Commentary Magazine


Palin, Evangelicals, and the Secularists

All year, we’ve been told about the political “maturation” of evangelical Christians — about how younger evangelicals show interest in issues like global warming that cut against the socially conservative politics for which they have become famous, and about how they’re more tolerant of homosexuals than their elders. The primary evidence adduced for this change is the popularity of Rick Warren, the  pastor of Saddleback Church, host of general-election discussions, and author of a book that has sold 25 million copies.

But like all stories about political growth in which the “growth” is always in a leftward direction, there was reason to be skeptical. And indeed, when it came to Warren’s asking Obama and McCain questions at his brilliant forum in August, the questions he asked were sophisticated but certainly very much within the social-conservative worldview evangelicals have been said to be in the process of transcending. He wanted to know about evil. He wanted to know about abortion, and how marriage should be defined, and the moral harm of stem cell research, and the role of religion in public life. It appears that even this most mainstream of evangelical Christians operates within the same moral and political frame as the supposedly more aggressive, more confrontational, more negative, more “right-wing” evangelicals.

Today, the New York Times published an article that, should it receive wide circulation (and it might, on the web), will do a great deal to harden evangelical attitudes against the supposed leftward swing — because it is an act of secular aggression condescension against a believing Christian.

Headlined “In Palin’s Life and Politics, Goal to Follow God’s Will,” the article has about it the wide-eyed wonder that anyone might actually be crazy enough to believe in a Creator Who still plays a role in human affairs.

One sentence reads: ‘Mr. Kroon (pronounced krone), a soft-spoken, bearded Alaska native, said he was convinced that the Bible is the Word of God,  and that the task of believers is to ponder and analyze the book for meaning — including scrutiny, he said, for errors and mistranslations over the centuries that may have obscured the original intent.”

The actual inclusion of this sentence in a major newspaper is an indication of the distance of secular America from religious America. Need it actually be noted that a member of the clergy believes the “Bible is the Word of God, and that the task of believers is to ponder and analyze the book for meaning”? That is what all believers, Christian and Jew, think (though Jews don’t think it of the New Testament).

It notes, ominously, that upon her election as governor of Alaska, she called a former pastor and asked him for advice:

“She asked for a biblical example of people who were great leaders and what was the secret of their leadership,” Mr. Riley said.

He wrote back that she should read again from the Old Testament the story of Esther, a beauty queen who became a real one, gaining the king’s ear to avert the slaughter of the Jews and vanquish their enemies. When Esther is called to serve, God grants her a strength she never knew she had.

Leave aside the fact, for a second, that the Book of Esther is the only one of two books in the Bible in which God is never mentioned, and that Esther is a particularly bad example for Palin, since Esther was a power behind the throne whereas Palin actually was given the power by the voters of Alaska.

If Palin had called her favorite professor at the University of Idaho to ask him for advice on what leaders she should emulate, and he had said Golda Meir, this would probably be the sort of thing that would earn the support and praise of the New York Times. If she had called her favorite English professor and asked for a great example from literature and he had said Penelope, or Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, or Spenser’s “Faerie Queene,” there would have been swoons from coast to coast.

Instead, she spoke to a pastor. Indeed, the New York Times spoke to two of the pastors, both of whom are, as one might imagine, extremely committed Christians clearly delighted to have a former parishioner rise to the heights Sarah Palin has, and a friend from church — and the Word hath come forth that

her foundation and source of guidance is the Bible, and with it has come a conviction to be God’s servant.

“Just be amazed at the umbrella of this church here, where God is going to send you from this church,” Ms. Palin told the gathering in June of young graduates of a ministry program at the Assembly of God Church, a video of which has been posted on YouTube.

“Believe me,” she said, “I know what I am saying — where God has sent me, from underneath the umbrella of this church, throughout the state.”

Janet Kincaid, who has known Ms. Palin for about 15 years and worked with her on some Wasilla town boards and commissions when Ms. Palin was mayor here, said Ms. Palin’s spiritual path, from the Assembly of God to Wasilla Bible, has had a consistent theme.

“The churches that Sarah has attended all believe in a literal translation of the Bible,” Ms. Kincaid said. “Her principal ethical and moral beliefs stem from this.”

Prayer, and belief in its power, is another constant theme, Ms. Kincaid said, in what she has witnessed in Ms. Palin. “Her beliefs are firm in the power of prayer — let’s put it that way,” she said.

She believes in the power of prayer! Imagine that! What a Yahoo! What does it matter if prayer and its efficacy stand at the center of all religious practice and belief? Every Sabbath, in synagogues worldwide, a prayer for the sick is spoken. It’s called a “mishabeirach,” and it is the custom either for congregants to stand up and speak the name of the ill person they wish to pray for or to speak the name in the rabbi’s ear and have him recite it. Do we do this because we don’t believe in the power of prayer?

There should be nothing exceptional to anyone in this country at this date about a politician who is also a believing Christian and who therefore thinks she owes her ascension to office to the role of the divine. What Palin said wasn’t even notable; it was what might be called Christian boilerplate.

The point here is that by treating the views of such people as though they are exotically fascinating at best and terrifyingly Other at worst, and by highlighting the views of a prominent Christian in an article intended to frighten rather than enlighten its readership, the New York Times (and those organizations sure to follow it down this path) only makes it likely that any ideological journey evangelicals might take this year will not be to the left, but back into the bosom of the Right.

After all, who wants to be friends with someone who treats you with such contempt condescension?

UPDATE: After a day’s consideration, I think many commenters were right; the Times piece was not really an act of aggression, more an embarrassingly earnest effort to “understand” Sarah Palin, as though she were a native of a strange new world it had only recently discovered. I’ve amended the two words where I think I went too far.  The rest of the piece can stand without qualification.

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