No Comment — October 16, 2008, 10:21 am

The Wobbly Political Theology of Sarah Palin

Insiders say that John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin was designed to mobilize and rally the Religious Right—the bloc that played a key role in George W. Bush’s victories in 2000 and 2004. The Religious Right is of course linked to religious evangelicals, and its power base lies in the eleven states of the Old Confederacy, and the numbers-rich Southern Baptist Convention are its key strength. Theologically conservative mainstream Protestants, however, particularly those of Calvinist traditions, are also essential to the Religious Right’s blend, and contribute to its reach outside of the Southland. Despite early enthusiasm after the introduction of Palin, it is now clear that the McCain-Palin ticket is falling far short of the expectations of religious conservatives. Here’s a piece that Steve Waldman, a prominent writer on questions affecting religion and politics, posted earlier this week on Beliefnet.com:

With all the attention showered on evangelical Christians and Catholics, we’ve neglected the religious group partly driving Barack Obama’s recent surge in the polls: mainline Protestants. This bucket includes the historic American churches that once dominated the spiritual landscape but have been losing members in recent years: United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church in the USA, American Episcopal Church, United Church of Christ. Their members represent 18% of the population. This used to be a solidly Republican group. In 2004, they went for President George W. Bush 54%-46%. This summer, John McCain was leading Sen. Obama among these voters 43% to 40%, according to a study by John Green of the University of Akron. But an ABCNews/Washington Post poll released Monday showed Sen. Obama now leading among Mainliners 53%-44%, indicating that the undecided voters are breaking heavily for the Democratic candidate.

Why exactly? It may be that these voters are influenced by pocketbook issues and are shifting to the Democrats over disappointment with the economy and concern about the failure of financial institutions. But it may also be that they find the religious themes intoned by the Republicans to be off-key. I’m leaning to the latter view. Sarah Palin’s religious upbringing and affiliation leans heavily towards the world of Pentecostalism, a brand of basis Protestantism that has—in the minds of mainstream theologians—been viewed as long on enthusiasm and short on theology. Palin makes reference to her religious experience in her political speeches, but she approaches the topic in a guarded way. But some glimmers come through. Consider:

  • In a widely disseminated YouTube video, Thomas Muthee, a minister at Palin’s Assemblies of God church in Wasilla lays hands on Palin, calling for God’s blessings. In the course of his presentation, he implored Jesus to protect Palin from “the spirit of witchcraft.” The minister, we learn, hails from East Africa, and is known for mobilizing his community to attack and drive away a woman he believed was practicing witchcraft.

  • At an invocation delivered at a McCain-Palin rally in Davenport, Iowa, a minister intones: “I would also add, Lord, that your reputation is involved in all that happens between now and November, because there are millions of people around this world praying to their god — whether it’s Hindu, Buddha, Allah — that his opponent wins, for a variety of reasons. And Lord, I pray that you will guard your own reputation, because they’re going to think that their god is bigger than you, if that happens. So I pray that you will step forward and honor your own name with all that happens between now and election day.”

  • As part of her standard stump speech, Palin routinely questions Obama’s patriotism with a particular religious twist. He does not show pride in America, she states. He does not see America as a “shining city on a hill,” she says. She goes on to say that she has this phrase from a speech of President Reagan’s.

This last piece of rhetoric is extremely revealing of Palin’s political theology. Let’s start with the origins. It’s true that Reagan used the phrase in several speeches, but Palin seems unaware that the origins of the phrase lie in the Gospel of Matthew (5:14: “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.”) and that its use in connection with the American Experience dates to the great speech of John Winthrop, delivered to Puritan colonists before they were to set ashore in New England in 1630: “For we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world.”

If we carefully parse Winthrop’s words, we see that they have very nearly the opposite of the meaning that Palin assumes. Winthrop believed that his community was making a compact with their God, a solemn undertaking to build a new society on the virgin soil of America true to the models provided in scripture. The “city upon a hill” was aspirational, and it was backed by a stern warning about the costs of failure in the undertaking. For Palin, any expression of criticism was a rejection of the essentially sacred nature of America. But for the Calvinist colonists like Winthrop, introspection and self-criticism were the essential tools for achieving a holy project. Moreover, the idea of calling any inherently flawed human project, any state, a sacred object would violate the basic injunction against idolatry. Remember that Winthrop and his fellow colonists were leaving an England then descending into Civil War, and they were propelled to set sail because of their disgust with the corruption of society, and with the monarch’s theologically tenuous claims to divine guidance and right.

For the mainstream Protestant, Palin is engaging in what Reinhold Niebuhr calls “the idolatry of America.” As Niebuhr would have it, an American Christian may be patriotic and love his country, but he must also remember that his true home rests outside of these bounds fixed by geography and time and in an eternal community with Jesus Christ. The Christian’s commitment to his faith must come first, and it must transcend a commitment to the nation-state. This means that patriotism is, in the mainstream Protestant view, a fairly complicated matter. In particular, again in the Niebuhr tradition, a Christian must guard against the risk that vanity, haughtiness and hatred towards the balance of mankind enter into his heart under the guise of patriotism; he must retain a skeptical and critical attitude which recognizes the imperfection of human works. The perspective of Religious Right figures like Palin that elevates America—as their political blinders conceive her—to some sort of sacred object is therefore little short of an act of idolatry. Jesus Christ, as Charles Marsh reminds us, “comes to us from a country far from our own” and requires that believers lay their “values, traditions, and habits at the foot of the cross.” Or, as John Calvin says, “the heart is a factory of idols,” and a primitive noncritical form of patriotism can be a particularly troubling and entrenched idol.

This helps to explain why the Palin approach, even putting aside its striking ignorance, is a tough sell for mainstream Protestants. Sarah Palin may appeal to religious fundamentalists, but her appeal is framed in a much more narrow way than that of prior Rovian candidates.

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