Purity rules in Pentecostal Uganda

Towards an analysis of relational rulework



Rules concerning romantic relationships and sex—what we term ‘purity rules’—are central to Pentecostalism in Uganda. In  public church arenas, the born-again variant of the rules laid down during Uganda’s ‘ABC’ response to HIV/AIDS — ‘abstain till marriage and be faithful once you marry’—are presented as clear and non-negotiable. Yet in church members’ lives, and in their conversations with each other or in small church groups, space is often created for interpretation and deliberation about the officially strict rules. In this article, we use ethnographic material from fieldwork in urban Pentecostal churches in Uganda to describe how rules work on people, and people work on rules. We describe this process of relational ‘rulework’ as taking place at the nexus of an individual’s relationship to the church, to small groups at the church, and to God. The  dynamics of rulework become particularly evident at occasions where rules are transgressed, or where the nature of the rules—and thus of possible transgression—is questioned. Three central axes of rulework can be identified: first, the (claimed) transgressor’s position in church hierarchy; second, the level of publicity at which their transgression is made known to others; and third, their relationship to God. Approaching rules as objects of anthropological analysis foregrounds how what Morgan Clarke (2015) has called the ‘ruliness’ of religious traditions, and what we describe as the messiness of religious adherents’ lives, exist in parallel with each other. Where ‘ruliness’ and ‘messiness’ interact is where rulework takes place and where it can most productively be ethnographically observed.

Keywords: Morality, ethics, religion, sex, transgression

How to Cite

Alava, H., & Gusman, A. (2022). Purity rules in Pentecostal Uganda: Towards an analysis of relational rulework. Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society, 46(3), 52–70. https://doi.org/10.30676/jfas.115525