11/30/2010 02:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Reflections on Faith and Fear in Palin's America

It is no secret that Sarah Palin's new book, America By Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag (HarperCollins Publishers), is one more stepping stone on Palin's way to a formal declaration of her candidacy for the presidency. The book comes at a time in which Palin is receiving increasing criticism, including from those in her own political party, that she lacks the gravitas to be taken seriously as a presidential contender. I'll leave it to others to address her qualifications in this regard. For my part, there is something about Palin that I do take very seriously when it comes to her book, and that is the white Protestant narrative that she appeals to in order to reinforce the conviction that "we" (white Protestants) are in danger of losing our privileges and our nation to "them."

Who are "they"? Palin points repeatedly to liberals, cultural elites, Hollywood, the lamestream media and academe as those who are "hell-bent" on driving faith out of the public square and political discourse. In fact, she takes aim at anyone who adopts a critical view of Christianity, ironic considering that some of the figures featured so prominently and positively in her book, including Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were harsh critics of Christianity in their day.

But the subtext of the book reveals two other groups that represent threats to people of faith. The first is non-white Christians. This may seem to be an unsubstantiated charge given the praise Palin pours on Martin Luther King, Jr. But her adulation depends largely on translating King's agenda into one that reflects more the concerns of conservative white Christians. For example, Palin finds King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" inspiring because it demonstrates the important role that faith should play in the public square. What she overlooks is King's larger indictment of white Christians in the letter and their massive failures in addressing oppression and racial injustice. Perhaps this is because that Martin Luther King does not fit so neatly into Palin's narrative.

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, on the other hand, does not get such a "Kingly" treatment. He commits the unforgiveable sin of blending race and religion in an effort to condemn a racist nation for its crimes and atrocities. People like Wright serve as a foil to America's true saints, those 18th-century Founding Fathers who rightly kept religion and race separate and who passed down the great white Protestant faith to subsequent generations of patriotic, God-fearing Americans.

Palin also harbors suspicions toward non-Protestants, though she gives an occasional approving nod to Catholics and Jews. Muslims in particular do not come off well in her book. She continues to cast suspicion on those insensitive Muslims whose lack of compassion for the families of 9/11 victims has directly resulted in the provocative and divisive Park51 project in Lower Manhattan. Moreover, when Palin can muster the strength to acknowledge that religion occasionally serves as a vehicle of intolerance, her primary example involves Islam, particularly the stoning of women and domestic abuse in some Islamic countries.

Whenever Palin talks about faith in her book, she is assuming Protestantism. This makes it difficult for her to understand the true irony behind her comparison of the speeches given by John F. Kennedy and Mitt Romney to address public concerns about their faith during their respective presidential bids. She takes Kennedy to task for running away from religion in his famous 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. Instead of successfully reconciling faith and public office, he divorced the two. By contrast, Romney avoided "doing a JFK" in his "Faith in America" speech from 2007. He courageously embraced the necessary role of faith in American public life.

Palin's own narrative blinds her to the real overlap between Kennedy and Romney. Both were forced to give such speeches because of the long history of Protestant dominance in America and Protestant suspicions of religious "others." What's more, both had to avoid speaking the language of their particular faith traditions. You learn no more about Kennedy's Catholicism than you do about Romney's Mormonism in these speeches. Instead, both had to speak the more universal (read Protestant) language of faith to assuage evangelical Protestant concerns. That is why Palin can be so effusive in her praise for Romney -- he is speaking her faith language. He has no choice!

The narrative of Palin's book is the same narrative that has dominated American religious history and has proven so detrimental to those who do not fit into the white Protestant fold. But it is also a powerful narrative, one that continues to resonate with some white Christians who feel that they are losing their nation to religious and non-religious "others." For this reason alone, it would be wise not to underestimate this weapon in Palin's political arsenal. After all, when it comes to the use of religion in the politics of resentment, no one does it better than Sarah Palin.