Patron Saints? Political Incentives to Promote Religious Change

Posted: 26 Mar 2014 Last revised: 20 Nov 2014

See all articles by Elizabeth Sperber

Elizabeth Sperber

University of Denver; NYU; Columbia University

Date Written: 2014


Why has Pentecostalism grown rapidly in some sub-Saharan democracies but not others? This question matters for the promotion of peace and human rights, as African Pentecostal movements are increasingly associated with vote-buying, campaigns against minority rights (e.g. LGBTQ communities), and in some cases, political violence. Drawing on extant cross-national data and original, sub-national data from Zambia, this paper makes two main contributions: First, I demonstrate puzzling variation in the rise of Pentecostalism both across and within countries for which conventional explanations for conversion (e.g., —poverty, urbanization, and globalization—) cannot account. Instead, I argue that church-state relations during periods of democratic transition played an important role in shaping future religious change: Amidst increased political competition, in cases where established religions could credibly threaten to mobilize opposition to ruling parties' favored policy faced incentives to promote indigenous Pentecostal networks in order to undercut existing religion and to build party-voter linkages on the backs of new religious networks. Focusing on the case of Zambia, I draw on over 110 interviews and an original quantitative database of state records to show that the ruling party systematically targeted urban land, tax breaks, and political appointments to Pentecostals more often during election years and in more electorally competitive districts. I conclude with discussion of policy implications.

Keywords: Pentecostalism, African politics, democratization, church-state relations, Christianity, clientelism, party-voter linkages

Suggested Citation

Sperber, Elizabeth, Patron Saints? Political Incentives to Promote Religious Change (2014). ASA 2014 Annual Meeting Paper. Available at SSRN:

Elizabeth Sperber (Contact Author)

University of Denver ( email )

Sturm Hall, Room 466
2000 E. Asbury Ave.
Denver, CO 80208
United States

NYU ( email )

New York, NY
United States

Columbia University ( email )

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