Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was the star of the Christian Right’s 2008 Values Voter Summit in mid-September, even though she was a last minute no-show. The Republican vice presidential candidate’s name was tossed around frequently to euphoric applause at the event in Washington, D.C., while the few mentions of presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R‑Ariz.) drew only polite claps.
Topping the list of concerns at the conference were abortion and same-sex marriage, while other presentations sounded the alarm on the threats to God and country posed by stem cell research, immigration from Mexico, Islamic terrorists, secular public schools, sex education and liberals, in general.
Attendees knew the stakes for this election are high. The next president will appoint Supreme Court justices who will shape legal matters for decades, a point that was made repeatedly from the stage.
While some speakers outlined the political battles ahead in practical terms, others implied that this election reflected a culture war between godly Christians and the forces of Satan – embodied, of course, by Sen. Barack Obama (D‑Ill.) and the Democratic Party.
One thing was clear: Many in the Christian Right now view electing Palin as a task ordained by God. The unanswered question for the rest of us is: How does Palin see herself? Is she someone who merely asks God for guidance – a fairly common practice for religious people in public office? Or does she see herself as carrying out God’s will on the political stage?
The latter would suggest a theocratic worldview that runs counter to the separation of church and state. But because she has so far declined most interviews, we’re left to sift through Palin’s political and religious history for clues.
Back in Wasilla
All of the four churches Palin has regularly attended as an adult fall on the right of the political spectrum, support conservative social policies – such as opposition to abortion and gay rights – and have ties to key institutions on the Christian Right, from Focus on the Family to Christians United for Israel. Some are pastored by men with strong dominionist leanings – a desire to bring government under the “dominion” of Christian theology.
One church Palin briefly attended is a nondenominational evangelical congregation, but the other three are Pentecostal, including the Wasilla Assembly of God, which Palin and her family joined when she was a child. She was baptized there at the age of 12 and remained a member until 2002, when she first ran for statewide office (in an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor).
Former Attorney General John Ashcroft is the most famous politician to come out of the Pentecostal tradition, which grew out of something called the Holiness Movement in the late 1800s.
Its churches are known for a lively and energetic style of worship. They also tend to be, like Ashcroft, theologically conservative and doctrinaire. Its followers have typically been “born again” as adults and are infused by the Holy Spirit during worship, manifested through dancing or speaking in tongues. They also tend to uphold rigorous traditional moral standards in the face of what they see as a sinful world, believe God’s will is revealed to believers through prayer and signs, insist on the importance of prophecy, and view the Bible as the literal word of God.
There are no indications that Palin is atypical in any of these particulars. Indeed, consistent with Pentecostal doctrine, she has taken positions in favor of outlawing abortion and same-sex marriage, as well as instituting abstinence-only education and the teaching of creationism in the public schools. And she has come close to attributing her election as governor to divine intervention, thanking a visiting pastor, Thomas Muthee of Kenya, for her win. “He just prayed for it,” she recalled earlier this year. “He said, ‘Lord make a way and let her do this next step.’ And that’s exactly what happened.”
The Assemblies of God – the fundamentalist denomination shared by Ashcroft and Palin – is generally extremely concerned with Jesus’ Second Coming and the construction of the Kingdom of God on Earth.
Ashcroft translated these beliefs directly into public life: One of his first acts as attorney general was to cover the exposed breast of the giant Spirit of Justice statue in the Justice Department’s Great Hall and to convene daily morning prayer meetings in his office.
More substantively, Ashcroft stepped up pornography prosecutions and tamped down prosecutions related to threats and violence directed at abortion clinics. Like Palin, Ashcroft opposed abortion even in the case of rape or incest. As a senator, he fought for what later became President Bush’s faith-based initiative, which channeled tens of millions of dollars into Christian Right organizations. As attorney general, he increased investigations of Muslim charities.
Palin’s own thin public record is less decisive: She campaigned for governor against benefits for same-sex partners, but once governor, she did not block implementation of a court ruling that ordered the state to provide such benefits. Nor has she tried to mandate the teaching of creationism or abstinence-only sex ed in Alaska’s schools.
But two incidents are troubling.
One is by now quite familiar: In 1996, Palin approached Wasilla’s librarian about whether she’d be willing to censor some books, possibly out of concern over a local pastor’s book arguing for acceptance of gay Christians. The librarian refused to countenance the idea, and a few months later, Palin sought to fire her (though community protest saved the woman’s job).
The second has received less attention: Last winter, when Vic Kohring, the state representative from Wasilla was convicted of bribery, Palin appointed an elder from Wasilla Bible Church to replace him. That man, Wes Keller, has since sponsored a bill to make performing late-term abortions a felony and introduced legislation lobbied for by the Alaska Family Council – a Focus on the Family affiliate – requiring public libraries to install filters to protect young people from “inappropriate” material.
In September, Keller told the Anchorage Daily News that he hopes to win legislation requiring that intelligent design be taught in public schools.
In June, Palin returned to Wasilla Assembly of God, which has supported campaigns by the Alaska Family Council on such issues as opposing same-sex marriage, to give a now widely circulated speech. In it, she asked those attending to pray “that our leaders, our national leaders, are sending [U.S. troops] out on a task that is from God. That’s what we have to make sure that we’re praying for, that there is a plan and that that plan is God’s plan.”
Palin also spoke about efforts to build a $30 billion gas pipeline, saying, “God’s will has to be done in unifying people and companies to get that gas line built. So pray for that.” None of this would matter, she added, “If the people of Alaska’s heart is not good with God.”
Steven Waldman, editor of Beliefnet, a mainstream religious online magazine, found her comments on the war justifiable, writing that to “pray that the war is part of God’s plan … is a totally appropriate desire for a Christian – and for a Christian politician.” However, Waldman found her pipeline comments far more disturbing.
“Asserting that God endorses a particular energy strategy or public works project is exactly the sort of mindset the Founders feared,” he wrote in a Sept. 7 column on Beliefnet. “The vote-for-this-because-God-says-so approach means that those who oppose a particular policy are violating God’s will – and good Christians should view them that way. It turns policy issues into religious conflicts. Such a politician may be impervious to reason, evidence or compromise.”
Waldman continues: “If God has blessed an idea – and told you so personally – what possible argument could dissuade you?”
In 2002 Palin switched her membership to the Wasilla Bible Church, the nondenominational evangelical church where David Brickner, founder of Jews for Jesus, gave a notorious speech in August. With Palin in attendance, Brickner asserted that Palestinian attacks on Israelis were God’s “judgment” of Jews for their refusal to embrace Jesus Christ. This same church promoted a Sept. 13 Focus on the Family event called “Love Won Out,” a workshop on how to cure homosexuality through prayer.
During the year before she became governor, Palin “frequently” attended a Wasilla megachurch called the Church on the Rock, according to its pastor, David Pepper. Reporters at Harper’s magazine listened to some of Pepper’s recent sermons and discovered that he has quite a jaundiced view of America as a nation consumed by “horrific rebellion and sin” and that he told his congregants that, “The purpose for the United States … is to glorify God. This nation is a Christian nation,” a view he has reaffirmed in subsequent interviews.
Once Palin was elected governor in 2006, she joined the Juneau Christian Center, a third Pentecostal church, where she worships while in the state capitol. According to recorded sermons reviewed by Harper’s, the pastor there, Mike Rose, has preached that, “We are living in the Last Days. These are incredible times to live in.” Just last spring he preached against evolution, saying, “the word of God says … that you are not a descendant of a chimpanzee.”
Next March, Juneau Christian Center is scheduled to host a prayer evening organized by Christians United for Israel, headed by Pastor John Hagee – the religious leader whose endorsement McCain enthusiastically embraced and then was forced to reject after a sermon surfaced in which Hagee described Adolf Hitler as a tool God used to force Jews back to Israel. Hagee has indicated that violent confrontations in the Middle East are part of apocalyptic prophesies in the Bible, an “exciting” development that signals Jesus may soon return to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. He has also used Biblical prophecy to advocate for a strike against Iran.
What would McCain owe evangelicals?
Should the Republicans win control of the presidency, the political policy payoff to the Christian Right could be substantial. The New York Times may have declared a year and a half ago that “the religious right’s era is over,” but Palin’s nomination is a sharp reminder of the folly of that view.
Since at least as far back as President Reagan, evangelicals have been the party’s institutionalized grassroots, its believers, its get-out-the-vote foot soldiers. This bloc is as important to the Republicans as organized labor and African Americans are, combined, to the Democratic Party.
While white evangelicals constitute only a quarter of the national population, this highly motivated voting bloc made up 40 percent of Bush’s electorate in 2000 – and he won millions more of their votes in 2004. When that number is combined with the most religiously observant Catholics, the total adds up to the majority of votes Bush received in each election. It’s a bloc so decisive in 2008 that McCain’s pick of Palin, or someone with her evangelical street cred, was actually a foregone conclusion.
In return for their loyalty, Bush turned over whole swaths of this country’s domestic and international policy to conservative evangelicals, from abortion and sex education to gay rights, social services, court appointments and medical research. He even used his global AIDS initiative, his foreign aid policy and his war on terror to court the Religious Right. How much more would McCain, disastrously down in the polls and in donor dollars before Palin joined his ticket, owe this constituency if elected?
We still do not know how Palin’s religious beliefs would inform her approach to the vice presidency – or the presidency.
Does Palin support the most theocratic statements of pastors and visitors in the churches she’s attended?
How will her lifetime of worship under the guidance of these pastors affect her approach to foreign policy, gay rights, reproductive rights, separation of church and state, science and public health?
We only have a few weeks for these questions to be put to Palin by reporters. And it’s her responsibility to answer them.
[Editor’s note: This article represents Berlet’s and Kaplan’s personal views.]