Clinging to Her Religion
The faith journey of Sarah Palin, 'Bible-believing Christian.'
Sep 29, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 03 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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.
Wasilla Bible and the other three churches Palin has attended are often described as "evangelical." Palin isn't the first evangelical candidate on a national ticket--remember Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush--but she is probably the first to have either an Assemblies of God or a Bible-church background, according to John Green of the Pew Forum on Religion and Politics. In this respect she reflects the nation's changing religious landscape wherein mainline churches have been steadily losing members and theologically conservative churches have, at least until recently, enjoyed substantial growth.
Reporters are justifiably curious about how Palin's religious beliefs might influence her approach to public service. But Palin appears to have given few explicitly religious talks that touch on governing. The only one in the public domain I can find is a talk she gave earlier this year to young people at Wasilla Assembly of God, which was posted on the church's website and is now on YouTube. Palin was introduced as "a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ," a person who doesn't simply "put on a show" but is "the real deal." Speaking for about 15 minutes, the governor recalled her time as a teenager attending the church, before asking the young people to pray for "our military men and women who are striving to do what is right also for this country, that our leaders, our national leaders, are sending them out on a task that is from God. That's what we have to make sure we're praying for: that there is a plan and that that plan is God's plan."
This is the prayer that ABC's Charles Gibson distorted in his interview with Palin when he asked her if the Iraq war is "a holy war." Palin wasn't telling the students that the Iraq war is "God's plan." Instead she was asking them to pray that the war would in fact be a "task from God." Beliefnet's Steve Waldman, defending Palin, wrote that such a prayer is "a totally appropriate desire for a Christian--and for a Christian politician. . . . Where it gets problematic is when [Christian politicians] feel God is directing them to take particular steps or claim divine endorsement for their actions."
Palin may have entered that problematic area when she asked the students to pray for the building of the Alaska natural gas pipeline: "God's will has to be done in unifying people and companies to get that gasline built. So pray for that." Did Palin mean here to say that "unifying people and companies to get that gasline built" was indeed God's will? Or was this simply a case of misspeaking?
As for actions or positions involving religion that Palin has taken as a politician or elected official, there seem to be few. The New York Times reported that when Palin ran for mayor of Wasilla, she played up her church work. But in support of that assertion, the story offered only a quotation from her opponent: "I'm not a churchgoing guy, and that was another issue: 'We will have our first Christian mayor.' " John Bitney recalls the race differently. "I don't remember [her church work] coming up," he told me.
In a candidates' debate during her 2006 campaign for governor, Palin was asked whether it's all right for religious leaders to endorse candidates. Palin replied that religious leaders "have the freedom to say whatever they want to say," while cautioning that they should "be very careful" if they decide to make an endorsement. Palin seemed to suggest that the reason to be careful was that congregants who disagreed with the endorsement might put "fewer dollars in the offering plate." There are, of course, other reasons to be careful, too, including the danger that a pastor who endorses a candidate might see his church's tax exemption threatened and also the concern expressed by Palin's pastor, Larry Kroon, that worship be kept separate from outside activities.
During that same debate, the question arose as to whether the public schools should teach alternatives to evolution such as creationism or intelligent design. Palin said: "Teach both [evolution and an alternative]. You know, don't be afraid of information. . . . [Let] kids debate both sides." Palin also said she wouldn't push the state board of education to add such alternatives to the curriculum. And as governor, she hasn't.
She's also been mostly on the sidelines with respect to same-sex marriage and abortion, issues often seen in religious terms. Running for governor, she expressed support for a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and opposed abortion except to save the life of the mother. She said she was as "pro-life as any candidate can be," citing her belief "in the sanctity of every human life." As governor, however, she hasn't pushed for an amendment forbidding same-sex marriage or for laws or policies embodying her pro-life sentiments.
Indeed, the so-called social issues have not figured prominently on Palin's to-do list in government. Rather, what has preoccupied her, as Bitney points out, are the traditional issues of state governance. "Look at the [public] record," he says. "She's pushed for the development of the gas pipeline, for ethics legislation, for economic development, for jobs, for less government."
To be sure, Palin did sign a proclamation last year declaring a week in October "Christian Heritage Week" in Alaska. The point was to remind Alaskans of "the role Christianity has played in our rich heritage." The proclamation does not declare Alaska a Christian state or the United States a Christian country. It quotes various Founders (in some cases out of context) and highlights the influence of Christianity in the past--just as the Supreme Court does when it undertakes to uphold, say, a Ten Commandments display in a public place. Some people may get worked up about this proclamation, but it is essentially benign, fully within the well-trodden ground of America's civil religion.
Finally, no discussion of Palin's religious biography would be complete without mention of her infant son, born after a test revealed his Down syndrome, and the child her 17-year-old daughter, unmarried but engaged, is carrying. In America today, some 90 percent of pregnancies where Down syndrome is diagnosed are ended by abortion, as are roughly half of all teenage pregnancies. The Palins' Christian convictions best explain their countercultural decisions in favor of nascent human life.
Voters are free, of course, to make what they will of Palin's religion. It is part of who she is. And together with her hunting and fishing and lifetime membership in the NRA, her Bible-believing faith reminds the country of the vast cultural differences between the two parties--which is part of why Palin continues to excite the Republican base.
Terry Eastland is publisher of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.