Negotiating Respect

Pentecostalism, Masculinity, and the Politics of Spiritual Authority in the Dominican Republic

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Brendan Jamal Thornton
  • Gainesville, FL: 
    University of Florida Press
    , February
     2016.
     288 pages.
     $69.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780813061689.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Brendan Jamal Thornton’s Negotiating Respect explores the way in which Pentecostalism in the Dominican Republic provides adherents with legitimate and respectable religious identities in a contested religious field. Thornton’s ethnography of Villa Altagracia, an urban barrio in the Dominican Republic, is in some ways typical of other ethnographies that have been published on the topic of Pentecostalism in Latin America. However, Thornton’s observations on the relationship between Pentecostalism and masculinity, and on Pentecostalism’s growth into a legitimate religious practice in the Dominican Republic offer important contributions to the study of Pentecostalism that should not be overlooked.

Thornton opens with a brief but important history of the Dominican Republic, emphasizing especially the role of religion. Thornton describes the site of his ethnography, Villa Altagracia, as a microcosm of the Dominican Republic. Altagracia is a place where, as in other places across Latin America, Pentecostalism has grown exponentially and has become an important player in the religious field alongside other religious traditions, including Catholicism and Dominican Vodou. The “Christian hegemony” resulting from the Dominican Republic’s colonial history operating in Altagracia and the rest of the nation, is what sets the stage for Pentecostalism to thrive. According to Thornton, Pentecostalism’s claims to “orthodox exceptionalism” when compared to Catholicism––a religion perceived by some in Altagracia to condone the consumption of alcohol, philandering––and participation in Vodou practices, makes practitioners of Pentecostalism more respectable in a culture where Christian values reign supreme (67).

Thornton elaborates on the implications of these exceptionalist claims with two noteworthy observations. First is Thornton’s observation that Pentecostalism’s orthodox exceptionalism in Altagracia has created a special relationship between Pentecostals and Dominican gangs. Thornton shows how Pentecostals are particularly respected by gang members because of their truly Christian behavior (avoidance of alcohol, violence, etc.) such that conversion to Pentecostalism is the only acceptable way out of gang membership. Further, gang members do not enact violence on Pentecostals as they might on other, non-Pentecostal citizens because of their perceived righteousness. This acceptance by gangs legitimizes Pentecostalism as being the “real” form of Christianity.

The second important observation made by Thornton is in regards to the gendered dimensions of Pentecostalism. Here, Thornton analyzes the relationship between masculinity and Pentecostalism, a faith tradition that is often claimed to benefit women more than men. Though Thornton acknowledges that Pentecostalism is democratic insofar as access to the Holy Spirit is concerned, Thornton’s interviews and interactions with locals in Altagracia demonstrate that, in fact, men have as much or more to gain from conversion than women. Pentecostal men are able to hold positions of authority within their churches. Men are also morally justified in their positions as heads of household according to the God-ordained family structure that is central to Pentecostal belief. Most important, however, is Thornton’s observation that men who convert offer far more compelling and dramatic testimonies on how their lives have been transformed from sinner to saved than women do, because women are perceived to be more pious to begin with. This focus on masculinity reveals new insights on the role of Pentecostalism in the lives of poor, urban male converts in a field that typically focuses on how Pentecostalism benefits women. According to Thornton, Pentecostalism might “domesticate men,” as Elizabeth Brusco famously claimed, but it also offers men empowerment in ways that are not accessible to women (178).

Thornton’s book offers new observations and insights on Pentecostalism and does so in a region that has largely been ignored (the Caribbean). As Thornton acknowledges, ethnographic studies of religion in the Dominican Republic typically focus on the practice of African-derived religions. Thornton’s analysis of the relationship between masculinity and Pentecostalism could have been balanced by some discussion of how women Pentecostals in the Dominican Republic develop their own religious identities in this highly contested religious social field. However, Thornton’s focus on masculinity and Pentecostal respectability is in itself a valuable contribution to an underdeveloped dimension of Pentecostal scholarship. The helpful background information on the history of the Dominican Republic, and Thornton’s review of previous studies of Pentecostalism that are woven throughout the text make this an accessible book for those who are new to the fields of Latin American studies, Pentecostalism, or religious studies in general. Negotiating Respect demonstrates the value of ethnographic studies of Pentecostalism, as they continue to provide important insights for the study of religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mary Puckett is a Ph.D. candidate in Religion at the University of Florida.

Date of Review: 
December 28, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brendan Jamal Thornton is an anthropologist and assistant professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

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