From Presley to Palin: Pentecost, Pop Music, and Political Power 
April 2009, Revised 2010

Last year’s elections produced two new national candidates, Obama and Palin, of two new types, and may have signaled the final collapse of mainstream Protestant Christianity as the dominant religious identity for presidential hopefuls.  I will return later for a brief moment to Obama’s spiritual journey as it evolved beyond the optimistic secular humanism of his mother, and concentrate for now on John McCain’s surprising, sometimes electrifying and sometimes inept running mate. 

Sarah Palin’s family were Irish-American Catholics (from mother Sally’s side) when they moved up to Alaska, and it appears that baby Sarah was baptized in a Catholic church in Washington State in 1964, but the Palin children and Sally started attending the Wasilla Assembly of God Church in 1972 and in 1976 were baptized or re-baptized there.  Although Palin, in my view, anticipated the political potholes that might open in the road to the White House (or wherever) from her membership in an Assembly of God Church with its discoverable denominational doctrines, beliefs, and practices, and started attending the non-denominational, less pin-downable Wasilla Bible Church in 2002, she is still, essentially a Pentecostal Christian, who grew up in the same denomination as Elvis Presley.

What theories about popular music, politics, and religion can create a storyline that includes both Palin and Presley? 

hucikabeeThe common founding myth of Rock ‘n’ Roll as an explosive post WWII combination of the blues and country music certainly goes a long way towards explaining artists like Chuck Berry and some of the way towards explaining someone like Elvis and is related to the tale we want to tell here, but leads us closer to Governors from Arkansas than Governors from Alaska.  North of the 48 states, the Palins turned themselves into something new, but it seems unlikely that they did so by borrowing or appropriating, at least consciously, from African-American culture.  And we will come back to the consciously part later.

Crediting music of the Rock Era with the release of sexual inhibition and destruction of gender stereotyping, another common storyline, would seem at first glance to have more to do with Elvis (and Bill Clinton) than Palin.  And yet . . . her biographies promote her high school success as a competitive athlete, and, like Ronald Reagan, her post-college gig as a sports announcer: two identities for a woman that once upon a time would have set off manly anxieties amongst many conservatives.  Media profiles refer to her physicality, even sensuality (likebball Elvis).  A Googling of her images turns up plenty of the photoshop-retouched misogynist semi-porn that such a female persona unfortunately stimulates, signs of a sexual shift, if not a revolution.  Macho husband Todd and hot high-achiever Sarah make an up-to-date, gender equal, and politically conservative couple.  How did we get from Funkadelic to the Republican convention?

There is a link from Presley to Palin, but to piece it together we must borrow from a broader collection of stories and trace the connections between Pentecostal Christianity, Pop Music, and Politics. 

Let’s start at the beginning around the year 45, the first Christian Pentecost.  Acts Chapter 2. 

Reading from poet Richmond Lattimore’s translation from the Greek:

            Now as the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place; and suddenly there came from the sky a noise like the blowing of a great wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.  And they saw what was like separate tongues of fire, and one settled on each of them, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in different languages according as the Spirit gave each one the gift of speaking them.

There’s lots of interesting stuff here.  But for our purposes let’s focus on three aspects that relate to North American pop music of the current era. First, although Christianity is sometimes described as the moment when Jerusalem met Athens, (so to speak, when the Jewish religious tradition met the Greek philosophical tradition) this Pentecost spirituality is physical, not idealistic or intellectual or platonic.  Second, it’s individualized, everybody gets their own tongue of fire, each person is filled with the Holy Spirit.  And third, outsiders observe that everyone looks drunk.

hogarthNow, like good Protestants, let’s skip ahead past the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages to the early 18th Century.  Here we have the bottom half of artist William Hogarth’s put-down of that tendency within Methodism that at the time was considered overly zealous by many, including Hogarth and was called Enthusiasm. This is a category that is no longer in use, in the sense that we might say someone was enthusiastic, but we don’t say someone was practicing Enthusiasm as their version of being a Methodist or a Protestant.

What was Enthusiasm?  Was it a response to urbanization and the industrial revolution?  Was it bad religion spread by demons?  Was it a breakdown of hierarchy and the rise of false prophets?  The spread of democracy?  A critique of the maybe-just-too-reasonable-to-stay-interesting-to-working-folks Church of England?  Founder of Methodism John Wesley worried about Enthusiasm but thought it was OK.  Influential New England theologian and minister Jonathan Edwards, best know today for his sermon Sinners In The Hands of An Angry God, most often disapproved of Enthusiasm.  Too emotional.  Or maybe.  .  . too much fun?

For our purposes let’s note that it was happening in England before the American Revolution, and it was physical -- it was an in-body, not out-of-body experience, it lacked prestige, and it doesn’t look too far removed from a rock concert.

Moving quickly across the Atlantic to the New World, and a few quick snapshots. 


First, the camp meetings of the shakersNorth American religious revival called the Great Awakening before the Civil War appeared to have been segregated but biracial. Separate tents at the same camp meeting.  What happened when the spirit hit the other race’s tent?


Second, the Shakers, in their heyday, up in New England didn’t just make tasteful furniture, they partook in ecstatic communal dancing, that concluded, according to at least one account, with a group circle and individuals who would be touched by the gift of the spirit and whirl around in the center.  And yes, I am suggesting, and I'm not the first person to do so, a connection between the Shakers and Jerry Lee Lewis singing Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On


Third, shouting Methodists incorporated West African ritual and Methodist Enthusiasm, and negotiated across the color line before the Civil War.  One of those West African influences was of course, call and response.  Another was a shouting circle, with individuals taking turns in the middle.  Another was spirit possession.

Now on to the birth of Pentecostalism.  And although there are other dynamics and similar stories at the beginning of the twentieth century in North America, we will focus on the archetype, and a true story that takes place in the city of Los Angeles in the earliest 1900s.

azusaWilliam Seymour is an African-American Holiness preacher, who hears about European-American Charles Parham’s doctrine that the second baptism is necessary and includes, like in the Book of Acts, speaking in tongues.  (Briefly put: the first baptism is our traditional Christian ritual with water, the second is being filled with the Holy Ghost.  Speaking in tongues refers back to the original Pentecost but commonly refers to speaking languages that no one present understands, and maybe even going beyond a verbal level of expression.)  Seymour attends Parham’s class in Topeka, Kansas but has to sit out in the hall to listen because he’s black, and then journeys on to Los Angeles to preach the doctrine of the second baptism with glossolalia and the skies crack open on Azusa Street, as the revival takes off and obliterates race, class, and gender, at least briefly.

Here’s the first paragraph of a page one story in the Los Angeles Times of April 18, 1906    Breathing strange utterances and mouthing a creed which it would seem no sane mortal could understand, the newest religious sect has started in Los Angeles.  Meetings are held in a tumble-down shack on Azusa Street, and the devotees of the weird doctrine practice the most fanatical rites, preach the wildest theories and work themselves into a state of mad excitement in their peculiar zeal.  Colored people and a sprinkling of white compose the congregation, and night is made hideous in the neighborhood by the howlings of the worshippers, who spend hours swaying forth and back in a nerve racking attitude of prayer and supplication.  They claim to have the “gift of tongues” and be able to understand the babel.

aog cogicSeymour invites Parham to LA to check out the action and even before he gets there, Parham starts distancing himself.  His version of speaking in tongues is more respectable.  And when Parham arrives he is horrified by the race mixing, especially of course, black men saving white women in a context that involves physical contact.  It’s a replay of the John Wesley/Jonathan Edwards disagreement, only this time Wesley is black and Edwards is white.
By the 1920s, the Pentecostal movement has been essentially resegregated, with the largest branches being the African-American Church of God In Christ (Little Richard) and the European-American Assemblies of God (Jerry Lee Lewis), although all the branches, as far as I can tell, openly trace themselves back to Seymour and Azusa Street.  Today, Pentecostals are the second largest group of Christians in the world, after Roman Catholics, unless you count the charismatic movements inside Catholicism and mainstream Protestantism, which might make Pentecostalism the largest Christian tendency.

So what, for our purposes here, are its most important dynamics?

First: at the core, it’s democratic.  Anybody and everybody can be touched by a tongue of fire. You don’t have to work your way through a power structure or a catechism or stages of enlightenment that imitate the social structure of the outside, secular world.  

Second: the individual experience happens in a group, not alone in the desert, in a cave, or at a monastery.  And there are formats and procedures and rituals and techniques borrowed and blended from West African and low church British worship.  It isn’t formless.

Third: in its Big Bang Azusa origins -- it is gender and race neutral.  Race quickly becomes a contested legacy, but Pentecostals by and large have had less trouble than the rest of Christianity with women or married couples in leadership. From Aimee Semple McPherson to Sarah Palin. 

Sexual orientation is another matter.  On both sides of the racial divide, Pentecostal norms permit or rather encourage behavior that would not be considered properly restrained or contained in many heterosexual, straight milieus and that could contribute to a common, anxious, vigilant and frequently don’t-ask-don’t-tell homophobia in most versions of Pentecostalism. 

Fourth: the trauma of the racial split after Azusa is remembered differently in the COGIC and AOG branches and buried but not discarded (with some historical airbrushing of Charles Parham) by white Pentecostals.  Closer to its African roots than any other North American religion practiced by European-Americans, Pentecostalism can sometimes exhibit a psychological and social rigidity, oftentimes a defensive, almost paranoid inheritance, perhaps, from the re-imposition of the racial divide.  Which is not, of course, the first time in the Christian history that race gets re-imposed.

Fifth: immediately after Azusa the practices and doctrines spread out across North America and around the world. Although outsiders might scoff at the claims of converts miraculously speaking foreign languages they have never heard before, and although there are stories about missionaries landing on foreign shores and suddenly discovering that they do not speak the native language, as they had thought - -- still, the idea of speaking in tongues is so powerful that it inspires the spread of Pentecostal missionaries who learn the native languages and push the translation of the Bible.

Pentecostalism turns out to provide a globally useful means of forming a personal psychology, or what we might call a personality, that helps or shows the individual and family unit how to function in our global economy.  It’s an updated, sanctifying riff on Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism; an urban twentieth century phenomenon that intuitively understands the crises or dead ends of trends sometimes labeled as modernism, or formalism, or urbanity, that are too bland or too mental to offer enough comfort.  If and when it works Pentecostalism can heal what is sometimes referred to as the mind/body split.

So . . .  here’s my thesis.  Rock ‘n’ Roll is the secular manifestation of the Pentecostal movement of the last 100 years.  And sometimes it’s the other way around.

bodyEither way, both promise to transform the body, rather than the group, the mind, the tribe, or the nation.  Both offer moments of instantaneous appreciation and understanding, and suspect religious or musical forms which cannot offer these transformative, instantaneous events, modalities that are “too much in the head”.

And both fill up the body with a new identity.  Here I would disagree with an interpretation of Rock Era culture as a “freeing” and “letting go” and describe it instead as a culture of becoming, of the gaining of a new sense of self, a new identity, or at least a new style, only a few secular steps away from being born again in the second baptism of the Holy Ghost.

A resurrection in the here and now can redeem the body under siege in a capitalist, or industrial or urban economy.  It makes sense – in a world where individualism is a promise and isolation is a threat – to be danced into a feeling of self-worth.  Using the words at their broadest and most positive: as religious practice Pentecostalism can address and then empower the individual as producer in the world of work; as secular practice Rock ‘n’ Roll can address and then empower the individual as a consumer in the world of leisure.

And both can overestimate the power of this transformed individual.

In aggregate, combining into a group, these new individual identities, secular or sacred or both, can accumulate a social power:  in the Civil Rights Movement, the opposition to the draft during the Viet Nam war, feminism, gay liberation, moose hunting snow-mobiling NRA members, and hockey moms.  But these new identities can also fail to cohere into a group and so make socially effective engagement difficult.  An egalitarian, tongue-of-fire-on-each-head lack of hierarchy can create a consciousness, in Christians and pop music fans, that fails to understand the ways that society is structured, because it has been formulated to ignore them -- a feat achieved more easily in North America by whites than blacks, by straights than gays – and can then transform into a negative, reactionary social response (some examples: Disco Sucks, Proposition 8, Palin’s references to the real America.) when protecting an aging, brittle so-called “new” self trying to defend against a changing social reality.

bi jaySo let's imagine three social currents over the last more or less 65 years, as they intertwine and separate. 1) Ecstatic Transformative Personalized Religion, 2) Secular Show Biz and 3) Politics. And then begin to draw the connections between the following moments.

Here’s an evening in Los Angeles, early 1950s, after Azusa, before Elvis.  Tongues of fire, filled with the spirit.  Big Jay McNeely and his fans.  Secular Pentecost.

last train book coverElvis combined and drew from many different American musical traditions: blues, and bluegrass, pre-rock pop like Dean Martin, mainstream inspirational music of the 1950s, and white and black gospel.  This is usually understood as the creation of something new.  But when the young Elvis and his girl friend slip out of their white Pentecostal church to hear the music at the black Pentecostal church (Guralnick, page 75) we can also look at it as simply crossing a false barrier, of returning to the roots of Pentecostalism and Pentecost. So in that sense, some of what Elvis accomplished was recovering something old.


wattJames Watt, Pentecostal Secretary of the Interior, beloved by Beach Boys fans for making the Boys momentarily notorious during Reagan’s first term, when he replaced them with Wayne Newton for the July 4th Concert at the Washington Mall in 1983 because they “attracted the wrong element”.  Forced to resign the next year.  But if he could have gotten away with it, Watt would have combined his free market "drill, baby, drill" environmentalism with the imposition of a conservative culture.

foxIn Back to the Future, among the many gags created by placing 1980s teenager Michael J. Fox into the 1950s, we have the Fox character saving the high school dance and his own future by playing the guitar and introducing rock ‘n’ roll.  A clever bit of business that unfortunately matched the racial resegregation of Pop that was gaining steam by the 1980s, when Classic Rock had come to mean White Rock.  By going back to the 1950s Marty McFly (played by Michael Fox) is able to straighten out his father, save his family, and replace Chuck Berry as the inventor of the Rock guitar solo, if not Rock ‘n’ Roll itself.  Here Rock ‘n’ Roll mirrors the racial relapse of Pentecostalism.


ashcroftBush Two's first Attorney General, Yale and University of Chicago grad, AOG member, son of an AOG minister and college President, architect of the Patriot Act, and the man who went out of his way to entrap and jail Tommy Chong for shipping bongs, legal in LA, to a fake head shop in Pennsylvania, where bongs were illegal.  The Truth was recorded when he was the Missouri State Auditor  While in the US Senate, John Ashcroft was one-fourth of the Singing Senators, with Trent Lott, Larry Craig, and Jim Jeffords.  Neither shows the influence of Little Richard. Or Jerry Lee Lewis.  Or Elvis.  All the Singing Senators are out of office now, but during Reagan’s first four years, they were signifiers of a moment when a rising political power could re-impose a culture past its prime.  Sometimes by singing, sometimes by locking up comedians.

sylDisco Diva Sylvester, martyr to AIDS, who grew up in the Palm Lane Church of God in Christ in South Central LA, until as he put it, “The people who turned me out turned me out.”  And who would then move on to San Francisco where he would reveal or maybe construct the link between the Castro District and Azusa Street, that is, show the connection between Pentecostalism and Disco as an expression of the Gay Liberation movement.  Towards the end of his life, Sylvester returned to the church, but did not live long enough to find a way to work out the connection from the secular back to the sacred;, as events have shown, not an easy task for divas or clergy. 

And finally, two moments from the public career of Martin Luther King Jr. First: King hit by a rock thrown during an open housing march through Chicago’s white neighborhoods.  Taking the long view, King’s Chicago campaign could be considered a success if we think of it laying the MLK in Chicagogroundwork for Jesse Jackson, Harold Washington, and then Barack Obama.  In the short run, however, it did not succeed in achieving open housing in the city of Chicago.  I was living in Chicago at the time, and in no way want to simplify the situation.  But from one perspective, perhaps, we can wonder if King and the second generation Eastern European largely Roman Catholic whites within the city’s neighborhoods were speaking the languages of two very different versions of Christianity.  And wonder if that had changed by the time Obama successfully ran for Senator from Illinois. Did King share Pentecostal roots with white Christian adversaries in the South but not with Parish oriented white Christians of the urban north?


king in memphisKing and Abernathy, at Bishop Charles Mason Temple, the headquarters church of the largest and probably oldest African-American Pentecostal denomination, The Church of God In Christ, where King gives his I’ve Been to the Mountaintop sermon the night before he is assassinated, in Memphis, Tennessee. 

Some Questions:

Did the Biblical Pentecost borrow from African spirit possession and vice versa?  After all, the Christian Pentecost takes place in Jerusalem, not Heidelberg, Germany or Glasgow, Scotland.  North Africa was the location of a lot of early Christianity.  What religious and cultural practices and dynamics around the southern and eastern coast of the Mediterranean might echo this story?

What percentage, if any, of the slaves in the New World were Christians before their capture in Africa?  Could some Pentecostal roots be more direct than we suppose?

Did the dynamic of racial borrowing, appropriation, and anxiety in North American religion intersect with that same dynamic in North American popular music before Azusa Street?  Were any of those white minstrels Methodists?  What did the music of Enthusiasm sound like?

Did Enthusiasm in the 18th Century prepare the way for Little Richard’s reception in the UK in the 20th Century?  What aspects of his music were new and shocking, and what aspects were suddenly familiar, resonating with religious practices stretching back more than 200 years?  And to ask the question behind these questions: what cultural solutions came out of Afro-America that solved cultural problems expressed as early as the early 1700s in the Anglo-Atlantic?

And so what can we say about Sarah Palin and Presley? 

palin book coverPalin as a female politician and a cultural presence is an updated and yet constricted, uncompleted Elvis.  Confident, calculating, and comfortable in an apparent marriage of equals, she is able to publicly project religious righteousness adequately masked as secular rectitude mixed with a photogenic feminist physicality seeping sexuality out of all corners. Ill-equipped so far, unlike Elvis, to draw from the deeper well of multicultural collaboration buried in her Pentecostal heritage – which is, at the same time, just across the next border -- she stays unable to reach beyond her reinvigorated portion of the Republican Party base, and can unpleasantly project those (self-imposed) frustrations.  So . . .  she can excite her fans as an up to date version of “one of us” while appearing to outsiders as an unsophisticated hick, a dangerous miscalculation.  For now.

obama book coverObama perceives her potential and her threat, yet may be unable to respond.  Forced during the primaries to cut his organizational ties to Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Trinity United Church of Christ, the largest congregation in a largely white denomination that traces back to the Puritans, -- an African-American congregation that took off in membership and influence when it switched its musical culture from middlebrow to Pentecostal -- his Sunday morning conversion at Trinity remains a pivotal moment in his autobiography.  (See page 295) Blocked from accessing this Pentecostal material for fear of appearing an angry or uncontrolled Black man, he may be trapped inside a competent, elite, and therefore somewhat remote personna, unable to compete with Palin on their shared terrain..

She is a new configuration produced inside a powerful American cultural current with a global reach, one that also played a lesser but crucial role in the creation of Obama.  She’s pushed beyond the external and internal patriarcal boundaries of John Ashcroft and James Watt.  Can she, or some other new Palinetic political or pop culture personality push further and become the feminist Pentecostal Ronald Reagan of the 21st Century?  Or at long last, the female Elvis?  Or does she prefigure her own collapse and the appeal of another round of Ashcroft era repression?  Or all of the above?


Tom Smucker

Originally presented at the April 2009 Experience Music Project Pop Conference, Seattle, Washington.

Revised 2010