Speculation in covering Palin

sarah palin at the conventionOver the last couple of weeks, there have been a slew of newspaper articles on the religion of Sarah Palin, Republican vice presidential candidate and Alaska’s governor. Considering that the rather surprising announcement of Palin’s spot on the ticket has been known for a couple of weeks, one would hope that the coverage would be thorough, original and informative.

A recent Chicago Tribune article, which represents one of the more thorough stories on Palin’s faith outside the East coast media outlets, is one of the less inflammatory. There is a less than original focus on how Palin’s faith excites religious people, but the article does not entirely ignore religion’s impact on Palin’s life.

Unfortunately, much of the article’s material on Palin’s religion is speculative. Part of that is the campaign’s fault. Personally, this has been one of the most confusing media management jobs I have seen on the national stage. That said, these few paragraphs in the Tribune article represent the results of a reporter lacking accessing to a person who could be a heartbeat away from the presidency:

She now eschews the denominational label, choosing to attend independent churches in Alaska and calling herself a generic Christian when asked. But she remains connected to the Assemblies of God, addressing pastors’ conferences and ministry students.

Many of Palin’s beliefs mirror those of evangelical Christians. But Pentecostals occupy a distinct subset of evangelical Christianity. They believe they can be “baptized in the Holy Spirit” just as Jesus Christ’s apostles were in the New Testament’s Book of Acts. Gifts of the spirit include speaking in tongues, prophesy and faith healing.

The churches she has attended also embrace dispensation, a theological system that emphasizes man’s dominion over the earth and the end times — theology that could potentially shape a believer’s environmental and foreign policies.

“When she talks about using up our non-renewable resources, drilling on the North Slope and building the pipeline, it’s almost with glee because in a sense it doesn’t matter,” said Nancy Hardesty, a professor of religion at Clemson University in South Carolina. “All her brand of Christians may be gone before those things run out. It tends to lessen a long-term view.”

Quoting experts who have clear political biases, speculating about how one’s theology would influence their public policy and poor use of important labels permeate the coverage of Palin. Unfortunately, until the media has more direct access to her and have an opportunity to discuss with her the impact of her faith on her public policies what are reporters going to do?

The article has its interesting points though. Just after the above quote, the article quotes a rather important figure in Palin’s spiritual life:

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.”

Now there is some reporting we can believe in. Obvious we do not know what would influence a Vice President Palin’s foreign policy, but talking to her pastor is an excellent place to start. Later on in the article, McGraw is quoted further along these same lines. One has to wonder if there was more context to this quote:

“She was very conscientious about applying the worldview of what she was discovering in Christ to her day-to-day life,” McGraw said. “But I think she did it with and does it with what the Bible calls wisdom — in other words practicality, not religious craziness.”

So there you have it. Palin’s pastor does not think she is going to be apply a religious crazy Christian worldview to the world. Glad we have that cleared up. Hopefully reporters covering Palin’s religion will not start with the assumption that her religious views are crazy.

Photo of Palin at the 2008 Republican National Convention used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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  • http://knapsack.blogspot.com Jeff

    Unlike Andrea Mitchell and Charlie Gibson, what follows is entirely speculation, anchored in the question of what a responsible journalist could or should do if these interpretations are rooted in fact, let alone someone wanting to sharpen an axe on someone’s neck.

    My read, between-the-lines-ish, is that Palin family had a long history at an AG church that, if you know the full range of Assemblies’ congregations, was not terribly Pentecostal, or at least no more so than many mildly conservative Methodist congregations are — a few folks who raise hands in the air during certain verses of some hymns, maybe a little whispering of “Jesus, Jesus” when a spoken prayer is offered up front.

    Then a new pastor comes on board who is more Pentecostal in his approach, and a bit more edgy about “end times” and prophecy related stuff, just as the Palin family is getting more involved in politics. There is every reason to think that, politics aside, that kind of Pentecostalism isn’t the Heath/Palin family preference, but now a church change starts to take on all kinds of overtones for them in the community.

    So they do what many well-known/prominent families do in communities when they don’t like the pastor or leadership direction of a church — if they aren’t the sort to, or have personal reasons for not wanting to make a big public takedown out of it, they will quietly start to attend less often, start showing up at another church, and (drum roll) will tell people who ask “well, nothing in particular, but the kids got really involved at the youth ministry over at ‘Blank’ Church and my husband knew some guys who hunted/fished/bowled with the pastor over at . . .”

    And the smart pastor of the church being left knows this is a gracious “I’m not making a stink, i’m just bowing out” offering, and they say the same thing when people ask “Whatever happened to the ‘Blank’ family?” As the AG pastor where the Palin’s used to go has said in interviews.

    So they never ‘quit’ Wasilla AG, and they’ve not ‘joined’ Wasilla Bible, which may not even spend much time talking about ‘membership’ anyhow — or that pastor may understand that they need to not join because they don’t want it said that they quit the other.

    If that’s all true, and it fits the few facts we have, and more to the point, is a familiar scenario to myriad pastors and church leaders all over the US, where this is how church changes tend to play out, how should a reporter cover it? I think there is a fair amount of ignorant bafflement feeding some of what we hear from media outlets on the “what church do they belong to” because this doesn’t sound familiar to hardly any of them — you’re a member, or you’re not, right?

    And if i’m right, i have no idea how i wish a reporter would write it up, given that the former pastor and current pastor are likely to keep saying what the family is saying, which leaves them as effective non-members of one church and attending non-members of the other, but in good standing enough to show up at events in both — which tells me quite a bit, because folks who leave a church often can’t or won’t bring themselves to go back, and apparently Sarah Palin has (re: the infamously clipped video) and is still warmly regarded there and invited to speak from the platform. If she left out of pure expedience for her political career, that wouldn’t happen; if she and her family disagreed with direction and emphases, but left in a way that leaves them still welcome at the former church, she is truly a skilled diplomat!

  • Martha

    “But Pentecostals occupy a distinct subset of evangelical Christianity. They believe they can be “baptized in the Holy Spirit” just as Jesus Christ’s apostles were in the New Testament’s Book of Acts.”

    Ummm… lots of us believe that, even if we’re not Pentecostals. Sacrament of Confirmation, for example? “The Catechism of the Catholic Church in its paragraphs 1302-1303 states:

    It is evident from its celebration that the effect of the sacrament of Confirmation is the special outpouring of the Holy Spirit as once granted to the apostles on the day of Pentecost.”

    Also, wasn’t there a survey out a little while back about American religious attendance, and how ‘church shopping’ is a common occurence? People visiting several churches to see which one they like or fits them best; people moving from one church to another; the rise of non-denominationalism?

    It is fascinating how the reporting on her beliefs is being treated as some kind of exercise in exotic anthropology, instead of coverage of what seems to be a fairly commonplace American practice.

  • Russ Pulliam

    This coverage of the coverage is very helpful. I was a little surprised that a copy editor at the Tribune did not catch that reference to dispensation and make it dispensationalism. I also never thought dispensationalism particularly emphasized our dominion over the earth. I guess reporters will be signing up for systematic theology pretty soon. It can’t hurt.

  • gfe

    It is fascinating how the reporting on her beliefs is being treated as some kind of exercise in exotic anthropology, instead of coverage of what seems to be a fairly commonplace American practice.

    I thought the same thing when I read about how Palin “eschews the denominational label, choosing to attend independent churches in Alaska and calling herself a generic Christian when asked.” Many of the evangelicals I know these days are the same way, and I never cease to be amazed at how many of those who go to megachurches don’t even know what denomination it belongs to.

  • Mark Ruzon

    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.

    She said three times in her Charlie Gibson interview that she would not second-guess Israel’s decisions to defend themselves against a nuclear-armed Iran. Given these two pieces of information, will anyone ask her if it is possible for Israel to make any decisions on any policy area that she would second-guess?

  • Cedric

    “The churches she has attended also embrace dispensation, a theological system that emphasizes man’s dominion over the earth and the end times…”

    Hmmm, I’ve never heard of this theological system called “dispensation”. Nor have I heard of one with a similar name (such as, oh, “dispensationalism”) which emphasized “man’s dominion over the earth”. Now, I’ve read of other theological systems that do that- Christian Reconstruction, Dominion Theology, Kingdom Now. But “Disp’ism” in itself does not do so.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    I’ve been very disappointed in the use of academics to comment on Palin’s supposed views. The ones I have seen, including the professor quoted above, project upon Palin the views of “all her brand of Christians,” which, unsurprisingly, turn out to be views that the professor is highly critical of. There are several hundred evangelical colleges in the US and a number of respected evangelical seminarys, and the Assemblies of God have colleges of their own. And you could probably figure out which colleges and seminaries best reflect Wassilla Bible Church’s viewpoints by asking which colleges their pastors went to, which schools they offer scholarships for, or what authors have most influenced them. Rather than asking a seemingly random professor who has no more insight into Palin’s religious beliefs than you or I do, why not go to theological sources more directly related to Palin and let them speak for themselves?

    One final note about the professor from Clemson. I find it amusing that she would consider an emphasis on the “end times” as “lessen[ing] a long-term view.” I guess it all depends on which calendar you’re using. :)

  • Dave

    Unfortunately, much of the article’s material on Palin’s religion is speculative. Part of that is the campaign’s fault. Personally, this has been one of the most confusing media management jobs I have seen on the national stage.

    Perhaps it is not confusing media management, but a deliberate attempt to fuzz up this topic. I won’t go into what other candidates have done to fuzz up their records, but it happens. Perhaps there even is a hope that the media will muddy their shoes rushing after this elusive story; that is what has happened, in any event.

    There is an important distinction to be made in reading coverge of Palin. The media are highly, professionally motivated to let some light into the black box that is Palin. The Democrats are highly, politically motivated to put some banana peels under Palin. Both efforts may resemble one another at times and, more tellingly, both efforts may have the same emotional effect on conservatives. It’s important not to take this emotional bridge and conclude that the media are sock puppets for the Democrats.