Tempting truth about Palin, evangelicals

palin5Amy Sullivan of Time wrote an uncharacteristically unsubstantiated story about Sarah Palin's possible difficulty in attracting support from moderate and young evangelicals. Usually, Sullivan's stories are marked by thorough and insightful reporting. This was not one of them. Early in the story, Sullivan characterized Palin's relationship with evangelicals in general:

Lost in the stampede of social conservatives to embrace Palin this past week is the fact that she is culturally outside the mainstream of Evangelicalism. Over the past few years, a growing number of Evangelicals have been consciously distancing themselves from the more extreme stands of the Christian right. They live in the suburbs, hold graduate degrees, and while they might not want their children reading certain novels, would be embarrassed by attempts to ban certain books from libraries, as Palin is reported to have briefly considered while mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. They don't attend churches where speakers charge that violence against Israelis is divine punishment for the failure of Jews to accept Jesus, as happened at one of Palin's churches two weeks ago (though Palin has now issued a statement saying she does not agree with those views). And they would disagree with Palin's decision to use her line-item veto as Governor to slash funding for an Alaska shelter that serves teen mothers.

Later, Sullivan characterized Palin's relationship with young evangelicals:

That goes double for younger Evangelicals. These voters tend to be even more pro-life than their parents, but abortion isn't always a priority that moves their votes -- it wasn't when McCain was alone on the ticket, and there's no reason for that to change with the addition of Palin. More important, Palin has problematic stances on many of the issues that do motivate young Evangelicals. Her insistence that global warming is not man-made, for instance, is unlikely to appeal to those Evangelicals who have embraced so-called "creation care" in the past few years. This is particularly relevant to the current race, as young Evangelicals account for much of that demographic's undecided bloc. No one knows what the size of their impact may be in November because young Evangelicals are consistently underrepresented in polls of white Evangelicals. (Even a TIME poll of likely white Evangelical voters conducted last month used a sample in which just 10% of respondents were between 18 and 35. That age group made up 22% of the total electorate in 2004, and its share of the electorate is expected to increase this year.)

Without any polling on evangelicals' attitude toward Palin, it is impossible to gauge the accuracy of Sullivan's assertions. That's right: Sullivan's passages above are filled with assertions, not fact. And in one case, her assertion was misleading.

Sullivan writes that Palin is outside the evangelical mainstream. Really? She was a Pentecostal, and Pentecostalism is one of the largest denominations within evangelical Protestantism.

Sullivan writes that mainstream evangelicals don't want to ban certain books from libraries. Yet like the story that she links to, she failed to specify which books Palin sought to ban. (Did the alleged books include books in the Harry Potter series or David Duke's My Awakening ?) And she provides no evidence that mainstream evangelicals oppose banning certain books.

Sullivan writes that mainstream evangelicals reject the notion that violence against Israeli's is divine retribution. This assertion is likely on firmer ground, but why not provide any citations or references, such as survey data from the Barna Group, the religious research firm?

Sullivan writes that mainstream evangelicals would disagree with Palin's decision to slash funding for a home caring for teen mothers. This is misleading. In fact, Palin agreed to triple the amount of funding for the home in question, Covenant House. All she did was to reduce the amount of funding requested by the state legislature from $5 million to $3.9 million.

Sullivan's characterization of Palin's relationship with younger evangelicals is also little more than assertion. She writes that young evangelicals would oppose Palin's position that global warming was not man made. But her proof for this assertion is sketchy. Her source is a Time story by about one seminary student who engineered a Southern Baptist declaration on "creation care." Left unmentioned is whether young evangelicals were involved or poll data about young evangelicals' views on this topic.

The story did have one virtue. Writing about Palin's move away from Pentecostalism, Sullivan gave readers good theological and religious historical context, providing some evidence for her point that some evangelicals won't embrace Palin:

That move away from the Pentecostal Church, which took place in 2002 when Palin first ran for lieutenant governor in Alaska, is the only potential sign she has given that her religious beliefs might be a political liability. Her spokeswoman now says that Palin does not identify herself as a Pentecostal. Historically Pentecostals and other Evangelical Protestants haven't always gotten along, largely because of theological differences. Pentecostal theology elevates the role of the Holy Spirit and includes belief in spiritual gifts, such as healing and speaking in tongues. But the groups have often been able to set aside their doctrinal disagreements for political purposes. Pat Robertson, a Pentecostal, and the late Jerry Falwell, a Fundamentalist, famously had bitter theological disputes but still joined forces as leading figures of the Christian right.

Yet only that paragraph stood out in an otherwise lamentable story.

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