Failing to explain Palin's faith

palin6Two weeks ago, I criticized national magazines' coverage of Sarah Palin's faith for providing more facts than explanations. Today I criticize Newsweek's cover story about Palin for ... providing more facts than explanations. As you can see, I am breaking new intellectual ground! Newsweek's story attempts to answer the question of how a small-town, working-class woman became the Republican Party's vice-presidential nominee. Part of its answer focuses on her religious faith, especially her former membership in the Assemblies of God.

Her sense of personal mission may be rooted in her religious upbringing. She was raised in a tradition that tended to emphasize an intimate connection with God, through the Holy Spirit--a tradition that puts the believer at the center of the spiritual drama, in direct communion with the Lord. Formed in such a milieu, it is not surprising that someone like Palin would have a heightened sense of self, and of the possibilities of self, for she was taught from her earliest days that she could be directly moved by God. Friends say the Ten Commandments imbued her with a strong sense of right and wrong. Even now, when she talks about complex political matters, she sometimes speaks in religious terms ...

Like succeeding paragraphs, this paragraph does not tell readers much about Palin's denomination. It shows only that Palin is a religious monotheist and a politician, not a Pentecostal. We are told that her religious upbringing emphasized "an intimate connection with God" and "put the believer at the center of the spiritual drama." How this theology differs from that of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam is left unstated. And we are told that she has a "heightened sense of self." How this self-understanding differs from that of a Western politician is similarly unmentioned.

In the next two paragraphs, Newsweek's story attempts to flesh out Palin's former beliefs as a member of the Assemblies of God:

Palin was raised a devout Christian, attending an Assembly of God church from the age of 4 until she was 38, and baptized in the cold waters of Alaska's Little Beaver Lake when she was 12. (She now attends different churches, one in Wasilla and one in Juneau.) As a child, she went to services on Sundays and Bible class on Wednesdays. She participated in after-school religious groups, and sang in the church choir. Her entry in the Wasilla High School yearbook of her senior year included one quote: "He is the Light and in the Light there is Life."

The Assemblies of God puts great importance in the believer's receiving the Holy Spirit. The faithful sometimes show this by the "gift of tongues" -- the babble of holy but unintelligible language that emerges when a believer is said to be caught up in the spirit of God. The practice wasn't encouraged in Palin's church when she was young, says her childhood pastor, Paul Riley, who is now retired. He preferred to preach that the Holy Spirit could move believers in other ways, and that tongues, while true, could be a showy "one-time experience." Palin didn't speak in tongues, Riley told NEWSWEEK, "but I do recall her being a gifted leader and a gifted speaker."

These two passage, too, don't explain much. All readers really learn is that Palin was always a religious Christian. It doesn't show us that Palin herself spoke in tongues, only that members of her church did. It does tell us that Palin was a "gifted leader and a gifted speaker." But how does that relate to her religion? Would it not relate just as much to her having entered beauty contests and played in the high-school basketball state championship game?

Put simply, Newsweek's explanations are unsatisfactory. Its story does not show us how her views as a former member of an Assemblies of God church affect her politics. It does not even show us that she is out of the mainstream on cultural issues, which given her opposition to abortion in cases of rape and incest, she is.

Granted, the story does show that Palin's religious rhetoric is not that of a typical politician or a traditionally religious politician:

To a church gathering, she described a $30 billion natural-gas pipeline project, backed by state tax money, as "God's will." Similarly, she urged her audience to pray that the war in Iraq was "a task that is from God ... That's what we have to make sure that we're praying for -- that there is a plan and that that plan is God's plan."

Yet the story does not link Palin's former views as a member of an Assemblies of God church to the quotes above. In short, this story left me with a question similar to that of USC student and reporter Tara Graham,

if Pentecostalism is indeed on the rise, what role might it play in the political discourse and election outcomes of the future?

That's a great question. It's too bad that Newsweek has not answered that question in not one but two issues of the magazine.

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