American Prosperity Gospel Makes South Sudan “Ripe for Exploitation”

Count the South Sudan as another burgeoning outpost of Pentecostalism. The country, created after a national referendum to split from its northern neighbor earlier this year, has produced a fascinating alliance of politicians and evangelical Christians, according to the Public Radio International program The World.

In yesterday’s broadcast on the role of evangelical Christianity in South Sudan, the reporter Matthew Brunwasser focused on the role of “evangelical” Christianity in getting out the message about genocide and war in Darfur and Sudan, and the missionary work being done in the country.

The broadcast however, does the easy media conflation of “evangelical” with “Pentecostal.” Evangelical may be an easy media catch-all for all “born again” Christians, yet the difference between Franklin Graham’s charity Samaritan’s Purse (evangelical) and the Juba Christian Center, a Pentecostal church also profiled in the piece, is bigger than the broadcast might suggest.

Where Samaritan’s Purse is in the business of saving souls, providing sustenance, and engaging in politics on the sly, the Juba Christian Center is going to have a more far-reaching impact on the Sudanese who choose to follow Pentecostalism. It does the humanitarian work that Samaritan’s Purse does, but it also has the benefit of being closer to the indigenous population.

What’s more, as the broadcast made clear, the believers at this Pentecostal church also consume the preaching of American Pentecostal media stars like T.D. Jakes and Benny Hinn. Anytime someone says, as a woman interviewed for the program did, that Benny Hinn is the man because he’s on TV, well, that’s an issue. Add in the prosperity gospel, and you have a potent mix that will surely change the scope of how Christianity will become appropriated in tandem with the political in South Sudan.  

The long-term story will be: how will the rise of Pentecostalism change the fundamental identity of this new nation? Will it fuse into a religio-political environment where prosperity, government, and religion mix together as a potent stew for leadership? Will the growth of churches like the Juba Christian Center, the prosperity gospel, and American televangelism plant the seeds, as it were, for this new nation to cultivate religious hucksters eager to cash in on souls to be saved? Or will the situation in South Sudan become similar to Brazil, where cultural religious traditions such as Candomble are demonized, and Pentecostalism is lauded as the progressive religion not connected to a difficult history?

I predict all of the above. The fears of the Sudan Ecumenical Forum that South Sudan is “ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous preachers” are well founded. The die has been cast, and the relationship that was started in order to stop genocide will be a relationship that will fundamentally shape the future of the new nation of South Sudan.