I am genuinely fascinated with the degree to which the choice of Gov. Sarah Palin as the GOP's vice presidential nominee has created a firestorm on the religion left and, to some degree, in secular corners of the Democratic Party. For months now, I have been saying that the trailblazing efforts by Sen. Barack Obama -- an outspoken voice for liberal Christianity -- to invade traditional religious sanctuaries is one of the most interesting religion-beat stories that I have seen in a long, long time. That's why I wrote about him so early in the campaign, in a column ("Obama's awesome testimony") for the Scripps Howard News Service.
That earlier effort included this passage about Obama's fervent speech to a national meeting of the United Church of Christ, focusing on his decision to become a Christian:
"It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle ... and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn't fall out in church, like folks sometimes do. The questions I had didn't magically disappear. ... But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truths and carrying out His works."
Over at the Christian Broadcasting Network, commentator David Brody offered a candid evaluation of the speech: "That, ladies and gentlemen, is called a conversion experience."
Most of all, I was fascinated that Obama was urging his fellow believers on the religious left to strike a new tone, to take a more positive stance in their dialogues with traditional believers. He was trying to heal some wounds.
Now, in the wake of the Palin nomination, it's like all of that has been washed away. We're back at -- well -- the U.S. Senate hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas, or something like that.
So this week I stuck an editorial toe into the Palin tsunami. Lord, have mercy.
Here's the new column (Scripps Howard link is here), with a few hyperlinks thrown in. However, note that I have also included the final kicker line that I almost used. I have been second-guessing myself ever since I clicked "send" early this morning.
So I want readers to give me a thumbs up or thumbs down. Should I have used this final, snarky, benediction? Would it have been appropriate? Fair? A straw-man exercise? Let me know what you think in the comments pages.
The punch line rocketed around the World Wide Web, inspiring smiles in pews friendly to Sen. Barack Obama.
The Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners saw a campaign button based on this one liner and, on the "Interfaith Voices" public radio show, said it was a fine response to Gov. Sarah Palin's jab at the work of "community organizers."
Donna Brazile -- who ran Al Gore's 2000 White House campaign -- saw the same gag and, on CNN, quickly linked it to the Bible's message that "to whom much is given, much is required."
But this cyberspace quip finally made the crucial jump to YouTube when U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen took to the House floor to remind conservatives "Barack Obama was a community organizer like Jesus. ... Pontius Pilate was a governor."
Cohen later emphasized that, "I didn't and I wouldn't compare anyone to Jesus. ... What I pointed out was that Jesus was a force of change." But the apology came too late to douse the fiery rhetoric raging on talk radio and weblogs.
In particular, the soundbite used by Cohen and others captured the rising tide of religious tensions in this White House race. This conflict has been heightened by the powerful role played by religious liberals in Obama's groundbreaking outreach efforts in a wide variety of sanctuaries.
Obama is, after all, an articulate, proud member of the denomination -- the United Church of Christ -- that has in recent decades boldly pushed mainline Protestant to the doctrinal left on issues such as gay rights, abortion and the tolerance of other world religions. His running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, is an outspoken American Catholic whose progressive views have often placed him in dangerous territory between his political party and the Vatican.
Sen. John McCain, meanwhile, used to be an Episcopalian married to a beer-empire heiress, the very model of a mainline Protestant gentleman from the 1950s. Then he started visiting Southern Baptist pews while mending fences on the religious right. Finally, McCain shuffled the 2008 deck by naming Palin -- an enthusiastic evangelical mother of five children -- as his running mate.
This move rocked the pews on both sides of the sanctuary aisle, but Palin's ascension has caused an unusual degree of shock, anger, dismay and disdain on the secular and religious left.
The political weblog Instapundit summed up the mood on the cultural left with this headline: "She's the freakin' Antichrist, I tell you!"
For author Deepak Chopra, a superstar in the spirituality marketplace, Palin is, quite literally, the anti-Obama. She is a living symbol of all that is wrong with small-town, parochial, ignorant, reactionary Middle America, especially with her "family values" code language that opposes expanding doctrines of civil rights.
"She is the reverse of Barack Obama, in essence his shadow, deriding his idealism and exhorting people to obey their worst impulses," he argued, at The Huffington Post. "In psychological terms the shadow is that part of the psyche that hides out of sight, countering our aspirations, virtue and vision with qualities we are ashamed to face: anger, fear, revenge, violence, selfishness, and suspicion of 'the other.' "
Obama, however, is "calling for us to reach for our higher selves," said Chopra.
The ultimate irony is the GOP's assumption that Palin will appeal to women just because "she has a womb and makes lots and lots of babies," argued religious historian Wendy Doniger of the University of Chicago's Divinity School
"Her greatest hypocrisy is in her pretense that she is a woman," she wrote, in an "On Faith" essay for the Washington Post. "She does not speak for women; she has no sympathy for the problems of other women, particularly working class women."
But can anyone, in the current political atmosphere, top the Palin as Pontius Pilate smack down? University of Michigan historian Juan Cole, a specialist in Middle Eastern and South Asian affairs, offered Salon.com his best shot.
When it comes to faith and politics, the values of McCain's "handpicked running mate, Sarah Palin, more resemble those of Muslim fundamentalists than they do those of the Founding Fathers. On censorship, the teaching of creationism in schools, reproductive rights, attributing government policy to God's will and climate change, Palin agrees with Hamas and Saudi Arabia rather than supporting tolerance and democratic precepts.
"What is the difference between Palin and a Muslim fundamentalist? Lipstick."
And then, the ending that I considered:
Stay tuned. The Rev. Pat Robertson has not raised his voice in a long, long time.
Thumbs up? Thumbs down? I was simply trying to remind readers that this kind of language on the left would almost certainly lead to a backlash on the right.
ART: OK, OK, I changed the art. Have it your way.