Don’t Fear the Pistol-Packing Pentecostal (For Being a Pistol-Packing Pentecostal)

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Mr. Sutton is Assistant Professor of History at Washington State University and the author of Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (Harvard, 2007).

Sarah Palin has problems. A lot of them. Nevertheless, we have nothing to fear from her faith. Ever since John McCain announced that the pistol-packing, moose-dressing, beehive-sporting hockey mom from Alaska was his vice presidential nominee, journalists, bloggers, Democrats and even the cast of Saturday Night Live have all been in a fury. Does Palin speak in tongues? Does she believe that the battle of Armageddon is imminent? Does she believe in casting out demons? Does she talk to God? Does she believe the Rapture is coming?

The answer to all of these questions is probably yes. But so what? Palin is smart enough and pragmatic enough to separate her faith from her policy initiatives. Religiously-devout leaders have been doing the same thing in the United States for centuries.

If Palin’s beliefs are cause for alarm, then we should never have elected John F. Kennedy. After all, the Roman Catholic Church of 1960 wanted to bring down the wall of separation between church and state. Shouldn’t we have kept him out of the White House?

And what about Barack Obama? This guy should make the average American tremble. After all, he is very serious about the social ethics of the New Testament, especially Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Doesn’t that mean that if terrorists attack the United States, Obama will ask us to love our enemies as ourselves and to turn the other cheek?

How about Joe Biden? The Catholic Church forbids the use of contraceptives. If we elect him, isn’t he going to take away all of our condoms? Is the Vatican going to be writing the sex-ed curriculum for our schools?

No, no, and no. Obama is not going to turn the other cheek, Biden will not outlaw contraception, and Palin is not going to call down the Apocalypse. These men and women are politicians, not preachers, and they are certainly not prophets. Each has a serious and abiding faith. But it is one that has been deeply influenced by American civil religion—that mealy-mouthed creed of God (but not too much God) and country that has been the hallmark of our leaders since George Washington. The one thing that we can always count on is that our politicians never take their faiths too seriously. If they did they wouldn’t be able to stomach the world of American politics.

Palin is a Pentecostal and over the course of the last one-hundred years Pentecostals have been better than just about any other religious group at adapting their faith to modern American culture. Furthermore, dating back to the barn-storming days of Aimee Semple McPherson, they have not been afraid to let women assume leadership positions. They balance a primitive yearning for a personal relationship with God with a pragmatic willingness to play ball with people of other faiths. They are also populists. As Palin has demonstrated in the past few weeks, they are masters at speaking the language of the people. And most important, they are not usually zealots. Palin’s skill at dodging questions about gay rights despite the crystal-clear teachings of her church does not just represent savvy politics; it also represents her recognition that politics is not religion and governance is not Sunday school. While ministers may not like it, American politicians have always compartmentalized their faith. Palin is no different.

There are good reasons to be concerned about Sarah Palin. But her faith is not one of them. Despite her call for Americans to probe more deeply Barack Obama’s past religious associations, we should not hold either candidate accountable for all of the crazy things that their pastors have said over the years. In the same way that the Jeremiah Wright scandal had nothing to do with Obama’s ability to govern neither should Palin’s faith be cause for concern. That she wants to reward the rich with tax breaks, shoot wolves from helicopters, drill for oil in our national parks, build bridges to nowhere (before she changed her mind), pick on polar bears, overturn Roe v. Wade, and continue the go-it-alone foreign policy of Cheney-Rumsfeld is very troubling. But that she might speak in tongues on Sundays in Wasilla is irrelevant. After all, you don’t have to be a holy-roller to screw things up as a long line of politicians have made abundantly clear. That Palin and George W. Bush share an evangelical faith is not nearly as scary as that they both call their plays from the same far-right Republican playbook.

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Raul A Garcia - 10/22/2008

Hyperbolic but amusing in a typically more journalistic than a historically balanced reduction. Unlike more scholarly articles, this can be spread on a piece of oganic bread and enjoyed with a cup of bhang. The pure materialism of the secular state with more diminished freedoms and taxation stasis scares me a hell of a lot more than the imputed religiosity of the candidates cited.

james joseph butler - 10/21/2008

Putting Kennedy and Palin together in an article regarding religion is a joke. However I'm inclined to agree with Prof. Sutton's larger point; Ms. Palin is like most politicians, concerned with this election and the next one. Unlike JFK she is a 100%true belever, but like all successful pols she's able to parse what sells from what doesn't. Unfortunately America's surreal Middle Eastern/War on Terror policies sell with the general public. So just like W, McCain, Obama and Biden, Ms. Palin's religious views combined with the conventional wisdom regarding Israel, Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas etc. have the potential to create hugely self-destructive realities for America.

Bill Heuisler - 10/21/2008

Ms. Paul,
You wrote, "Mr Sutton in no way condemned Palin's religion."
I never said he did.
You must have read an intirely different critique than the one I wrote. My point may have been too esoteric for your taste, but it is that you cannot project others' motives and actions through the prism of your own prejudices. Sutton did exactly that and merely projected his own biases. He didn't condemn, he caricatured - even Catholics.

And my defense against nonsense is unnecessary. You say she wants to reward the rich. How? By not punishing them? Drill? 7 of 10 Americans see drilling for oil as a preferred alternative to paying billions every year to our enemies.
Her demeanor is charmingly without pretense and refreshingly different from the canned personalities of the often ridiculous Reid, Pelosi and Biden.

Where are you in Britain? I notice you spell demeanor with a U.
Bill Heuisler

Lorraine Paul - 10/20/2008

Bill, you must have read an entirely different article to the one I perused.

Mr Sutton in no way condemned Palin's religion. I do agree however, that he raised the same doubts I have about the woman's fitness to govern. Which he also saw as being due to her adherence to policies (reward the rich, drill for oil....) which are the complete opposite of any benefit to the majority of citizens of the United States.

Her politics is what I find abhorrent. I am also not exactly impressed with her demeanour and the way she is conducting her campaign, that is divisive, association by innuendo. Truly a nasty piece of work!

Don't attempt to justify or defend her, Bill. The days of men leaping to defend a woman's 'honour' went out with long underwear.

Bill Heuisler - 10/20/2008

Mr. Sutton,
Your oversimplification of religion is insulting and, as another reader mentioned, has little if anything to do with history. The projection of another's future acts through the vague and subjective lens of one's own religious phobias was thoroughly abused in a historic nadir called the Inquisition. But that's history...

Palin has been vililfied enough by people more competent than you, and I wonder why you chose HNN to exhibit your mean-spirited ignorance.
Bill Heuisler

George Shriver - 10/20/2008

You have onitted one very important point. Palin is a fundamentalist and it IS important to wonder how such a mind-set could handle such a public office as VP. She has been one for 32 yrs. and this had to influence her mind-set. It is not so much specific beliefs as it is a closed mind to other positions. Your article is terribly naive and compares apples to oranges in relation to the other candidates cited.

John R. Maass - 10/20/2008

Is this really about history?