Are Pentecostals Sex-Crazed?
Outsiders added fuel to the fire. Radical evangelicals perennially claimed that Holy Ghost folk engaged in sexual practices too vile to detail in polite company. Novelists and movie producers soon joined in, shrewdly sensing that pentecostals—who lacked the financial and legal resources to fight back—offered a lucrative source of sizzling plot lines. So it was that John Steinbeck would forever typecast apostolics as poor, illiterate, and licentious in his 1939 classic, The Grapes of Wrath. "I used to get the people jumpin' an' talkin' in tongues and glory-shoutin' till they just fell down an' passed out," said the Reverend Casy, a one-time Holy Ghost preacher. "An' then—you know what I'd do? I'd take one of them girls out in the grass, an' I'd lay with her. Done it ever' time." So too the adultery, cruelty, and hypocrisy of a black "Fire Baptized" preacher formed one of the main narrative threads in James Baldwin's 1952 classic, Go Tell It on the Mountain. When the protagonist—significantly named Gabriel Grimes—finally found the strength to resist sexual temptation, dance hall women laughed at him. "[T]hey knew a long brown girl who could make him lay his Bible down. He fled from them; they frightened him." A pentecostal holy man, it seemed, never escaped vulnerability.
By the 1990s Hollywood had gone to great lengths to avoid any hint of racial, ethnic, or sexual stereotyping. Yet in Cape FearRobert DeNiro played a cigar-smoking, pentecostal "cracker" turned psychopathic rapist-murderer. DeNiro's villainous character, tattooed with Bible verses and a cross, met his violent demise babbling in tongues. Reviewers, tasting a bit of blood themselves, rushed in for the kill on this overwrought remake of a 1962 thriller. Yet none intimated that the main character himself—described by one as a "homicidal genius … gone hillbilly and Pentecostal"—might have been wildly improbable. Admittedly Robert Duvall's The Apostle, released in 1998, offered a more textured portrait of a fireball preacher as a man of integrity struggling with his own demons. But even if Duvall's character was pentecostal, which may be debated, he still emerged as violent, poorly educated and, of course, a womanizer.
Fact or fiction? Common sense tells us surely some of both, but the preponderance of evidence supports the latter. First, hard proof of sexual misconduct by first-generation leaders is virtually impossible to come by. Unquestionably some notables were careless of appearances, but that is not the same as proof. Second, perceived strayers faced discipline in church tribunals or found themselves abandoned by the rank and file (with the notable exception of Aimee McPherson, whose alleged misconduct made great press copy but was never substantiated). Third, no measurable faction ever tried to redefine the boundaries of normative sexual behavior, as the Mormons and the Oneida Perfectionists had done. Those who said that pentecostals practiced free love invariably said it about someone else and, except for Charles Fox Parham, never seemed able to name actual sites.