Palin’s militant religiosity (and how liberals are helping her)


In the culture wars that have been placed front and center by the nomination of Sarah Palin, very little seems clear–except that Palin and the Republicans are getting the better of it so far in the court of public opinion.

Jeff Sharlet thinks he understands why. Sharlet (interviewed here back in June about his book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power), is the most astute and incisive journalistic observer of the American religious right we’ve got. I spoke with him yesterday about Palin; liberals interested in stopping the momentum of a Republican ticket that has quickly transmuted itself into Palin-McCain would do well to absorb what he has to say about her.

Three central propositions here: Sarah Palin emerges from the most militaristic strand of contemporary evangelicalism; her brand of incipient theocracy excites the Christian base like nothing in living memory; and Democratic operatives and liberal bloggers are miscalculating badly when they mock her lack of experience and expertise or make jokes about her pregnant daughter.

Don’t think Dan Quayle, says Sharlet. Think George Wallace. Like Wallace, he notes, “Sarah Palin does this thing where she understands that if someone asks her a tricky question, she wins either way. She wins if she knows the answer, if she’s versed in the policy [in question]. And she wins if she doesn’t. The people who are supporting her like that. And it’s not because they’re know-nothings. It’s because, with good reason, they’ve come to be suspicious of the wisdom of Washington. So they see this as a kind of truer honesty and an opening to the direction of God. I think that’s just going to make her stronger and stronger. And the more liberals play it up, the more they’re doing free advertising for the McCain campaign.”

Please give the interview a listen and pass it on. A transcript of the interview follows below.

Minnesota Independent: This interview stemmed in part from some correspondence we had yesterday. You observed in your note that Sarah Palin is engendering more enthusiasm, more adulation, among evangelical voters than anyone since William Jennings Bryan in 1896. Can you say more about that parallel?

Jeff Sharlet: William Jennings Bryan was known as the Great Commoner. He ran as a Democrat and is best known for two things: He was the prosecutor in the Scopes monkey trial, the champion of fundamentalism. But many years before that, he’d been perhaps of one of the most radical left populist candidates in history. He roared, “We will not be crucified on a cross of gold,” by which he meant the gold standard. He tapped into–as Palin does as well–the obvious populism within fundamentalism, but also a real anger with the status quo.

We know Sarah Palin is campaigning on the ticket of the status quo, but I think she’s benefiting from this storyline that she’s able to tap into. When I hear evangelicals say they haven’t been this excited since Ronald Reagan, I think they’re mistaken. They haven’t been this excited in 100 years, since William Jennings Bryan.

MnIndy: What’s so exciting about her?

Sharlet: The thing that’s exciting about her, which I think a lot of people aren’t getting–they say, well, she isn’t experienced. But that’s a positive thing in two ways. It’s positive in that sort of populist way I’m talking about. Joe Biden is experienced, and look at the world we live in. Experience has brought us to this sorry state; so much for experience.

But secondly, it’s about her heart, not her experience. She knows right from wrong. You can be wise in the ways of the world, but from their perspective, Palin is righteous in the ways of the spirit. She is someone who was training in spiritual warfare while Obama was going to Harvard Law. It’s a very different set of credentials. I think that’s exciting to them. And she’s very open and bold in talking about that. She’s open and bold in talking about intercessory prayer–much more so than George Bush. We have someone who says to her followers, Let’s pray for a gas pipeline. Let’s pray for this specific thing to happen, and that’s exciting [to evangelicals].

The other thing I think a lot of people aren’t getting about her, and why [her backers] are so excited is that evangelicalism and fundamentalism, these are movements that have been trying to re-invent themselves for decades now, to distance themselves from the racism and sexism that have long been in the DNA of the movement. And they are absolutely thrilled to be able to vote for a woman. And the way they’re able to do that is, in their eyes she is not even so much a woman as a mother. And “mother” trumps all.

MnIndy: Talk about Sarah Palin’s theological outlook a little. She was raised in an off-shoot of the Assemblies of God that was in fact condemned by the Assemblies of God in 1949 and 2000. It’s a pretty extreme movement that goes variously by the names Third Wave, New Apostolic Reformation, Latter Rain. Without getting into the minutiae of the theological distinctions here, how would you characterize what you’ve been able to glean about Sarah Palin’s outlook on the interplay of government and religion?

Sharlet: The interesting thing about the Assemblies of God is that until the 1960s, the Assemblies of God were a pacifist church. A lot of Assemblies of God people would not serve in the military. And since then, the Assemblies of God as a broad denomination–they prefer the term “fellowship,” but they’re a denomination, and by the way the largest Pentecostal denomination in the world, with about 60 million followers–have become the most militaristic [denomination]. What began as a metaphor for them, spiritual warfare, meaning internal struggle, has increasingly been made concrete in the world of political struggle and of military struggle in places like Iraq.

Sarah Palin’s coming out of that movement. Within that, there’s this movement that you’re talking about that even the Assemblies of God denounced. I actually think we are making a little too much of that denunciation. I think a lot of folks on the left are saying, this movement is so extreme that even the Assemblies of God is denouncing it! That has a lot to do with internal denominational politics.

Theologically, it’s not that radically different from the Assemblies of God. Of course, Assemblies of God is pretty–I don’t want to say extreme, because with 60 million people, it is a mainstream religion. But it is a pretty vigorous fundamentalist point of view. And Sarah Palin’s coming out of that. What it means about the relationship of her religion to politics is that, one, she doesn’t feel that she’s theocratic. They actually don’t think they’re theocratic. And they have a way of getting out of that: Theocratic would be if I was a clergy person and sat down and studied the Bible and said, Okay, I’m going to pass this law because in my wisdom, I have seen this in the Bible.

That’s not what they do. They turn themselves over to the spirit. The movement she’s a part of is really holy ghost-powered. What they say is, they’re just being a vessel. A term that a wonky theologian might use is “theo-centric.” Their point of view is that they’re not theocratic, they’re not going to govern from above, they’re just going to be theo-centric. When Sarah Palin looks at a thing, she just tries to open herself up to the spirit and let the spirit flow through her. And if the spirit flows straight through her into the Alaska pipeline, then far be it from her to question that.

What it amounts to is a sort of self-interest by divine proxy.

MnIndy: She does seem to have a lot of inclinations that would be commonly termed theocratic. I’m thinking of the dust-up over her trying to fire the town librarian in Wasilla, Alaska, who would not cooperate in helping her ban books. There are, similarly, the stories about her requiring rape victims to pay for their own rape kits. It appears that the values of her religion are written in every line of her vision of governance. Fair or no?

Sharlet: Absolutely fair. She doesn’t think she’s theocratic, but for the rest of us living under a Palin government, the effect would be the same. We have to temper that thought with the fact that she has not governed Alaska in a particularly theocratic way. I think her instincts are theocratic. We saw that in the book [banning effort]. That’s essentially an authoritarian thing, especially if you look at the books she wanted to ban, one of which was called Pastor, I Am Gay, which was written by a local Christian conservative pastor who took a gentler approach to this. So there’s another level to this. It’s one thing to censor a book; that’s frightening enough. It’s an even more frightening thing to try and censor your neighbor, to try to put tape over the mouth of someone who lives right next to you and is a conservative Christian himself. That shows a real attention to detail that one finds in figures such as Stalin. I think there is a Stalinesque streak to her personality.

The thing about the rape kit that you mentioned, I actually don’t see as theocratic. I see that, from her perspective, as coming out of her libertarian sensibility. She doesn’t want the government paying for anything, especially if we don’t really know that this thing happened.

So we see this interesting mix of libertarianism and authoritarianism. They are sensibilities that are often at odds with each other, and I think we see that tension in her. I think that actually makes her a more dangerous character. Sarah Palin, I don’t think, actually has a clear sense of what she believes or what she is. And I think in those moments of uncertainty, she’s going to be especially prone to fall back on the authority of her religion.

MnIndy: We’ve been hearing for months now that popular enthusiasm for the mixing of religion and politics is very much on the wane, even among evangelicals, supposedly. Do you see that creating a schism in the upswelling of support for Palin at some point, or is that whole set of concerns swept aside by the enthusiasm for what she represents?

Sharlet: You know, I think that whole set of concerns was very misleading, and essentially wishful thinking on the part of a center-liberal media–a centrist, establishmentarian media that is sick of talking about religion and needs a storyline where things change. My friend Amy Sullivan at Time just wrote a piece saying she thinks evangelicals are so moderate now that Palin will become a burden on McCain, because evangelicals won’t like her. She says, evangelicals today live in the suburbs. They have graduate degrees. And I thought, one, the majority of America lives in the suburbs; that doesn’t mean anything. And two, they have graduate degrees? I think Amy means herself. She has a Ph.D. from Princeton, and she is a liberal evangelical.

But the reality is that American evangelicalism hasn’t turned leftward; it’s gone deeper. It’s broadened its interests to talk about global warming and all these other things, but bringing an evangelical conservative perspective to that. I think Sarah Palin actually represents that. Sarah Palin is riding the crest of a wave. I think the day that McCain announced her, there were tears in Arkansas as Mike Huckabee, so [new] on the national scene, realized he was already a dinosaur. Palin represents that new generation of evangelicals who are excited about women in leadership, want to vote for women, who are excited about the more libertarian Western style of her, even as they’re also excited about her greater firmness on issues they consider bedrock.

Even as the press was telling us, oh, evangelicalism is gone, we saw a survey saying that young evangelicals are wildly more pro-life than even their parents’ generation. So is Sarah Palin. She exemplifies that. You have in Palin a perfect match of a leader and a movement. Whether that can overcome the big drag of John McCain, I don’t know, but I would be hard-pressed to believe that she’s not going to be around a long time unless some overwhelming scandal knocks her out. But I don’t see that happening.

MnIndy: One of the things you said in our correspondence yesterday was that liberals are absolutely blowing it in their response to Palin. How so?

Sharlet: [laughs] They’re making me want to vote for her, and I’m pretty far left. I don’t say that lightly; I’m really left. But I read the responses to her and they destroy me. There’s this back-and-forth about whether the response is sexist. I don’t think there’s any question. Especially in private conversations, talking with Democratic operatives and so on. It’s pretty deeply misogynist. I remember one private online discussion with Democratic operatives, and finally someone had to come in and tell the men they really had to stop using the c-word. There’s this anger directed toward her.

So they’re getting that wrong. They’re also getting wrong–the things they think are her weaknesses are her strengths. I talked about experience. They think the Bristol scandal is a weakness. The Bristol scandal made her so much stronger in the evangelical circles that I’m looking at. They were amazed. Everybody has this kind of thing, or knows of this kind of thing. Seventeen-year-olds have sex.

We all know this. But Bristol Palin didn’t get an abortion. So they see Bristol Palin as a hero, and they see Sarah as a heroic mother. Down the line, the things that they’re trying to pick on as weaknesses are going to be seen as strengths. And when they talk about lack of experience, and people refer to Dan Quayle, or to George McGovern’s [Thomas] Eagleton, I think the real predecessor in terms of that issue is George Wallace, the famous segregationist governor of Alabama who played a spoiler role in a couple of elections running as a far, far right-wing Democrat.

Like George Wallace, Sarah Palin does this thing where she understands that if someone asks her a tricky question, she wins either way. She wins if she knows the answer, if she’s versed in the policy [in question]. And she wins if she doesn’t. The people who are supporting her like that. And it’s not because they’re know-nothings. It’s because, with good reason, they’ve come to be suspicious of the wisdom of Washington. So they see this as a kind of truer honesty and an opening to the direction of God. I think that’s just going to make her stronger and stronger. And the more liberals play it up, the more they’re doing free advertising for the McCain campaign.

MnIndy: One more question, and I want to circle back around to your book The Family. A man who figures fairly prominently in your book, Dan Coats, has a Palin tie in this campaign. Tell us a little about who he is and what the connection is.

Sharlet: Dan Coats, to me, is what gives us the real truth about Sarah Palin. She can play this populist card, but she is after all a status quo candidate, and Dan Coats is the clue. Former Senator Dan Coats of Indiana is not the brightest bulb on the porch. He considered Dan Quayle his mentor. George Bush wanted him for secretary of defense until [Dick] Cheney vetoed him as too conservative–too obsessed with purging the military of all gays and lesbians.

Coats is nonetheless a canny politician, if not a great thinker, and has become one of the top advisers to the McCain campaign. The word is that it was Coats who was pushing very hard for Palin and was her champion, just as he was the champion of Justices Alito and Roberts.

Coats has long been connected with this group I write about called The Family. These are the folks who bring us the National Prayer Breakfast every year. They’re as unlike that kind of populist fundamentalism as you could imagine. They’re elite fundamentalism. They are polished, they are sophisticated, they are internationalist. And they are absolutely committed to ideas of Biblical capitalism and laissez-faire economics and neo-conservative foreign policy.

That’s the connection I think we see in Palin. If you look at the governor’s prayer breakfast that Palin presides over in Alaska, you see this remarkably authoritarian, really baldly dominionist, kind of theology. That plugs right into this group in Washington, which in a survey of 360 top evangelical leaders, was deemed the most influential Christian religious group in Washington, despite the fact that they rarely make the news because they’re behind-the-scenes operators.

Coats is the connection. Coats is the clue that tells us for all her populist performance, what Sarah Palin is really campaigning for is continuity of establishment power.