Sarah Palin's Religion: God and the Vice-Presidential Candidate

By Alexander Schwabe

Sarah Palin's Pentacostalist past explains a lot about what she says in public, but the McCain campaign wants to play it down. Can a gas pipeline really be a manifestation of God's will?

More than once, vice presidential candidate and current governor of Alaska Sarah Palin has shown a habit of investing secular matters with religious meaning. A $30 billion gas pipeline in Alaska was "God’s will," the war in Iraq was a "task that is from God." She's argued for creationism to be taught in schools, alongside evolutionary biology, and she'd rather do away with sexual education completely.

Now the real reason for Palin’s fixation on God -- obscured in official biographies -- has emerged: For more than two decades, she was a practicing Pentecostal. Until 2002 she belonged to the Wasilla Assembly of God, a Pentecostal community in Wasilla, Alaska, the city of 10,000 where Palin also served as mayor. Since leaving the Assembly of God, Palin has attended the non-denominational Wasilla Bible Church.

The Pentecostal movement emphasizes “expressions of the Holy Spirit” in the form of “spiritual gifts” such as the ability to speak in tongues, prophesize or heal. Assembly of God members also believe in faith healing and “end times,” a massive upheaval that will supposedly herald Jesus’ second coming.

Tim McGraw, Palin’s pastor until 1998, told American broadcaster CNN that the Wasilla Pentecostal community has members who adhere to these beliefs and who speak in tongues, although he has never seen Palin herself in that trance-like state. Caroline Spengler, a member of the Pentecostal community, described the experience as follows: “When the spirit comes on you, you utter things that nobody else can understand ... only God can understand what is coming out of our mouths.”

The Republican Party, hoping John McCain and Sarah Palin will bring home a win in the November presidential election, has played down this religious background of the 44-year-old mother of five. Through spokeswoman Meghan Stapleton, McCain has freely admitted that Palin is deeply religious. That fact should be well received by conservative American voters, especially in the so-called Bible Belt. At the same time, campaign strategists have been careful not to let their candidate’s religious enthusiasm loom too large. Biographies of her online and the McCain campaign itself avoid too much detail about her past. Governor Palin does not consider herself a Pentecostal, is the succinct and official word.

McGraw told CNN he could imagine why the Republican Party was trying not to emphasize Palin’s Pentecostal leanings: “I think there may be issues of belief that could be misunderstood or played upon by people that don't know.”

But what is so difficult to understand? Hasn’t Palin already gone far too far for her political views not to be seen as a consequence of her beliefs? And can her faith truly be judged only by those who believe the same?

McGraw tries to allay these fears. He says he's sure Palin’s religious convictions don’t influence her political decisions in office.

Until recently, though, Palin was returning to her original congregation, where she attended discipleship classes to strengthen her Pentecostal beliefs and to become a better leader, McGraw says. By then she was already mayor of Wasilla. And when Palin returns to the Pentecostal flock, it is by no means only in a personal capacity, but also as a government official.

Just this June, Palin attended a graduation ceremony for ministry students at the Wasilla Assembly of God. The governor didn’t just offer a few edifying words. Instead, she spoke to these students in Alaska about the war in Iraq. “Pray for our military men and women who are striving do to what is right,” said Palin, whose son had voluntarily enlisted to join the U.S. army and be deployed to Iraq. The graduates were encouraged to pray “for this country, that our leaders, our national leaders, are sending them out on 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 plan is God's plan.”

Palin acts as though all political decisions emanated directly from a divine resolution -- and as if the Republican understanding of this resolution were the only one that could be correct.

On the issue of the gas pipeline as well, Palin linked political and economic business with her personal concept of divine providence, calling on her audience to pray for the controversial planned $30 billion pipeline project. “I think,” Palin told the audience at the Wasilla Assembly of God, “God's will has to be done in unifying people and companies to get that gas pipeline built.”

And there’s more. On August 17, shortly before she entered the wider public spotlight as vice presidential candidate, according to CNN Palin attended an event at her current congregation, the Wasilla Bible Church. One of the preachers there was David Brickner, founder of the “Jews for Jesus” movement. He made clear to the assembled that in his opinion, terrorist attacks in Israel revealed God’s judgment on Jews who had not found Christ. “When a Palestinian from East Jerusalem took a bulldozer and went plowing through a score of cars, killing numbers of people,” according to Brickner, he was unmistakably an instrument of God’s judgment.

The McCain camp tried to de-emphasize attitudes in Palin's religious circle, making it clear that Brickner’s comments didn’t reflect the vice presidential candidate’s views. Palin, they said, is pro-Israel.

Pastor Ed Kalnin, one of the congregation leaders at Palin’s former Pentecostal church, comes from the same circle. Four years ago he campaigned against John Kerry, then the Democratic candidate for president. Whoever voted for Kerry, Kalnin told his congregation, wouldn’t go to heaven.

The Assembly of God later released a statement: They apologized, saying Kalnin had meant it as a joke.

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