The Magazine

Clinging to Her Religion

The faith journey of Sarah Palin, 'Bible-believing Christian.'

Sep 29, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 03 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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A few weeks before the Republican convention, Time magazine asked Sarah Palin what her religion was. "Christian," she said. Asked whether she was any particular kind of Christian, she replied, "No. Bible-believing Christian." Ever since John McCain asked Palin to be his running mate, her religion has been high on the list of subjects journalists have pursued. Although Palin herself hasn't brought it up and has mostly declined to be interviewed on the matter, it is already clear that her religious background contains material unfamiliar to media and political elites. Few politicians at Palin's level describe themselves as Bible-believing Christians.

Palin was baptized a Roman Catholic as an infant. When she was a teenager, she and her mother began attending the Wasilla Assembly of God. There she was "saved," as she has said, and also rebaptized, by full immersion, in Beaver Lake.

At Wasilla High School, Palin was known for her Christian faith. In an interview, John Bitney, who went to high school with her and later worked for her in the governor's office, recalls that she was "just a Christian girl" who was well regarded for her character. He adds that she "didn't preach" at anyone. A basketball star, she led a chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Palin, her husband Todd, and their growing family attended Wasilla Assembly of God until 2002, when they moved to Wasilla Bible Church. Palin also has worshipped at other churches, including the Church on the Rock in Wasilla. In Juneau, the state capital, she has gone to Juneau Christian Center.

Of these four churches, two--Wasilla Assembly of God and Juneau Christian Center--are members of the Assemblies of God. Founded in 1914, the Assemblies of God is the largest Pentecostal denomination in the country. Pentecostalism--which takes its name from the day of Pentecost when, according to the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles--is a movement that began in 1901 and is best known for its emphasis on the gifts of the Spirit, including speaking in tongues. The other two churches are freestanding congregations. The Church on the Rock is "charismatic," a term usually applied to more recent forms of Pentecostalism, while Wasilla Bible, the Palins' present church, is neither Pentecostal nor charismatic.

Reporters ask whether Palin has ever spoken in tongues. Her spokeswoman has said that Palin doesn't consider herself a Pentecostal. A friend of Palin's told the New York Times that her family left Wasilla Assembly of God for Wasilla Bible in part because the latter's ministry was "less extreme." Exactly what Palin may have found "extreme" at Wasilla Assembly of God is unclear. In any case, Palin retains an evident affection for Wasilla Assembly of God, as does the church for her.

The explicitly nondenominational Wasilla Bible Church was started more than 30 years ago by a small group of families. The word "Bible" was included in the church's name to reflect the Scripture's centrality in the lives of Christians, says pastor Larry Kroon. In interpreting the Bible, he says, "we try to get at the author's intent" by considering the text as well as its history and structure.

Kroon says that his church has had programs for children with special needs, that it supports the pro-life Heart Reach Pregnancy Center, which helps women in crisis pregnancies, and that it participates in house-building efforts undertaken by Habitat for Humanity. Rarely does Wasilla Bible have outside speakers, the most recent one a leader of Jews for Jesus. The church sometimes promotes events sponsored by outside groups, such as a recent Focus on the Family conference on overcoming unwanted same-sex attraction held in Anchorage.

Those who attend Wasilla Bible tend to be social conservatives. Kroon describes himself as "pro-life." But the church, he says, doesn't get involved in politics. "We're extreme the other way. We put everything else down when we worship, whether it's politics or anything else. The church is the church. Worship is worship." In contrast, there has been some political preaching at Wasilla Assembly of God, where the senior pastor asked in a sermon whether people who voted for John Kerry in 2004 would make it into heaven.