The first time I heard a sermon by an American mega-church pastor, I experienced a bit of a culture shock. I hadn’t previously seen anything like that. I was used to Latvian sermons that make you sleepy, and all this running around and screaming in American sermons seemed very unusual for me. Latvian pastors instead tend to talk in calm and soothing voices, they don’t scream, they don’t run around, their body language is subtle and minimalistic.
Here is a video of one of Latvia’s most famous preachers, Lutheran Archbishop Jānis Vanags. He’s talking the usual religious nonsense here, so never mind not understanding what he says. Just pay attention to his manner of speaking, the calm and soothing tone of voice, lack of hand gestures. This is how Latvian preachers talk during sermons. This is what I was used to. Well, maybe not really “used to,” as I grew up in an atheist family, and I have never attended a sermon in person, but this was what I had seen on television. This was what I expected from sermons, they were supposed to be boring to listen to, and they usually made the audience sleepy.
This is a German sermon. In case anybody had some stereotypes about how German language sounds, well, German preachers don’t scream or sound angry. In this case, the melancholic tone is nowhere near as strong as in the Latvian example, but the speaker is calm and doesn’t scream or run around.
And then I watched the documentary Marjoe, which featured footage of American sermons. I wasn’t particularly surprised about how preachers cynically manipulated and exploited their followers, but I felt stunned about American sermons themselves. Incidentally, if you haven’t seen it already, Marjoe is worth watching, it’s a documentary that reveals the tactics that evangelists use to manipulate people and coerce donations from them. You can watch this documentary here.
At 12:55, there’s footage of Marjoe preaching. It is very loud, upbeat, energetic, his charismatic stage show is modeled after those of contemporary rock stars. Basically, it is designed to create a cult of personality.
Now contrast this with the solemn, serious, calm, soothing, even melancholic European sermons.
In general, American revival preachers talk in a specific way. Here are two examples:
If you grew up in the USA, you may perceive American sermons as the norm, you won’t notice anything unusual about them. Yet a person like me who in European will instead ask what is going on with these sermons. Why do preachers perform the way they do?
To begin, they certainly want to make sure that the audience isn’t bored. Keeping them entertained brings in more money. (European-style sermons are plain boring.) But American preachers are also trying the create cults of personality, and such behavior would be discouraged in, for example, European Lutheran churches. Yes, an individual preacher is supposed to attract an audience and collect donations for the church as a whole. But individual preachers aren’t expected to stand out too much, they aren’t expected to create a cult of personality, they are expected to ensure that believers follow the teaching of the church as a whole rather than idolizing one specific preacher who works for said church. Moreover, individual preachers are collecting donations for the church; they cannot use this money to get private jets instead.
Even Catholics who do create a personality cult for the Pope idolize the position itself rather than a single individual person who happens to be a Pope right now. Believers are expected to idolize the Pope rather than Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a single person who cannot even use his real name while doing said job.
If you watched the videos featuring Jim Bakker and Billy Graham, you might notice that the way how they speak resembles Donald Trump’s speaking style. Trump’s voice, the rhythm, the cadence, and range he uses reminds me of a mega-church pastor, he also regularly uses repetition, and emphasizes the key words he is trying to drill into his listener’s brain.
There’s a reason why preachers who live in the same region and preach to the same audiences all tend to speak similarly. Firstly, they learn from each other; secondly, their believers are already primed to accept being lied to in that tone of voice. The same words and phrases, tone, rhythm, manner of speaking are already most familiar and comforting to the congregation (or constituents).
By the way, personally, I loathe Trump’s manner of speaking. (The same goes also for Jim Bakker and Billy Graham.) I find Trump’s speaking style irritating and off-putting. I cannot really pinpoint a single reason for my distaste. Emphasizing some words? That’s what every good orator is supposed to do; after all, speaking monotonously is a bad thing. Repetitions? There were plenty of repetitions in “I Have a Dream” and “Ain’t I a Woman?” yet I perceive those speeches as pretty great. If I attempt to analyze the way how Trump speaks, it gets even harder for me to tell a single reason why exactly I dislike it.
For me the problem appears to be more general—it feels like Trump doesn’t treat the audience as thinking human beings. He doesn’t intelligently explain his opinions, instead he is trying to drill key phrases into the listener’s head. It feels as if he expects the listeners to admire him and feel small in front of him.
Besides, I absolutely hate being screamed at. In my opinion, the following is a textbook example for how not to make a public speech. Whenever somebody starts speaking (read: screaming) like this, I automatically get extra suspicious.