November 2008

Religion and Politics

by Jonathan Wallace

Sarah Palin represents a problem of great importance in todays politics. In the U.S., we have long had a highly secular tradition in which religious beliefs are considered a deeply private matter, rarely if ever mentioned in the workplace or in secular spheres of public life which encourage diversity and in which religious expression would be deemed divisive and inappropriate. For some decades, the religious right, as it has grown in influence, has declared that the U.S. is a Christian nation, and has claimed the separation of church and state to be a mistake or a misunderstanding. When politicians breach the wall separating private belief from the public sphere, does it become appropriate to do something which would ordinarily be an act of rudeness, and evaluate their religious beliefs in determining whether they are fit for office?

The church Palin was baptized in and and belonged to until 2002, the Wasilla Assembly of God, is Pentecostal, a faith I and most secular Yankees know nothing about except for vague associations with snake handling and speaking in tongues.

In America, religion is a private matter, like sex and politics. I have worked next to people for years on end without knowing what they believe, how they vote, or whether they practice auto-erotic strangulation or like to dress in clothing of the other gender. And thats the way it should be. That I firmly believe is the kind of nation the founders intended us to have when they drafted the language of the First Amendment, which provided there would be no official state religion.

This was a social contract to keep religion a private matter, reserved for church and home. An inquiry into a persons beliefs, in deciding whether for example to offer her a job, would seem rude and inappropriate. We are expected to assume that any candidate is capable of embracing the culture of our organization, or declining to join it if our culture offends her own values.

More controversially, this may also mean that we expect most Americans functioning in public or business life to regard religion as a metaphor, rather than literal truth. If we believe in literal truth, I think it is a lot harder to build the wall between private belief and public life which is expected in a secular, diverse state. Metaphor promotes tolerance; Jews, Moslems and those of other Christian faiths feel safe working for you as boss or having you supervise their affairs as an elected executive. People to whom religion is literal truth may proselytize, bully, compel those around them, in their enthiusiasm.

The danger in what I am about to do, examine Palins beliefs, is that it easily turns into a type of witch hunt which could be used against any of us. Even the most secular or tepid individual could be slandered by too close and unsympathetic an examination of his co-religionists beliefs. Few of us if any are born into an entirely secular culture; there is always, somewhere in the environment, someone professing beliefs which, held up to daylight and out of context, may seem shockingly strange to those who dont hold them. As a Jewish person, there is no need to attack me with forgeries such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion; you can simply quote random strange sections of the Old Testament at me, and ask me whether this is truly what my people once believed.

Palin deserves the same basic right of privacy as anyone else does, as a default. I think her religious beliefs became an appropriate topic of public discussion when she herself made an issue of them.

Palin has aggressively flaunted her form of Christianity in her public rhetoric and actions. She has given speeches linking the will of God not only to the war in Iraq but to actions as local and specific as the building of an oil pipeline in her state. As Governor, she declared a Christian Heritage week which subtly advances the concept of the United States as Christian, not a secular nation. She wants creationism taught (alongside evolution) in public schools.

I think that because Palin has placed her religion at the forefront of her public expressions, Palins Pentecostal beliefs give us some valuable insights into her world view and allow us to forecast what she would be like as a leader of our country.

Although Palin has attended nondenominational charismatic churches since 2002, she has maintained a close relationship with the Wasilla church in which she grew up. She spent much more of her life as a Pentecostal than she did as a Catholic or charismatic. And I will argue that her policy beliefs are strongly influenced by Pentecostalism.

On the website of the Wasilla church, I found the following credo about the End Days:

WE The Blessed Hope. When Jesus Raptures His Church Prior to His Return to Earth (the second coming). At this future moment in time all believers who have died will rise from their graves and will meet the Lord in the air, and Christians who are alive will be caught up with them, to be with the Lord forever.

WE The Millennial Reign of Christ when Jesus returns with His saints at His second coming and begins His benevolent rule over earth for 1,000 years. At that time many in the nation of Israel will recognize and accept Him as the Messiah, the Savior who died for them and all mankind.

WE BELIEVE...A Final Judgment Will Take Place for those who have rejected Christ. They will be judged for their sin and consigned to eternal punishment in a punishing lake of fire.

Reading these together, I understand them to mean that the Rapture is coming, at an unknown time; that when it arrives, all of the saved Christians will rise up in the air to meet the Lord; any Jews who have converted to Pentecostalism will be saved; and the rest of the Jews who have not (as well as all Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists etc) will be thrown into a lake of fire.

Pentecostalists believe in general that only those can be saved who have been baptized by water immersion using a particular formula of words. This leaves out the majority of Christians, including all Catholics and other Protestant sects who do not practice immersion baptism.

To put it mildly, Pentecostalism is NOT an inclusive religion. It holds that there are a very small number of saved, and that the rest of the world is to be cast into a lake of fire. As such, it rejects diversity of belief. Although you wont find the information on the churchs web site, religion experts quoted in the media last week describe Pentecostalism as a faith which literally believes in demons and witches, that witches have zip codes, as one expert told the Times . A Kenyan minister who preached at Wasilla in Palins presence, and whom she enthusiastically praised, told a story of how he had personally expelled a witch named Mama Jane from his village. For those of us who believe in witch hunts but not witches, it is certain that Mama Jane was a normal human woman, probably driven out for being old, female and strange. To place this story in context, witch hunts and the torment and murder of suspected witches are a very real phenomenon in Africa today. Last May, a mob burned to death eleven suspected witches in Kenya.

Palin is not tolerant or inclusive either. She campaigned in the Midwest telling people that she loves the parts of America which love America. Someone who wants to be on the short list to be President of all the people, declared that there are Americans whom she rejects, because they live in regions of the country she qualifies as insufficiently patriotic. Palins frightening strength, her utility to the Republican party, is to be a folksy attack dog, in the manner of Joe McCarthy or Newt Gingrich. Start with self righteousness and arrogance, which inspire a sort of sociopathy, a desire to win at any price. Mix in a belief that there are demonized (or demonize-able) others in the landscape, which her religious beliefs provide. Palin, like Richard Nixon, will stoke the fires of support in part of the country by designating the rest as an internal enemy, ragging against liberal elites while extolling Joe Sixpack.

Palins record as mayor of Wasilla and then governor of Alaska is quite consistent. Her vendettas against people who offended her--the local librarian who wouldnt censor books, the state trooper who divorced her sister, then the commissioner who wouldnt fire him--had the quality of witch hunts. As president (an unthinkable idea for so many reasons) she would be narrow minded, rigid, and divisive. How could she even go out in the world to meet and negotiate with people her faith consigns to a lake of fire?

Another quote from the website of the Wasilla church:

WE BELIEVE... The Initial Physical Evidence of the Baptism in the Holy Spirit is Speaking in Tongues, as experienced on the Day of Pentecost and referenced throughout Acts and the Epistles.

Speaking in tongues, known clinically as glossolalia, is a phenomenon in which Pentecostalists and members of other charismatic faiths make speech-like sounds during services and prayer. (Check out Youtube for numerous videos of this practice.) While associated with schizophrenia earlier in the century, the prevailing view today is that glossolaia is learned behavior, practiced by quite intelligent and stable people as part of their relationship to God and their church. Neurological studies have demonstrated, however, that glossolalia does not use the language centers of the brain, firing up the emotional centers instead.

By the way, friends and acquaintances have insisted they never saw Palin speaking in tongues, though it is such an important and central practice that most Pentecostalists do so at their baptism (which takes place at age 12 or after) or during prayer. Even if Palin herself never practiced glossolalia, its literal truth as a cornerstone of the Pentecostal faith is something in which she wouild have been required to believe to call herself a member. And it is also central to other charismatic churches as a practice, even if they are not officially Pentecostal.

Religion is replete with metaphors, best loved and most fruitful when understood as such. I am not a Christian, but find beauty in the metaphor of the host as the flesh and blood of Christ. But Pentecostalists are believers not in metaphor but as the Wasilla web site says, in literal truth. Those speaking in tongues honestly believe that they are speaking foreign languages, when no-one can understand them (not even another Pentecostalist). (Another justification is that glossolalia is the language of the angels, an unverifiable proposition.) Linguistic studies have established that glossolalia mimics the native language of the speaker but does not itself meet the criteria for a language, as it lacks syntax, recurring sounds assigned particular meanings, etc.

Speaking in tongues, believed literally, is a potentially dangerous illusion for a politician: the idea that one is speaking the ultimate truth when in reality uttering random sounds that cant even be understood by other Pentecostalists.

As a metaphor for the dangers of arrogance, of self righteousness, of exceptionalism, as the belief that only your narrow, insular group knows the truth, speaking in tongues works pretty well. Palin, as president, would try to disseminate a world view, a conception of truth and righteousness, that most of her own nation does not share.

Another issue which has been extensively discussed is the special role Pentecostalists and other fundamentalists believe that Israel, and particularly a war in Israel, will play in the end times. The idea of a President making Middle Eastern policy based on belief in the literal truth not just of Revelations but of recent interpretations of Revelations is truly frightening.

The President must be a negotiator and coalition-maker, capable of building bridges to people whose background and beliefs are extremely different than hers. It is impossible to imagine Palin building bridges to people she not-so-privately imagines burining in a lake of fire.

The President must make cool, rational decisions about the use of force. A President should not commit us because the adversaries are demons (or because the end times are advanced), rather than because force is the best way at that moment to protect vital American interests. (One of the only available explanations for the disaster in Iraq, other than the very rational war for oil explanation, is that President Bush wanted, at least metaphorically, to exorcise a nasty demon from the world.)

A fundamentalist President, believing in the literal truth of everything in Scripture (as well of the literal truth of some things outside it better treated as metaphor) could not effectively serve as leader of all Americans, and cannot be trusted to make objective, rational, realpolitik decisions about the use of force.