10 questions with Arlene Sanchez Walsh

Arlene Sanchez Walsh is a religious historian of Latina/o religion and author of Pentecostals in America.  

Welcome! Before we begin, would you tell us a little bit about yourself, your research foci, and your new book?

My name is Arlene Sánchez Walsh, I was born in Los Angeles, California. My family comes from Rockdale, Texas, and the Imperial Valley, California by way of Durango, Mexico, where they immigrated to Texas in 1906.  I am a “failed” broadcaster who’s Plan B was history… which is why I do what I do today. I received my PhD in history in 2001 from the Claremont Graduate School, and have been doing this academic thing ever since.

My research looks at the intersections of race, ethnicity and religious identity, chiefly among Latino/a communities in the U.S in the 20th century. I am fascinated by the fluidity of religious identity and how that affects the fluidity of our other identities. Perhaps the reason I am interested in this is because in my own family, the stability of Catholicism as our default religious community has been so solid, but the fluidity of our ethnic identity has intersected many different ethnicities and races…I wanted to know what happens to religious identity throughout those intersections.

 Pentecostals in America is a culmination of about 15 years of ethnographic fieldwork coupled with a broad overview of the historical works that comprise the field. My central argument being that Pentecostalism is fascinating, thoroughly American, and deserves to be a major focus of study among American religionists, not just the purview of mostly confessional Pentecostal historians.

What were your responsibilities as an expert on Latino/a religious history for the PBS series God in America?

I was asked to show up to someone’s home in Santa Monica, CA. It was set up like a studio, and I got the sense that they were shooting bits and pieces, and really needed an overarching framework, which is what I tried to provide. In the dozens of times I have been interviewed, one of questions inevitably asked is, why are Latinos/as converting to…evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, etc.  I figured this was one of those interviews, so I have three bullet points I have memorized. I do that especially for media, since I’ve been on the editing floor more often than I have been on TV  Pretty sure all my PBS spots made it that time!

Does the rise of nonbelief in Latino/as significantly differ from the rise of nonbelief amongst other demographics in America? In what ways is the trend most similar across the board and in what ways do Latino/as stand out?

It’s similar in that its mostly young people who are leaving, the rationales are mostly the same: religion simply doesn’t’ fulfill them, they don’t need it, its irrelevant.

New research by Dr. Nahum Rivera notes that alongside young people, middle-age and older Latinos/as are also moving away from religion. That would be different from other groups. If the general numbers are correct, many respected polls note that in 1990, about 6 percent of Latinos/as were “nones” and by 2018, that was about 20 percent?

That is an amazing loss in that short of time.

My theory is most of this loss is Latinos/as leaving Catholicism, or simply not practicing Catholicism, if it’s a part of a family spiritual legacy.  There needs to be much more work done on just what “nones” means in these cases—is it not practicing, is it switching to secularism, is it switching to something else completely. There is some movement that suggests that some of this loss is also from Protestantism, but we need much more study on this phenomenon before we have any good answers to those questions.

What is it about immigration that persuades otherwise kind and rational people on both sides of the issue to often act in a cruel and irrational manner?

Kurt, it’s like you’re reading my mind, or my grant applications!  I am hoping to commence on a multi-city study of just this question.  I am hoping to examine why certain religious groups respond to heightened crisis like ICE Raids and the family detention policy and others do not.

Specifically, what is it about immigration?  We’re a xenophobic country historically, we’ve done terrible things to immigrants… passed laws to make sure they didn’t get in the country, and once there were here, we took away their ability to own land, to live in certain areas, to speak their language—this is part of our country’s DNA.

It looks uglier today because we have social media and 24-hour news cycle that continues to show you children crying at detention centers and the accompanying picture of people with signs telling them to go home, supporting Trump’s narrative that this is making the country safe.

It would be too easy to say that this is a result of our build-in racial and ethnic animus, but it seems that it is.

Latino/a immigrants for example, were subjected to decades of assimilation—some of that was banal and one could argue, actually good for them—learning English and skills that made their entry into U.S. society easier. Some of that assimilation though, especially done through church programs, was intended to erase cultural markers such as food, familial ties, and religious customs deemed “idolatrous.” It’s those programs that I think have made Latinos/as in the U.S. a perpetual immigrant… never really being fully welcomed into the U.S. unless they rid themselves of unwanted vestiges of their ethnic identities.

Why do we act irrationally? Because we are afraid of losing. In my children’s lifetime, people of color will be the majority in this country, unless we can figure out why irrationality leads not only to mean spirited behavior and speech, but violence, this crossover to a multicultural reality will not be pretty.

What have you observed about the way the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has dealt with both Latino/a immigrants and immigration policies? Do you see a difference between the approach of the organizational Church and that of the majority of its members?

There are not that many churches that have as active ministries and programs for immigrants than the LDS. The Catholic Church has the largest network of programs, offices, and ministries, mainline Protestants are also well equipped in this regard, but the LDS is really impressive.

I began studying LDS work among Latinos/as for a larger piece on Latino/a religion in the U.S. and also for my new study on how religious groups reacted to ICE raids and family detention.  LDS leadership have overwhelmingly supported compassion and a moderate solution to family detention and ICE raids, and even before, they supported a compromise on the DREAM act.

I think the institutional church, which is comprised overwhelmingly of people outside the US, realize that the U.S. church will change demographically sooner rather than later.  Similar issues that affected the Catholic Church as it lost its white majority and now is 1/3 Latino/a, may soon affect the LDS church.

The LDS church – I have noticed by mining the comments sections of church sites and newspaper sites – has its resistance to the church taking a moderate to “liberal” position on immigration, which is to say, people are mad!  As I read the comments and the responses to church leadership, immigration was a legal issue, plain and simple. To turn immigration into a moral issue was wrong, since rewarding law-breakers was the real problem.

Anti-immigrant sentiment among the laity is not an unusual occurrence though, if you scroll through just about any church’s statements that even hint at pro-immigrant opinions, you will see your fair share of venom.  Which is why researchers do it, so people can go do more productive things with their lives than tabulate how many horrible comments are on church websites!

In a 2018 article in Religion and Politics, you conclude by referencing a question Fr. Daniel Berrigan asked about the Vietnam War and ask it of readers as the thought relates to immigration: “But how shall we educate men to goodness, to a sense of one another, to a love of the truth? And more urgently, how shall we do this in a bad time?”

How would you answer the question?

Fr. Berrigan is one of my heroes. I was thinking out loud when I went looking for that quote…. thinking, during these ICE raids, when people are killed and children left parentless, and family detention, which we have not seen in this country en masse since the Japanese internment, does the Catholic Church have one more Berrigan in them? One more priest or sister who is willing to go to jail hundreds of times, become an enemy of the state, and end up in federal prison again—because their Christian faith was shaken by the death of innocents? 

I am in the process of writing a biography on Fr. Berrigan, so I haven’t concluded my own thought there, but I can try to answer your question.

Father Berrigan speaks in October 2006 at the 3rd Annual Staten Island Freedom & Peace Festival. Photo by Clara Sherley-Appel.

We educate people to goodness by creating empathy. We have an utter lack of empathy today. No one cares that you are separated from your parents for months at a time by the state because your parents broke the law, and that makes you less than human.

At the same time, we are supposed to have endless empathy for literally dozens of white-collar criminals that have robbed thousands of people of their life savings…those folks are not the mercy of our very low threshold for lawbreakers. 

Berrigan was a well-educated Jesuit, a poet, deeply affected by the suffering of others.  It is part of Catholic teaching that we carry the wounds of Christ, they don’t leave us and they must be things we carry for others…because that is what Christ did.  Our Buddhist friends believe we are all bound by clinging to false refuges of greed, hatred and delusion.

The anti-immigrant sentiment seems to be a culmination of all these false refuges and the Buddhist remedy for this is not that much different from a Christian response—compassion is the only way out of this endless cycle.

We have to be able to reach into our respective traditions and find that, because maybe we don’t have any more Berrigans in us, that would be a truly bad time.

How did you come up with the idea for “Pentecostals in America”?

I was approached years ago to write this textbook. The conventional story, the timeline, the stories of great men and women did not interest me, so I spent about a year thinking through how I could re-arrange the history of Pentecostalism in America through stories.

Since one of my arguments is that Pentecostalism works because of the incredible ability to weave a fantastic narrative, I thought it would be good to fill the book with excerpts of my own fieldwork, historical narratives, and analysis of other’s work.

Has someone from outside the “confessional corner,” as you say, of Pentecostalism ever attempted a study like this?

There have been works from folks that are close to the confessional corner, evangelical historians like Edith Blumhofer, I believe wrote a book about the same topic.

I don’t think anyone has done it thematically though, breaking convention with the idea that we as historians are wedded to a timeline and a narrative that is already there for us—we can break that, we can re-create these narrative lines, because we created them in the first place.

Why do you say the force of Pentecostal narratives is found not in the substance of claims but the narratives themselves?

Because to suggest that the claims are substantiated means one of two things:  you have empirical evidence that supports that claim. For some though, this would not be enough, there would have to be longitudinal studies done of prophecy, let’s say, and see if these results actually occurred?  Did that person marry the person the prophet said they would? Did that person’s mortgage miraculously get paid? Do we have bank statements that support what would be an incredible feat? 

Or, the other way these claims are substantiated is theologically.  God will heal you, but not right now, you keep having faith, and believe in God’s time. And if ends up that your eyesight keeps getting worse, well that is part of God’s plan as well. There is something in this struggle with your eyesight that God wants you to learn from, so, pray about that. 

Theological answers, as I mentioned in the book, are not wrong, or bad, or inadequate, but they are not historical answers.

As a historian, I don’t accept or deny those claims because that really would mean I want to make a theological argument. I don’t want to do that. I am not equipped to do that. Others should, and can, and will continue to do so, that’s just not what I think I should be doing. Why? Because then I can say, if I was a secular historian, that these stories I have heard for 20 years were the product of some mass delusion, that what ails Pentecostals is that they are mentally unstable who believe a fictitious entity communicates with them and that they can through some magical language, talk back to him. 

I can take nearly every theological/secular position I want to explain these claims, but why would I enter that argument? That’s not my playing field. I don’t want to discount those claims, but I do want to say that I’ve heard literally hundreds or these claims over the years and I really do think if they have power, it’s in the telling and re-telling of these narratives.

As Christianity becomes more global, do Pentecostals face any existential threats due to a missionary focus largely centered on the United States?

Very similar to LDS, global Pentecostalism is booming!  Nearly 500 million Christians identify with some form of Pentecostalism, or what is called charismatic Christianity. So, I think Pentecostalism is doing really well globally, in the two-thirds world: Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In the U.S., its growing because of immigration. Latino/a immigrants are largely responsible for growth in several denominations like the Assemblies of God, and the Church of God, Cleveland, TN. 

I think the next big existential crisis, for mainline Christianity, LDS, and Pentecostals, is whether the U.S. leadership is willing share or cede power to leadership in the two-thirds world… those conflicts are going to be interesting!

If you could go back in time and personally witness any event from Pentecostal history, what would you do and why?

Wow there’s so many!  Of course Azusa Street, just so I can yell “hey, people are gonna think you’re all that, and I don’t think you are!” There’s A.A. Allen.  In the pit of despair in his hotel room in San Francisco, drinking and taking pills, I wonder what he’s thinking? Does he feel guilty? He struggled with alcohol all his life after all. Does that flashback moment of his life in ministry bring him comfort, or is he done with that? 

But really, I’d like to go back to 1920s Texas and be at the meeting where the Assemblies of God folks  stripped noted Mexican evangelist Francisco Olazábal of his leadership because he’d  become too much of a threat to their power, along with his leadership, they took his printing press away. If I could go back in time, break through the time-space continuum, I’d give Olazábal another printing press.

I know time travelers are not supposed to interfere with history, but since I’m pretty sure its scientifically impossible anyway, why not redress one of Pentecostalism’s early big mistakes.

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