Pentecostals climbing South Africa's economic ladder
Pentecostals deserve more credit for South Africa’s recent socio-economic success than more celebrated programs like black-empowerment policy and affirmative action, according to consultant and sociologist Dr. Lawrence Schlemmer.
Schlemmer just completed a research project funded by the Centre for Development and Enterprise to understand the social role of Pentecostals in South Africa. He highlighted some startling findings for the journalists attending the Oxford Centre’s conference on Media & Religion in Johannesburg.
Dr. Schlemmer comments on why journalists ignore Pentecostals and religion
“What we found with religion today is certainly not what Karl Marx said it was, and that is a form of alienated consciousness, a soporific, something that puts people to sleep, a drug that takes people’s mind off the real world and the most important issues,” Schlemmer revealed.
“It’s not a soporific. It does not produce false consciousness. But it does seem to cushion society from the harsh current realities and foibles of politicians.”
Conventional wisdom has it that Pentecostalism is either of minimal benefit to the poor or it retards their economic development. But Schlemmer found that Pentecostals do want to improve themselves and their communities, and they are succeeding.
Schlemmer did not suggest that black-empowerment or “secular” policies are ineffective. He credits government-sponsored programs with helping to quickly create the new middle class. But Schlemmer says that Pentecostal churches move more people up the lifestyle ladder even more quickly.
The secret, he says, seems to be in the “flavor of self-reliance” and overall optimism that Pentecostal theology produces in its adherents. A religious package that includes stern moral values and ascetic lifestyles results in Pentecostals who are better-than-average employees, Schlemmer found. And financial habits such as tithing to the local church encourage families to take care with money. The result is collective economic progress that outpaces other groups with similar starting points.
But this story can’t be found in the news. Media fail to report this positive side of Pentecostalism, said Schlemmer, because they aren’t looking for it. And even if they were, they might not see it, he says, since media are “singularly blind” to religion.
Schlemmer blames secularized universities for producing journalists who cannot see the importance of religion. He diagnosed this blindness after conducting training with a “large newspaper,” which he declined to name, about finding new reporting directions.
- “Whenever the issue of reporting on religion came up the journalists seemed to take the attitude that, ‘Well, you know, that’s not really relevant. We need to get to the real issues!’” said Schlemmer.
- “If I organize a debate on democracy, they will cover it. But if I organize a debate on something to do with the religious commitments of people in a certain area, I doubt the newspapers would arrive at all.”
Schlemmer says South Africa’s institutions, media included, will continue to falter in addressing religious groups because of a “God-shaped hole” in the country’s public life. He doesn’t want public institutions to take sides in religious debates. He simply hopes to see more space created in government, education and media for religious expression.
But Schlemmer made it clear that even if his research had shown that all the negative stereotypes about Pentecostals were true, they still merit attention. His colleagues in sociology, he said, agree that no movement in recent history compares with Pentecostalism when its impact is measured on a mass basis.
“I’m not suggesting that these issues that I’ve investigated here are the reason why religious faith is important. Religious faith is important anyway,” he said.
“Economists can prattle on and on and on about what is required of development in the world,” Schlemmer concluded, “and it never occurs the them that some of the most dramatic impacts on development have occurred not because of economic processes, but because of the results and consequences of religious experiences.”