Vanity Fair’s swing at Palin’s faith

I came across Vanity Fair‘s profile of Sarah Palin right before I read the New York Timesmemo on anonymous sources, and I don’t think it was a coincidence.

The Vanity Fair piece is gaining quite a bit of buzz for some juicy details. Doesn’t everyone want to read about Palin throwing cans at her husband, her push-up bra power, and her Spanx girdles? Part of what is so puzzling is why Michael Joseph Gross uses so many anonymous sources. The final point of the NYT memo reads:

While anonymous sources are sometimes crucial to our journalism, every time we rely on anonymity, we put some strain on our credibility with readers. As all our guidelines emphasize, we should resort to anonymous sources only for newsworthy information that we can’t report any other way. Anonymity should not be invoked for trivial, obvious or tangential information, or for quotes that add little of substance. And it should not be used as a mask for personal attacks.

Now Gross is rushing to defend his piece. “The worst stuff isn’t even in there,” he said on “Morning Joe.” “You know, I couldn’t believe these stories either when I first heard them and I started the story with the prejudice in her favor. I have a lot in common with this woman. I’m a small town person, I’m a Christian. I think that a lot of her criticisms of the media actually have something to them and I figured she’d gotten a bum ride but everybody close to her tells the same story.”

Unfortunately for Gross, no one cares about his background or his initial perceptions of Palin. It wouldn’t matter if an atheist had written the piece; the story should stand on its own. But journalists aren’t exactly rushing to back him up at this point. Katrina Trinko does a nice job of compiling the reaction among journalists and liberal feminists.

This isn’t Vanity Fair‘s first shot at Palin; Doug looked at a piece last year. There’s a lot to work through in this 10,000+ words piece, but we’re going to focus on the religion bits. A few months ago, we looked at Newsweek‘s odd declaration that Palin leads the religious right. Now it’s time to look at how this piece portrays her faith.

Here’s the kind of sentence you’ll find in the piece: “You could pretty much replace the word ‘constitution,’ from yesterday’s remarks, with ‘Bible,’ and be good to go.” So stay with me as I pick choice passages and suggest lingering questions and concerns.

Eventually, an aide asked, “What are you working on?”

“I’m reading these great e-mails,” she said, “from the prayer warriors.”

The term “prayer warrior” describes a person who offers a specific kind of supplication: asking God to direct an unseen battle between forces of light and darkness–literal angels and demons–that some Christians believe is occurring all around us.

Where is the evidence for this claim? Has a theologian or pastor defined the term “prayer warrior?” to mean those that ask God to direct angels and demons? Even if some people use the term that way, there is no evidence that Palin uses the term in this way.

A leading member of Wasilla’s Church on the Rock, the non-denominational evangelical congregation where Palin sometimes attends worship, confirmed this understanding of the term. When Palin thanks prayer warriors for keeping her covered, she is thanking them for calling on angels to shield her from demonic attacks.

What is a “leading member” and what was the actual quote? If the quote does not come from a pastor, does this statement have any credibility? Should reporters interpret President Obama’s theology from “leading members” of Trinity United Church of Christ? Do prayer warriors only pray about angels and demons? Why not name the person talking?

On the night of the vice-presidential debate with Joe Biden, Palin received an e-mail marked “URGENT…Urgent for Sarah to read …” The e-mail came from pastor Lou Engle, a prominent right-wing activist who identifies himself as a prayer warrior and is a central figure in dominionist theology. (Dominionists believe that, until Jesus Christ returns to earth, society should be governed exclusively by God’s law as revealed through a literal reading of Scripture.)

In the e-mail, Engle compared Palin to the biblical Queen Esther. “This is an Esther moment in your life,” he wrote. “Esther hid her identity until Mordecai challenged her to risk everything for such a time as this. Your identity is ‘Sarah Barracuda.’ Esther removed corruption from the Persian government and Haman fell. She didn’t have experience, she had grace and favor. Sarah, don’t hide your identity tonight.”

I’m guessing Palin received a lot of e-mails. Was there indication that she replied to the e-mail, that she agreed with it in any way? Why not follow up with Engle and ask what he thought about her election loss? Does that mean that she didn’t have grace and favor? Did God call her for such a time as this to lose and usher in Obama (who she thinks is leading our country to ruin)?

Palin has often stated that the strokes of luck propelling her political success were divinely ordained: “There are no coincidences” is a favorite maxim. In Going Rogue, Palin casts herself as a reluctant prophet, accepting providential election against her wishes

The reluctant prophet is a character trope found throughout Hebrew and Christian scripture. (Jesus prays, “Father, if it is Thy will, let this cup pass from me.”)

Whenever I heard Palin speak on the road, her remarks were scored with code phrases expressing solidarity with fundamentalist Christians. Her talk of leading with “a servant’s heart” is a dog whistle for the born-again. Her dig at health-care reform as an expression of Democratic ambitions to “build a Utopia” in the United States is practically a trumpet call (because the Kingdom of God is not of this earth, and perfection can be achieved only in the life to come).

I know we say this often, but we must say it once again. Avoid the f-word. “Fundamentalist Christian” does not equal “born-again.” Besides, why would her specific use of the term “build a Utopia” suddenly become a trumpet call? Do only fundamentalist Christians recognize the limitations of politics? What about libertarians and many Republicans?

But it is Palin’s persistent encouragement of the prayer warriors that most clearly reveals her worldview: she is good, her opponents are evil, and the war is on.

I don’t even know how to make sense of this. So if you use the term “prayer warrior,” you are automatically good, anyone who opposes you would be evil, and you are declaring war. Can someone help me name the fallacy?

Sometimes the children rebelled. A campaign aide remembers that one of the Palin children found her mother’s public displays of piety especially grating. Though Palin prayed and read the Bible every night, aides never saw the family join her for devotionals. “You’re just putting on a show. You’re so fake,” one of the children said when Palin made a point of praying in front of other people. “This is not who you are. Why are you pretending to be something you’re not?”

This little anecdote reflects the entire article that juxtaposes Palin’s professed faith and how she treats other people (pretty poorly, according to some anonymous sources). In case you aren’t convinced of Palin’s diva complex, allow Gross to nail it home in his conclusion.

The North Star has long been seen as a symbol for Alaska–and for God. They can both move over now. It belongs to someone else.

And don’t forget Edward Sorel’s obvious illustration: “Excuse me! We are a Christian nation!.” Classy.

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  • Evanston2

    Wow. Thank you Sarah for showing how this article abused the power of the pen.

  • Chris

    No other word than “dumb” describes this article.

    What I found most interesting is that Ms. Bailey sides with the author in suggesting that belief in the existence of angels and demons is scandalous, rather than part of a cosmology, without which, Christianity makes no sense.

    (I get it that one can be a “prayer warrior” without invoking angelic beings, but again why would one? If I were a materialist, I would see no point in prayer at all.)

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Chris, I don’t think I suggested that it was scandalous, but are prayer warriors only praying about angels and demons? Might they be praying for, say, understanding of God’s will, strength during difficult times, etc. etc. I didn’t say there was anything wrong with it. I was suggesting that drawing theological conclusions from from the term “prayer warrior” is a stretch.

  • Crimson Wife

    I’m not familiar with the term “prayer warrior” being used in that context. I always thought it just meant praying on behalf of another person. For example, a good friend of mine is battling cancer and a bunch of us are her “prayer warriors” asking God to let it be His will for a speedy and complete recovery. I do believe in the existence of angels and Satan but I can’t remember ever praying in the manner described by the VF article.

  • Jerry

    “You’re just putting on a show. You’re so fake,” one of the children said when Palin made a point of praying in front of other people. “This is not who you are. Why are you pretending to be something you’re not?”

    This little anecdote reflects the entire article that juxtaposes Palin’s professed faith and how she treats other people…

    When I read that ‘fake’ quote, it seemed clear to me that one of the children was stating that Palin is a hypocrite which is not necessarily related to how she treats others.

  • Maureen

    The fact that the child survived this alleged smartmouth remark to her mother, and didn’t receive a crack on the behind or soap in the mouth, shows that Sarah Palin is a heckuva lot more liberal childrearer than my mother. So I tend not to believe it. :)

    Of course, the classic smartmouth remarks of child to parent usually boil down to:
    1. It’s not fair.
    2. You’re stupid.
    3. You’re a hypocrite.
    4. I won’t.
    5. It’s not fair, you’re a stupid hypocrite, and I won’t.

  • Passing By

    There was a time when “prayer warrior” was part of my vocabulary and Crimson Wife describes how we all used the term.

    Maureen, you forgot: whatever… :-)

    I’m not a fan of Sarah Palin, but less of dishonest, manipulative journalism. Honestly, I try not to comment on a post unless I’ve read the article in question, but I couldn’t stomach this one.

  • David

    A great commentary on Gross’s story is “The Truth about That Dishonest Vanity Fair Palin Story, from One Who Was There,” by Gina Loudon, on the Big Journalism website at

    In the lede, Dr. Loudon says: “The recent hit piece on Sarah Palin by Michael Joseph Gross reveals that [Vanity Fair] must be as desperate as the rest of the MSM for sales/ratings, because they have lost all credibility, if they ever had any.”


  • Bern

    The headling of this post is a bit misleading: VF is taking a swing at Palin, not only her faith.

    Too many anonymous sources and too many unsupported statements. Even the attempts to be fair — like pointing out that both pro-Palin and anti-Palin blogs engage in nasty and over-the-top rhetoric — feel prefunctory and are offset by implying that “still” the pro-Ps are far worse.

    Very personal gripe: the big deal the writer makes of Palin saying in her speech that she had no direct experience with a special needs child when in her book she writes she has an autistic nephew. As the parent of a special needs child myself I can tell you that living with and raising a special child is totally different that being an aunt to a special needs child. There is no there there–and I am not a Palin fan by any means, being one of the majority of Americans who think that she is not qualified to be president and frankly am tired of the endless coverage of her every sneeze.

  • RSG

    David, probably should look elsewhere for media critiques than Breitbart. Just a thought.

  • Passing By

    I’m sorry, but I’m not familiar with Breitbart’s site. Is there something about it that makes first-hand testimony false?

  • Bram


    What specific parts of the Gina Loudon piece on Breitbart do you dispute and what rational basis do you have for doing so? Were you there at the rally that Loudon describes, the one at which Gross seems either to have misunderstood or to have misrepresented who Loudon was, who her child was, and how Sarah Palin behaved?

  • Bram

    Do we know if Michael Joseph Gross was a member of JournoList?

    I’d hardly be surprised if he was.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Jerry, what I meant to show was that the reporter is trying to show how she has this faith but is questioning whether that is really real (from her child’s comment and then from the way she treats people). I could have made that clearer.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    I deleted a few comments that weren’t related to journalism. Please focus on the religion aspects as well.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Bern, that’s true, but here at GR, we focus on the religion aspects.

  • James

    I’m not sure I understand how comments not related to journalism are getting deleted, but Bram’s comments attacking liberals and not journalism is allowed to remain.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    James, I was skimming them and assumed he was engaging with another commenter on journalism. I’ve cleaned it up a bit more, wishing I could turn my comment moderating powers over to you. Really, the purpose is to discuss journalism, not Palin haters, liberal publications, etc. Thanks!

  • John Pack Lambert

    Maureen and Jerry,
    Of course, there is no evidence that any child said these things. It is attributed to an unnamed child. The article already has been shown to contain false claims about Trig being at a meeting in Missouri.

    Why does anyone give any credence to anonymous sources?

  • Dan

    The journalist who wrote the article stated: “I started the story with the prejudice in her favor.” Right. Given that statement and the type of article he wrote, it’s hard imagine someone with less credibility.

  • Bram

    Sorry for going out of bounds, Sarah. That said, I continue to think that the antipathy on the part of a person like Gross toward people such as Palin who are not like him is of journalistic relevance here and of religious relevance too. All the best.

  • Ann Rodgers

    The last that I knew (which was during the 2008 campaign) the Palim family had left the charismatic Church on the Rock and was attending Wasila Bible Church. Odd that this writer apparently makes no mention of that. What I thought many in the media missed then, and this article misses now, is that Wasila Bible Church is dispensational. They don’t believe in the wild-eyed prophecy stuff that her critics lampooned her for allegedly participating in at Church on the Rock. To move from a high-octane charismatic church to a church where the senior pastor attended Dallas Theological Seminary is to vote in favor of conservative but scholarly biblical exegesis and against anyone telling what God’s will is based on hearing voices. Admittedly some people are clueless about theology and may just move the family because one church has a better youth room than another. But I suspect the Palins knew the difference and were making a theological choice.

  • Julia

    Besides, why would her specific use of the term “build a Utopia” suddenly become a trumpet call? Do only fundamentalist Christians recognize the limitations of politics?

    ha ha ha ha

    Utopia was written by the Catholic saint Thomas More – you know, the guy who was beheaded by Henry VII back in 1535. The impossibility of building a perfect society on earth is a very, very old idea and not invented by Protestant Fundamentalists.

    Utopia is often seen as a satire and there are many jokes and satirical asides such as how honest people are in Europe, but these are usually contrasted with the simple, uncomplicated society of the Utopians. Some of the religious concepts, such as women as priests, were proposed by Protestants such as William Tyndale and More may be including the ideas in order to ridicule them.


  • Julia

    That would be Henry VIII, of course, and not VII.

  • Julia

    From the article at the link provided:

    With few exceptions—mostly Palin antagonists in journalism and politics whose beefs with her have long been out in the open—virtually no one who knows Palin well is willing to talk about her on the record, whether because they are loyal and want to protect her (a small and shrinking number), or because they expect her prominence to grow and intend to keep their options open, or because they fear she will exact revenge, as she has been known to do.

    And this gives him carte blanche to put whatever words he wants into people’s mouths. Appears to me that you could do this kind of story about almost anybody who has held an office or public position.

  • Passing By

    Picky me, but the Palins previously attended the Wasilla Assembly of God. This matters (but could still be overly picky), because of cultural and historical differences between the classic Pentecostals (Assembly of God included) and the newer Pentecostals/Charismatics.

  • Fleurdamour

    I followed a link to you from a piece by Sarah Posner on Religion Dispatches. I didn’t really agree with her approach, and I don’t agree with yours, either. I do think Gross used too many anonymous sources for the VF article, but I also think you’re both parsing his piece too much. So he didn’t give footnotes on attribution regarding the prayer warrior concept – maybe he (or his editor) thought they’d covered it well enough. It wasn’t the focus of his piece, just one tidbit in a profile written with the aim of demonstrating Palin’s character, a decidedly subjective undertaking. You have the luxury of a blog, but he’s got an editor, wordcount limits and a deadline. Even at 10,000 words, I’m sure some stuff had to go just for space. Also consider that he’s a writer for a mainstream glossy mag, while you write for a religion publication. Your priorities are simply different.

  • David

    The ever-brilliant Victor Davis Hanson skewers Palin bashers, among others, with his rapier wit in “Our Waning Obama Worship” in National Review Online at

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Fleurdamour, thanks for coming our way. Generally, journalists use some sort of attribution for trying to understand the theology behind a term like “prayer warrior.” I’ve heard the term used in so many different ways, so I just thought he could have at least talked to a theologian or something to back his assertion. Everyone has an editor, wordcounts, limits, and deadlines. I’m not the only one who has criticized the piece. As I said early in the post, the piece was widely torn apart by other professional journalists. What do you think his priority was? I would hope that something like this would not appear in the Atlantic or New Yorker. It was shoddy reporting overall, but I focused on the religion pieces here.