some "casting out of spirits" (exorcisms) in that church. The Assemblies of God practice a direct worship, often with tears and raised hands, in intimate "spiritual" (emotional) connection with the creator of the universe. They are in love with Jesus and think he has a special love for them.
Most pentecostals are fundamentalists, believing that the bible is perfect and true, the only source of truth. I did not know a single Assembly of God believer who was not a young-earth creationist who believes dinosaurs roamed this planet a few thousand years ago. They believe in the non-metaphorical existence of demons and Satan (who, according to the book of Revelation, is a seven-headed dragon) who are roaming the earth luring vulnerable souls into evil. They believe in a historical talking snake and donkey, and in the existence of witches, wizards, and evil creatures that can infect not only an unlucky individual but an entire geographical region, which must be purged by prayer.
Most pentecostals believe that Jews who do not accept Jesus are going to hell. (They believe this about all nonChristians, of course, but the New Testament focuses strongly on "the Jews.") They preach that homosexuality is a "sin" that can be cured with prayer. Life begins at conception and abortion is murder, they insist--although, ironically, the bible (which reports that life begins at "breath") says nothing about abortion, and neither Jesus nor Paul ever addressed the matter.
Pentecostals feel so special. Every generation of Christians has produced believers who thought they were living in the end times, and today's pentecostals are no different. Jesus said "behold, I come quickly," and told his disciples that the end would happen in their life times. (We are still waiting. It seems to me that 2,000 years is not "quick.") They believe in an approaching Armageddon, a fiery end to the world, which they will escape in the Rapture. And that is what makes them so dangerous. They don't really care about this world. They don't want peace on earth--they want the violent biblical prophecies to be fulfilled so that they can get to heaven and be rewarded with eternal life. They want to say, "We told you so!" One of the pastors at Sarah Palin's church announces that "the storm clouds are gathering." Another of her Assembly of God pastors reports that "Sarah is a great woman. A religious woman."
When Sarah Palin told her Assembly of God church earlier this year that the war in Iraq is "a task from God," she was not speaking allegorically. As a pentecostal fundamentalist, she has to believe, as I used to preach, that we are indeed living in the end times. This is no harmless delusion. In America there is "no religious test," and anyone can run for high office, as an individual, but that doesn't mean we must not fear religious zealots exercising control. Although the First Amendment guarantees private citizens the "freedom of assembly," the establishment clause requires that the government should be free from the Assembly of God.