How Evangelicals Talk 101

OK, doesn’t anyone in the mainstream national press understand how evangelical Christians talk?

Honestly, head right on over to Google News and do a search for “Palin” and, of course, the hotter than hot political soundbite of the day — “God’s plan.”

You’re going to end up reading all kinds of things, including a lot of junk, but here is the basic Associated Press report on this non-story of the day, which ran under the totally predictable headline, “McCain aide: Palin believed candidacy ‘God’s plan.’

Sarah Palin believed that Sen. John McCain chose her to be his running mate in 2008 because of “God’s plan,” according to a top political strategist in the Arizona Republican’s campaign.

In an interview with the CBS news magazine “60 Minutes,” Steve Schmidt described Palin as “very calm — nonplussed” after McCain met with her at his Arizona ranch just before putting her on the Republican ticket. McCain had planned to name Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., as his vice presidential choice until word leaked, sparking what Schmidt called political blowback over picking the 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee.

Schmidt said he asked Palin about her serenity in the face of becoming “one of the most famous people in the world.” He quoted her as saying, “It’s God’s plan.”

Palin has not ruled out a run for the presidency.

Now, so far, I have not been able to find any information that provides the information that the reader needs in order to make any sense out of this short quotation. We do not know the context for this quote and we do not know if this is the whole quote, or if it is the only part of the quote that (a) Schmidt remembers or (b) thinks will cause headlines that will make Palin and/or her faith look stupid (yet again).

But if you know anything about the lingo of mainstream evangelicals and/or if you have managed to trudge through Palin’s book “Going Rogue” (my take: it’s a pretty interesting book about her love for her family and the state of Alaska, which is kind of ironic if you stop and think about it), you know that the odds are about 100-1 that what Palin said is that her nomination was part of God’s “plan for her life.”

This is, after all, precisely the approach she takes in her book when discussing the various twists and turns that her life has taken. She believes in a God who works through the choices that people make and also, mysteriously, through the events — both painful and joyful — that take place in their lives.

If you listen to evangelicals talk, you know that a typical statement of this belief might sound something like this: “Looking back, I could see that flunking out of dental school in Dallas was part of God’s plan for my life as a medical missionary in India.”

In other words, “God’s plan” may have had something to do with India, but that is not the point. The point is that the individual believer can only strive to discern God’s plan for her or her own life. Palin was probably saying that the nomination was part of God’s plan to broaden her horizons beyond Alaska. But, honestly, we don’t know.

We. Do. Not. Know.

Meanwhile, like it or not, this kind of reference to “God’s plan” is how most evangelicals think and talk and, truth be told, many other believers use very similar language when talking about issues of Divine Providence.

Now, if it turns out that Palin really did say that her nomination was part of God’s plan for the United States as a whole since, as the AP story quickly notes, she has not ruled out running for the presidency (which is the shocking connection implied in most of these stories), then headline writers can loosen up their fingers yet again and pound out some more really wild headlines — with good cause.

Until then, someone needs to produce some kind of “How Evangelicals Talk” phrase book — much like the one reporters needed when Jimmy “born again” Carter ran for the presidency — and hand it out in some elite newsrooms.

Oh, by the way, it goes without saying that the goal here is to discuss the journalism issues in this post, not what people think about Palin or the content of her faith. This is a journalism blog, folks. Stay on topic.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    This is just another example of how TV and publications editorial offices should be putting their preaching about the need for “diversity” in America into practice by doing some “affirmative action” to hire people who at least have a modicum of religious literacy. Sometimes I see comments about the Catholic Faith that are as ignorant as a reporter putting a science comment in his story affirming that the earth is flat. I doubt if he would keep his job. Yet a reporter can completely butcher and maul a story about religion and not a brow is arched over it. Just recently I saw on a TV news show a report on the latest papal statement that got the name of the pope completely wrong. Some news coverage-can’t get the name of the spiritual leader of over 1 billion people correct–and the reporter kept repeating the mistake through the segment.

  • Jerry

    Palin was probably saying

    We. Do. Not. Know.

    That is, of course, a conclusion. There might be evidence for it that I’ve missed, but so far I’ve not read such. You did cover that possibility at the end of your blog posting. So I’m not disagreeing with you as such about Palin but pointing out that it’s premature to come to a conclusion.

    And, for what it’s worth, it’s no only evangelicals or even Christians who talk about God’s will. After all, a very common Islamic expression is Insha’Allah (God willing).

  • tmatt


    I honestly do not get your first point.

    I am saying that we have a second-hand and very short quote that does not tell us what we most need to know, which is the context of those words. God’s plan for her? USA? The universe?

    I have concluded that we cannot reach a conclusion. Thus, we do not know.

    But, yes, I am saying that saying that it was God’s plan with her life is (a) normal evangelical speak and (b) consistent with her stance in her book. Any editor — left or right, skeptic or Bible thumper — who knows evangelicalism would ask that question.

  • Bob Smietana


    Great title for the post.

  • tmatt

    Thanks, Bob….

    One of my favorite parts of being a copy desk guy was writing headlines.

    But I’ll never be Doug LeBlanc….

  • Julia

    When some event was planned, wasn’t it Dan Rather who used to
    say something like: he’d be there, God willing, and if the creeks don’t rise?

  • Jerry

    Terry, I agree that we don’t know. But I took a wee bit of issue with your use of “probably” in “Palin was probably saying” since I consider that unproven at this point.

  • Winnie

    I was disappointed in your editorializing commente about Sarah Palin’s book (trudge through). I found it very interesting. I never thought much about the state of Alaska but her descriptions made it real for me. I also believe wwriting about her experience has thrown a spotlight on the mess we have created in politics, law and especially the media.

  • tmatt


    I am not very interested in political gossip or the mechanics of politics. The personal elements of the book were actually the more interesting parts to me and the center of the book, well, is all political gamespersonship.

  • tipi tim

    i noticed a few weeks ago that i understand evangelical but can’t speak it. it is very hard to explain to people who haven’t had firsthand experience with evangelical churchlife, even other christians. so it’s not surprising that msm doesn’t understand.

  • Winnie

    Pardon mytypos. At 74 my fingers don’t work as good as they used to LOL!

  • northcoast

    I assume the vernacular in question just reflects the spiritual law (ref. Bill Bright): God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life. Evidently the WaPo reporter did not go to Mrs. Palin for elaboration, and the article is entirely based on Mr. Schmidt’s 60 Minutes interview.

  • Julia

    I saw a regular mainstream person on TV last night say they would be somewhere “God willing and the creeks don’t rise”. Dan Rather lives. It might have been Tom Brokaw on the Tonight Show – don’t remember exactly.

    How is this different from what Palin said?

  • Bern

    Re the topic of journalism, this seems mostly a flimsy excuse for an interesting headline. Honestly, quoting from a tv interview! It’s like hearsay squared. Lazy, lazy, lazy.

    And as for the headline, well, those that speak evangelical are not going to have a problem with it, as they will understand it perfectly well. Palin might indeed have simply said, “It’s God’s plan” and not “It’s God’s plan for my life” in the context of being asked why she was so calm about becoming the VP nominee. The “problem” if it can be put that way is that those readers that don’t speak evangelical might not find it, let us, say comforting or encouraging. Is that the editor’s responsibility? Maybe, but like I said this is such a sory excuse for a story it’s hard to make an anything 101 out of it.

    Off the topic of journalism, the differences between saying something is “God’s plan” and saying “God willing and the crick don’t rise” are myriad, whether or not one speaks or understands evangelical. The latter allows for something other than divine will to influence the trajectory of one’s life. For sure the crick might rise, God willing or not!

  • Paul Wilkinson (Thinking Out Loud)

    “How Evangelicals Talk?” Maybe. But the better, and more often tried route is to have someone on staff — or adjunct staff — who is an Evangelical and get them to write the piece in question. Or, if their bias becomes too evident, co-write the piece.

    Most print and broadcast newsrooms — be they local or national — just don’t have anyone on staff, or on a source list, who speaks “Evangelicalese.”