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In the fall of 2012 something significant occurred in Ethiopia. After Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s death, Hailemariam Desalegn was sworn in as the new prime minister. Not only is Hailemariam the first Protestant to occupy the office, he is also a member of the Apostolic Church of Ethiopia, which is a Oneness Pentecostal church formerly connected to the United Pentecostal Church International headquartered in Missouri. Much like John F. Kennedy’s run for the presidency prompted a national discussion about religion and Catholicism in the American experiment, Hailemariam’s emergence has had an impact on religious discourse in Ethiopia. It is a “Catholic” moment in the history of the country, which up to this point had been led by members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Since the emergence of the new political landscape dominated by the Ethiopian Revolutionary People’s Democratic Front (ERPDF) in 1991, Protestantism in Ethiopia has grown to the point where it now accounts for almost 21 percent of the population. Numbering over 5 million adherents each, the two largest churches are the Kale Heywet Church (KHC), which is primarily Baptist, and the Lutheran Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (ECMY). In fact, the ECMY is the third largest Lutheran body in the world. The two largest Pentecostal churches are the Full Gospel Believer’s Church and the Hiwot Berhan Church, both of which trace their origins to Finnish and Swedish Pentecostal missions. Together they number just over 1 million members. Along with other denominations, these churches are part of the Evangelical Churches’ Fellowship of Ethiopia.

While there are clear theological distinctions between these churches, the line between Pentecostal and non-Pentecostal is blurring due to the influx of charismatic phenomena into the ECMY and KHC. What has happened is that some Protestant churches have accommodated charismatic beliefs about the gifts of the Spirit, praying in tongues, etc., into their worship and church life. Many of these developments have been traced out recently in the work of Tibebe Eshete and Jörg Haustein and a special edition of the journal PentecoStudies dedicated to Ethiopian Pentecostalism. Much of what I have to say relies on this research.

Because of its strong commitment to the unity of God over against Trinitarianism, the Apostolic Church of Ethiopia (ACE) to which Hailemariam Desalegn belongs is not a member of the Evangelical Churches’ Fellowship. Briefly, Oneness Pentecostals utilize a different baptismal formula, preferring to baptize converts “in the name of Jesus” or “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Based on Acts 2:38 (“repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ”), this formula underscores the Oneness commitment to God’s absolute unity. Thus a popular description of Oneness Pentecostalism is “Jesus Only” in reference to the preferred baptismal formula. The names Father, Son, and Holy Spirit point toward different revelations of the one God, which is most fully revealed in the name Lord (=Father) Jesus (=Son) Christ (=Spirit). There is a functional trinitarianism that eschews theoretical accounts of a divine threeness. Oneness Pentecostalism has a strong affirmation of the incarnation also, which means it cannot be classified as a form of Unitarianism or even a modern-day version of modalism. Nevertheless, the differences are stark enough that Trinitarian Pentecostals in Ethiopia consider Oneness Pentecostalism to be cultish while Oneness Pentecostals re-baptize all converts and tend to connect salvation to their baptism.

By all accounts Hailemariam Desalegn remains active in his commitment to the ACE although reporters usually describe Hailemariam as the first Protestant prime minister. With the new Ethiopian constitution in 1994, Ethiopia was divided into ethnic regions. Part of the intention was to minimize religious identity and organize national life around ethnicity instead. This was coupled with a clear affirmation of the separation of church and state in the constitution. Hailemariam rose to power in the southern region, becoming the Ethiopian equivalent of a U.S. governor over the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region in 2002 before advancing to the national government.

In an article on Hailemariam, Haustein makes several points that are worth pondering. First, the EPRDF had a Marxist background and many of its members minimized religion, including the previous prime minister Meles Zenawi. In contrast Hailemariam has discussed his faith commitments openly. At the same time, Hailemariam has been forceful in maintaining a separation of church and state as a way to keep all religious groups on board. Thus Hailemariam signals a transition in how religious discourse can enter political discourse while also affirming other religious traditions. This is an important step toward preserving religious freedom.

Second, Hailemariam seems to be using his position as an opportunity to bring the Apostolic Church of Ethiopian more into the Protestant fold. According to Haustein, in an interrview for Enqu magazine Hailemariam was asked whether the ACE was a cult that focused on “Jesus Only.”  Hailemariam’s response was to claim that the designation was misleading and the ACE believed in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Due to the complicated way in which Oneness Pentecostals utilize such language, it remains to be seen what this means, but he has publicly committed to Trinitarian language. 

What many do not realize in their appraisal of Oneness Pentecostalism is that it represents in many respects a return to the debates that ensued after the Council of Nicaea. One of the key theologians of the United Pentecostal Church International was a Persian named Andrew David Urshan who had grown up in what is now the northeastern corner of Iran. Urshan maintained that there was a mysterious threeness in God and embraced the technical Syriac term for persons (qnoma). Urshan also equated the apostolic faith with Assyrian Christianity to the point of defending Nestorius and claiming that the western church went astray with its language of person. In my view Urshan never ceased to be Trinitarian, but he choose to express his understanding of God through Syriac terms that most Protestants in the United States could not relate to. Hailemariam’s efforts to mainstream Oneness Pentecostalism in Ethiopia may provide an opportunity for greater dialogue along these lines even in the United States.

Third, the Ethiopian experience provides an interesting mirror for the U.S. that accentuates identity politics. The EPRDF has successfully kept religion as a background political discourse by placing the focus of democratic life around ethnic and regional identities, which go together. Hailemariam’s rise to power relies on ethnic connections given his religious background in Oneness Pentecostalism, which is a barrier even to fellow Pentecostals who are Trinitarian. Yet, Protestant groups have minimized these differences in the wake of Hailemariam’s rise because it provides an important political moment for all Protestants in Ethiopia with respect to the two largest religious groups, the Orthodox and Islam. One wonders if Christians in the US might overcome the forces of identity politics and find their common Christian heritage to be a source of strength and unity.

Finally, Hailemariam’s ascendancy might just be the final nail in the coffin of the historical paradigm that suggests Pentecostalism is too “other worldly” a form of Christianity to be engaged in political and cultural life; that Pentecostal views of the end somehow lead to an escapist outlook of disengagement. I have always thought that this theological interpretation of Pentecostalism did not have much going for it and I’m glad that Hailemariam adds another piece of evidence against it. A “Catholic” moment indeed.

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