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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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.