Assessing Palin’s Religion

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After sleeping on it, I’m inclined to think that Sarah Palin’s prayer on Iraq is nothing very remarkable in the broad context of American Protestantism. To believe that God has a plan, and to pray that what we’re doing is in line with it, and to talk about it in a church–well, that’s pretty ordinary stuff. And given that this is a question of war and peace, it is not inappropriate to think it a good time to invoke the Deity. Just for comparison’s sake, here’s Woodrow Wilson in his speech presenting the Treaty of Versailles to the Senate:

The stage is set, the destiny disclosed. It has come about by no plan of our conceiving, but by the hand of God who led us into this way. We cannot turn back. We can only go forward, with lifted eyes and freshened spirit, to follow the vision. It was of this that we dreamed at our birth. America shall in truth show the way. The light streams upon the path ahead, and nowhere else.

On the other hand, asking folks to pray for a gas pipeline, and suggesting that her work as governor would be hampered”if the people of Alaska’s heart isn’t right with God” suggests an approach to mundane governance that ought to give a lot of people the creeps. Overall, I’m pretty much in accord with Steve Waldman’s assessment of what is and is not “scary” (as he puts it) about Palin’s religion, as it may affect her governing style.
One religious question about Palin that Waldman leaves out, however, has to do with her possible premillennialist worldview. We know that Wasilla Assemblies of God, where she was baptized and a member for a quarter-century, is firmly attached to premillennialist theology. Here’s what its former pastor had to say to the Chicago Tribune a few days ago (I’ve quoted this before, but it bears repeating):

Rev. Tim McGraw, Palin’s pastor when she became mayor of Wasilla, said believers look to Israel for signs of the coming end times and where they are in God’s plan. That would undoubtedly influence Palin’s approach to foreign policy, McGraw said.
“I believe Sarah would not live in a fragmented world,” he said. “The idea that Sarah would take this huge influence of the worldview that really only the Bible and the relationship with Jesus opens up … and suddenly marginalize it and put it over on the shelf somewhere and live apart from it—that would be entirely inconsistent.”

What, if any, are the policy implications of a public official possessing such a worldview? It’s hard to say. Once upon a time, one could characterize premillennialists as politically inactive folk who saw this world as a temporary thing soon to pass away; to the extent they engaged it, it was as a place to make converts. That’s not the case today, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. In his revealing new book, Evangelical vs. Liberal: The Clash of Christian Cultures in the Pacific Northwest (Oxford), my friend Jim Wellman of the University of Washington writes:

The evangelical churches in this study were nearly the opposite of sectarian–they were aware of the fallen nature of humanity, but this seemed to mobilize them even more to transofrm it, though always with the notion that ‘God is in control.’ Most of these churches in their central belief statements are ‘premillennialists,’ believing that Christ’s Second Coming sill prcede Christ’s thousand-year reign on earth. Typically, premillennialists are less interested in transforming the world, and yet the evangelicals in this study maintained a strong passion for civic engagement and deep interest in the common good.

In an email yesterday, Jim wrote that “it seems to me [Palin] perfectly mirrors the kind of evangelicals I found in WA/OR to a tee!!”
If Palin is a world-affirming premillennialist who believes that God is always in control–always has plans and tasks for us–she also seems to be pretty pragmatic about how her religious identity relates to her public one. I’ve caught some flak for suggesting that it was no coincidence that she left Wasilla Assemblies of God for the more conventional non-denominational Wasilla Bible Church the very year that she first ran for statewide office. But Patricia Killen of Pacific Lutheran University, who co-edited our volume on Religion in public life in the Pacific Northwest, and who knows the Alaska scene, believes that it’s entirely likely that she wanted to make sure that Alaskans did not consider her too far out on the religious friend–as indeed, was implied to the New York Times by one of that church’s musical directors. It’s clear in any case, that she knows she’s operating in public arena where a lot of people see things differently from the way she does.