Michael Kazin: The History of Sarah Palin's Theology

[Michael Kazin teaches history at Georgetown University and is co-editor of Dissent. He is the author, most recently, of A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan and editor of The Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History.]

Going Rogue: An American Life By Sarah Palin • HarperCollins • 2009 • 413 pages • $28.99

The Persecution of Sarah Palin: How the Elite Media Tried to Bring Down A Rising Star By Matthew Continetti • Sentinel • 2009 • 226 pages • $25.95

I will never forget the first picture I saw of Sarah Palin. There she was on the cover of Vogue, in early 2008–the "Governor Issue," no less. Her long, thick hair streamed wildly around her head, her well-toned body pressed against her sleeveless dress. That beauty-queen smile lit up her face. It turned out the cover was a fake, an Internet hoax; the hair, the body, and the dress were all photo-shopped by an anti-Palin website that wanted to make her look as un-gubernatorial as possible.

But that smile was certainly real. It is the smile of a woman who knows she has been saved and hopes you are, or soon will be, too. "I thanked our Lord for every single thing we’d been through," she writes in Going Rogue about the year that began when John McCain chose her to run for vice president. "I believed there was purpose in it all." The most important thing to know about the most popular conservative in America may be that, as a teenager, she vowed "to put my life in my Creator’s hands" and has never doubted that he is guiding her down "my life’s path."...

In his strident defense of Palin’s character and ideology–more a pamphlet or super-extended blog post than an actual book–Matthew Continetti, an editor at The Weekly Standard, accuses that all-purpose villain, the "liberal media," of tarring Palin as a theocratic bigot. He maintains his heroine is a tolerant believer who always "separate[s] personal opinion from public practice." Why, he asks, did reporters not grill Joe Biden, a Catholic, about the Virgin Birth or transubstantiation? But Biden, like most liberal Catholics, has never worn his faith on his well-tailored sleeve. If a politician claims that God stands behind every major decision she makes, and some minor ones as well, it is logical to inquire what her "opinions" (to use Continetti’s mundane term) are and how they shape her politics....

Palin’s mode of Christianity can be traced back, ironically, to the arch-liberal revolt against Calvinist orthodoxy in the nineteenth century. Ministers like Henry Ward Beecher preached a buoyant Protestantism that banished the concept of hell and made the process of redemption seem as simple as asking for it. No longer was salvation available only to a mysteriously chosen elect. Beecher and his like-minded brethren considered sinfulness a temporary malady, which the love of God could burn away as a fierce noonday sun dries up a noxious mold. This new, welcoming gospel inspired many believers to throw themselves into political causes that every conservative of their day abhorred. Beecher earned a reputation as a militant abolitionist who at one point publicly shipped guns to antislavery settlers in Kansas, while his sister Harriet was the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the most influential attack on slavery ever written.

Following the Civil War, exponents of the Social Gospel applied their romantic faith to other burning issues. Self-taught economist Henry George predicted, in his best-selling treatise Progress and Poverty, that a confiscatory tax on private land ownership would bring about "the City of God on earth, with its walls of jasper and its gates of pearl!" Populists–the original species–vowed, in the words of one populist newspaper, that "God has promised to hear the cry of the oppressed" and claimed that "no man in this nation can live a consistent Christian life" unless he joined the agrarian insurgency. Frances Willard, the radical evangelical who headed the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, urged her many followers to "hear the cry of the world and help to hush it into peace, as a mother soothes the baby on her breast." And when Socialist leader Eugene Debs was jailed for speaking out against World War I, many of his supporters compared him to Christ. Like "the Nazarene Carpenter," wrote one lawyer from Oklahoma, "Debs had taught us continually… to Love one another and not to shoot one another."...

But Palin draws the line at any hint that the country might benefit from stricter regulation of corporate America or a health system that provided coverage to all. White evangelicals have long been divided between advocates of a moral commonwealth and those who preached moral self-control and self-reliance. The latter have dominated since the 1960s, due largely to the twin shocks of gay rights and legalized abortion and their vigorous advocacy by secular spokespeople; the identification of liberals more with anti-authoritarian values than with economic grievances played a role as well....

So liberals should not comfort themselves in assuming that Going Rogue is, in Jonathan Raban’s words, "a four-hundred page paean to virtuous ignorance." It is instead a tribute to Palin’s ability to draw a sizeable gathering of people who long for a politician who is, at the same time, a pious Christian, a stalwart conservative, and an aggressively modern woman. While that combination may not be virtuous, there is nothing ignorant about it.

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Thomas R. Cox - 3/19/2010

To see Sarah Palin's theological cum political roots as running back to the Social Gospel movement and earlier liberal Christian efforts seems strained in the extreme. In their more extreme forms these movements led to Christian Socialism, not to the fundamentalist theology of Palin and her ilk. Rather than being rooted in the Social Gospel and its forerunners, her theology springs from the fundamentalist controversy of the 1920s that rose as a reaction against such forces. Even William Jennings Bryan, whom Professor Kazin knows so well, would, I suspect, be appalled at the anti-intellectualism and antipathy to government activity that are the mark of the New Right.

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