Those on the left, or merely those who aren't evangelical Christians, are struggling to make sense of the religious life of Sarah Palin. To many, she seems a frightening harbinger of a fundamentalist takeover. Saturday's New York Times piece about Palin's deep faith and Bible-focused church will be chewed over for evidence of her extremism. Conservatives, meanwhile, seize on the scrutiny -- including liberal overreactions -- as evidence that the left and the mainstream media are anti-Christian.
The Palin candidacy does pose real church-state questions, as well as many opportunities for hysterical overreaction. As a service to my panicky friends on the left and my Sarah-smitten friends on the right (who may not understand why she frightens some), here's a guide to what is and isn't scary, or at least questionable about Palin's mixing of faith and politics:
Scary - Palin told a group of young church leaders to pray for a gas pipeline because it was God's will. "God's will has to be done in unifying people and companies to get that gasline built. So pray for that." Saying a particular public policy is God's will is far over the line, considerably beyond anything that George W. Bush ever said. It means the advocate is impervious to argument, and critics are going against God's will.
Not Scary - Palin asked members of the church to pray "that our leaders, our national leaders, are sending [U.S. soldiers] 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 that plan is God's plan." This has been cited on Huffington Post as proof that Palin justifies the war as being part of God's plan. I read it as meaning the opposite - that people should pray that the war IS part of God's plan. This is a totally appropriate desire for a Christian - and for a Christian politician. All Christian politicians should aspire to do God's will. Where it gets problematic is when they feel God is directing them to take particular steps or claim divine endorsement for their actions.
Scary - She suggested that her work as governor would be hampered "if the people of Alaska's heart isn't right with God." This means that those who aren't Bible-believing Christians hinder the work of the state, harming their fellow citizens and the public interest.
Not Scary - "She asked [her pastor] for a biblical example of people who were great leaders and was the secret of their leadership." Since the Times put it in the second paragraph of their piece, they must have felt this was ominous. It's not. Using the Bible for ethical guidance or wisdom is a standard -- and I would argue noble -- use of faith.
Scary (Probably) - As governor, she signed a Christian Heritage Week. It didn't actually declare the U.S. to be an officially Christian nation but it plucked Founding Fathers quotes way out of context to misleadingly imply they were devout Christians. In many other cases, this same technique has been used to promote the argument that America was created to be a Christian nation, and separation of church and state is a myth. (Full text here)
Not Scary (Probably) - "The churches that Sarah has attended all believe in a literal translation of the Bible," says John Kinkaid, a friend. "Her principal ethical and moral beliefs stem from this." Very few Christian follow the literal meaning of the whole Bible. Conservative Bible-believing Christians tend to focus on the passages related to life and marriage; liberals tend to focus on those related to poverty. It's worth probing this more but it's not by itself either good or bad.
Maybe Scary, Maybe Not - "God has sent me, from underneath the umbrella of this church, throughout the state." It depends how literally she means this. It's one thing to think God has a plan for you, or that all people are part of God's plan; many people believe such things, including Barack Obama, whose campaign literature bore the headline "Called to Bring Change," and read, "We do what we do because God is with us."
But if she feels God has enjoined her to take specific steps - like attacking Obama or drilling for oil in Alaska - as opposed to guiding her in general public service, then many Americans will come to distrust her and feel she's inappropriately using faith as a political weapon. Of course, those who think God really IS guiding her policies and speeches, will just love her even more.