Does a candidate’s faith matter? That seems to be one of the more pressing questions being asked in opinion pieces and on blogs these last few weeks. Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s evangelicalism has raised eyebrows on the left and hopes on the right. (Though she no longer identifies herself as a pentecostal, she attended an Assemblies of God church for over thirty years.) One year ago Mitt Romney’s run for the Republican nomination disturbed quite a few Americans. It was not his tax policies or foreign policy experience that caused so much grief. “Most evangelicals still regard Mormonism as a cult,” said Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals in 2005. The thought of a Mormon president brought chills up the spine. For all those Christians who watched the anti-Mormon propaganda film The God Makers in the 1980s, Romney might as well have been the anti-Christ.
Fears of heresy and infidelity have long exercised the electorate. In the election of 1800 Federalist opponents called Thomas Jefferson a wicked non-believer. In more recent years, as Randall Balmer recounts in God in the White House: A History: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush, the 1960 election provoked a new wave of anti-Catholic fear. Billy Graham, Norman Vincent Peale, and other leading evangelicals wondered whether a Catholic could be appropriately loyal to his country. In 1960 the largest pentecostal denomination in America, the Assemblies of God—which Sarah Palin later belonged to—jumped into the fray. A church representative asked emphatically, “Haven’t the American people enough ‘security risks’ as it is without placing another in the President’s office?” In the months before the election, thousands of churchgoers sent letters to the pentecostal Church of God’s headquarters in Cleveland, Tennessee, asking how they should vote. The denomination’s general overseer warned his flock that if Protestants sat by idly, no one could complain if a Catholic assumed the nation’s highest office.
But by the late 1960s, after Vatican II and a whole range of social changes, it no longer mattered if politicians crossed themselves and prayed the rosary. Anti-Catholicism was gauche even in conservative evangelical circles by the 1970s.
Before the 1960s pentecostals were personae non gratae at the evangelical and fundamentalist table. Even shouting jack-leg Baptist preachers thought holy rollers a rowdy bunch. A black preacher led the pentecostal revival that irrupted at Azusa Street, Los Angeles in 1906. It featured interracial and cross-class worship. Early initiates at the Azusa meeting and converts from across the country wanted nothing to do with politics. At best political activity was a waste of time, and at worst it was a diabolical delusion, better left to wicked reprobates. Tongues speech, prophecy, and healing—based on a literal reading of the New Testament and a belief that miraculous works of the Spirit marked these “last days”—shocked the living daylights out of other conservative Christians. Pentecostals sequestered themselves from much of mainstream culture. To some anti-pentecostal folk “tonguers” were ridiculous, to other opponents they were demonic.
Yet after World War II pentecostals made a kind of pilgrimage to respectability. Rising incomes and a rising profile made followers more self-conscious of what other Christians thought of them and more acutely aware of their stake in society. In 1960 Thomas Zimmerman, the general superintendent of the Assemblies of God, became head of the National Association of Evangelicals. Once shunned by such groups, pentecostals were now welcomed into the conservative Protestant fold.
By the time the conservative charismatic televangelist Pat Robertson ran for president in 1988, many pentecostals had already become politicicized. They were largely united in their opposition to the social revolutions of the 1960s. The 1962 Supreme Court decision Engel v. Vitale, forbidding prayer in public schools, outraged them. A little more than a decade later the Roe v. Wade case legalized abortion, adding urgency to their cause. Pentecostal and non-pentecostal conservatives alike now championed Christian civilization and public virtue. Great Society liberals, critics warned, wasted the nation’s fortunes on undeserving poor and turned a blind eye to soaring crime rates and rampant immorality.
Today, by almost every measure, pentecostals rank among the most conservative of America’s Christians. A large number say the government should take steps to make the U.S. a Christian nation. A Pew survey conducted in 2006 showed that “pentecostals often stand out for their traditional views on a wide range of social and moral issues, from homosexuality to extra-marital sex to alcohol consumption.” Sixty-four percent of American pentecostals say that abortion can never be justified. By the 1990s, denominations like the Assemblies of God were issuing far right edicts on a range of political issues: environmentalism, feminism, human origins science, human cloning, law and crime, capital punishment, and euthanasia.
A progressive activist in Alaska once asked Palin if she believed that doomsday was right around the corner. Philip Munger comments, “She looked in my eyes and said, ‘Yes, I think I will see Jesus come back to earth in my lifetime.’” She’s not alone. Ninety percent of pentecostals register particularly strong views on the last days and the rapture. Only 53% of nonpentecostal Christians express similar concern. Whether that means that pentecostals favor a scorched earth policy with regard to environmentalism is another matter. Commentators often read far too much into millennialism, though that novel eschatology shapes the worldviews of adherents in subtle ways.
Nondenominational or Bible-believing churches, like the one that Sarah Palin and her family now attend, are also overwhelmingly conservative. Many such groups are intensely restorationist. They hope to restore an uncluttered New Testament church of the Bible, freed from the apostate innovations of the last 1,700 years and loosed from the straightjacket of creeds and dogmatism. Ironically, though, such churches develop their own creeds and theological peculiarities that often go unacknowledged: biblical literalism, premillennialism, a strict understanding of baptism and of who can and cannot be ordained.
So what role will Sarah Palin’s faith play in the November contest and, perhaps, beyond? On one hand Americans are treated to Sam Harris’s fire-breathing polemic—equal parts H. L. Mencken and Richard Dawkins—against her in Newsweek. Led by the Spirit, Harris implies, Palin would unleash the United States’ nuclear arsenal on infidels, perhaps hoping to speed Armageddon. On the other hand Americans read glowing testimonials in the Weekly Standard and other conservative outlets hailing the Alaska governor as a scrappy saint or Ronald Reagan in a dress.
John McCain’s handlers have been wise to downplay Palin’s pentecostalism while stressing her born-again, non-denominational bona fides. The image of a tongues-speaking, rapture-ready, creationist, hockey mom doesn’t play so well with nonpentecostals. Yet her Bible-believing Christianity has mattered a great deal to the base. While the Azusa Street roots are downplayed, Palin’s evangelicalism is front and center, reassuring millions of her fitness for office. Christian culture warriors have embraced her and have decided that McCain is not so bad after all. Sins of commission and omission are washed away in a second. So what if it turned out that Wasilla was not quite Main Street USA. So what if comments about earmarks were only vaguely “truthy.” Palin was one of us, conservative Christians seemed to be saying. When news broke that her seventeen-year-old daughter Bristol was pregnant, James Dobson called for healing and restoration. Those were not the first words to come out of conservatives’ mouths in the early 1990s when fictional TV character Murphy Brown was with child and without husband. So, through the alchemy of religious partisanship—and just as Jimmy Swaggart was viewed as “honest” for asking forgiveness for sexual dalliances—Bristol Palin’s conception has become an immaculate one.
Maybe all this has shown that religious identity politics is alive and well in America. The tidal wave of evangelical moderation that pundits predicted in the New York Times, Washington Post, and elsewhere looks more like a ripple now. Many are waiting to see how these issues will play out when Palin and Democratic VP candidate Joe Biden go head to head. As team McCain-Palin trains, one wonders if they have crafted answers to questions like: Have you ever spoken in tongues? If so, what’s it like? What will it look like when Jesus returns? Did humans harness the power of dinosaurs in ancient times? Was America founded as a Christian nation? What kind of books should libraries pull from their shelves?
That would make for an interesting debate.