The answer to all of these questions is probably yes. But so what? Palin is smart enough and pragmatic enough to separate her faith from her policy initiatives. Religiously-devout leaders have been doing the same thing in the United States for centuries.
If Palin’s beliefs are cause for alarm, then we should never have elected John F. Kennedy. After all, the Roman Catholic Church of 1960 wanted to bring down the wall of separation between church and state. Shouldn’t we have kept him out of the White House?
And what about Barack Obama? This guy should make the average American tremble. After all, he is very serious about the social ethics of the New Testament, especially Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Doesn’t that mean that if terrorists attack the United States, Obama will ask us to love our enemies as ourselves and to turn the other cheek?
How about Joe Biden? The Catholic Church forbids the use of contraceptives. If we elect him, isn’t he going to take away all of our condoms? Is the Vatican going to be writing the sex-ed curriculum for our schools?
No, no, and no. Obama is not going to turn the other cheek, Biden will not outlaw contraception, and Palin is not going to call down the Apocalypse. These men and women are politicians, not preachers, and they are certainly not prophets. Each has a serious and abiding faith. But it is one that has been deeply influenced by American civil religion—that mealy-mouthed creed of God (but not too much God) and country that has been the hallmark of our leaders since George Washington. The one thing that we can always count on is that our politicians never take their faiths too seriously. If they did they wouldn’t be able to stomach the world of American politics.
Palin is a Pentecostal and over the course of the last one-hundred years Pentecostals have been better than just about any other religious group at adapting their faith to modern American culture. Furthermore, dating back to the barn-storming days of Aimee Semple McPherson, they have not been afraid to let women assume leadership positions. They balance a primitive yearning for a personal relationship with God with a pragmatic willingness to play ball with people of other faiths. They are also populists. As Palin has demonstrated in the past few weeks, they are masters at speaking the language of the people. And most important, they are not usually zealots. Palin’s skill at dodging questions about gay rights despite the crystal-clear teachings of her church does not just represent savvy politics; it also represents her recognition that politics is not religion and governance is not Sunday school. While ministers may not like it, American politicians have always compartmentalized their faith. Palin is no different.
There are good reasons to be concerned about Sarah Palin. But her faith is not one of them. Despite her call for Americans to probe more deeply Barack Obama’s past religious associations, we should not hold either candidate accountable for all of the crazy things that their pastors have said over the years. In the same way that the Jeremiah Wright scandal had nothing to do with Obama’s ability to govern neither should Palin’s faith be cause for concern. That she wants to reward the rich with tax breaks, shoot wolves from helicopters, drill for oil in our national parks, build bridges to nowhere (before she changed her mind), pick on polar bears, overturn Roe v. Wade, and continue the go-it-alone foreign policy of Cheney-Rumsfeld is very troubling. But that she might speak in tongues on Sundays in Wasilla is irrelevant. After all, you don’t have to be a holy-roller to screw things up as a long line of politicians have made abundantly clear. That Palin and George W. Bush share an evangelical faith is not nearly as scary as that they both call their plays from the same far-right Republican playbook.