Sarah Palin

How Evangelicals Talk 101

There she goes again. According to a top strategist in the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain, Sarah Palin believed that the decision to pick her as the Arizona Republican's running mate was actually made by Almighty God.

Translated into the logic of an Associated Press report, this political theology sounded like this.

"In an interview with the CBS news magazine '60 Minutes,' Steve Schmidt described Palin as 'very calm -- nonplussed' after McCain met with her at his Arizona ranch just before putting her on the Republican ticket. ... Schmidt said he asked Palin about her serenity in the face of becoming 'one of the most famous people in the world.' He quoted her as saying, 'It's God's plan.' "

The Washington Post headline proclaimed, "McCain aide: Palin believed candidacy 'God's plan.' "

After this latest Palin firestorm it's time to ask: "Why can't journalists learn to understand how ordinary evangelicals talk?"

To make matters worse, readers have no chance to understand this private, second-hand quotation because it has been stripped of all context. There is no way to know if this snippet is the entire Palin quote or merely what Schmidt has chosen to share as part of the ongoing fighting between factions inside McCain's failed campaign.

The big question: Did Palin say her nomination was part of "God's plan for her life" or did she, as implied, dare to claim that it was part of "God's plan for America"? Most press reports have implied the latter, linking her faith-based confidence with speculation that she will run for president.

This has made her an easy target for her critics -- again.

"Palin isn't a minister or priest. She isn't a bishop. She is a celebrity," noted Andrew Sullivan, on his Atlantic Monthly website. "When she says 'it's God's will,' she is saying, it seems to me, either that her destiny is foretold as a modern day Esther ... or that it doesn't matter what decisions she makes in office because God is in charge. So she is either filled with delusions of grandeur and prone to say things that believing Christians keep private out of humility; or she thinks she's some kind of Messiah figure."

However, anyone with a working knowledge of evangelical lingo will understand that what Palin probably said was that this stunning door onto the national stage was, win or lose, part of "God's plan" for her life.

This is the approach that she consistently uses in her memoir, "Going Rogue," when discussing the twists and turns in her life -- from an unexpected chance to climb the political ladder in Alaska to the challenge of an unexpected pregnancy, leading to the birth of a child with special needs.

In other words, Palin believes in a God who is mysteriously working through the choices and events -- painful and joyful -- that have shaped her life. This is a perfectly ordinary belief among millions of evangelical Protestants and, truth be told, many other believers as well.

It may help to recall that, during the 2008 campaign, Charlie Gibson of ABC News struggled to understand another piece of evangelical-speak drawn from Palin remarks about the Iraq War.

The governor told a church audience: "Pray for our military men and women who are striving to do what is right. Also, for this country, that our leaders, our national leaders, are sending (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."

However, in his interview with Palin, Gibson said: "You said recently, in your old church, 'Our national leaders are sending U.S. soldiers on a task that is from God.' Are we fighting a holy war?"

Palin responded: "You know, I don't know if that was my exact quote."

Gibson fired back: "Exact words."

Not exactly. Palin was reminding the worshipers to pray that God had a plan in Iraq and that decisions made by America's leaders would be consistent with that plan. She was not, as Gibson said, claiming that this was a certainty.

The bottom line: It may be time to circulate a basic "How Evangelicals Talk" phrase book that can be used in elite newsrooms, much like the one that journalists needed when Gov. Jimmy "born again" Carter first emerged on the national scene.

Palin's pastor meets the press

The Sunday service had just ended and the Rev. Larry Kroon couldn't believe what he was seeing. A journalist was chasing Wasilla Bible Church members in the aisles, trying to convince somebody, anybody, to dish about his flock's most famous church lady. The craziness had started as soon as Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin became the GOP's nominee for vice president.

Suddenly, there were satellite dishes out front and worshippers were trapped inside, trying to escape to the safety of their cars in the parking lot.

Kroon tried to control the chaos, telling journalists they were free to participate in worship services, but not to film or interrupt them. The pastor also asked them not to "fish for interviews" as members arrived or departed. He thought these rules were enough. He was wrong.

"We can look back and say, 'Whoa. We really should have done this or that differently,' " said Kroon. "I was naive enough to think this wasn't going to affect us -- but it did. We ended up scrambling to get from day to day. We had that deer in the headlights look for quite a while."

Wasilla Bible Church leaders encountered professionals from the New York Times, CNN, Time, Fox, the major television networks and just about everyone else -- from America and around the world. Flocks of alleged journalists arrived from every corner of the World Wide Web, as well.

After hurricane Palin, Kroon met with management consultant James Stamoolis and prepared some tips for clergy who struggle with media attention -- wanted or unwanted. Some of those tips are relevant again in Wasilla, since Palin's faith plays a big role in her new "Going Rogue" memoir. Here's a sample, drawn from a talk with Kroon.

* Never accept an interview without confirming a reporter's identity and his or her current employer. Just because someone has written for the Associated Press doesn't mean that he isn't currently a blogger for or something like that.

* Help reporters understand that private communications between clergy and the faithful are, in fact, privileged and guarded by the same kinds of laws that shield reporters and their sources.

* Keep contact information for community leaders -- such as telephone numbers and email addresses for church elders -- in a firewall-protected section of your congregation's website. Post contact information for staffers who are prepared to handle media requests in a timely manner.

* Ask if reporters or producers have experience covering religion news. Some journalists sincerely want factual information that will help them cover a story fairly and accurately, while others "are in a hurry and they simply want what they want. You may think you're helping them understand who you are and what you believe, but they just want a good quote and then they're moving on," said Kroon.

* It may help to post information about your denomination or tradition, including frequently asked questions about worship, media relations, how the congregation is governed and the meaning of unique terms (such as "born again" or "charismatic") that newcomers will encounter.

* Understand that a two-hour interview may be reduced to 20 seconds and that the journalist decides what goes in that soundbite. So avoid lectures and focus on the key points that you must make to explain your congregation's point of view. It's also important to remember that silence is the reporter's problem, not your problem.

* In the Internet age, there is no reason that a pastor cannot -- as a condition for talking to a reporter -- insist on the right to record and transcribe an interview. That way, the professionals on both sides of the transaction know that they are on the record and the results, if needed to clarify a point, can be posted online or emailed to a publisher.

Kroon stressed that he was truly impressed by many of the journalists, especially with their commitment to accuracy and fairness. They wanted to get the story right. But others arrived in Wasilla with their minds clamped shut. They came to get the story that they already knew that they wanted to write.

"Pastors need to understand that there are really good reporters and there are some really bad ones, too," he said. "You also have to understand that even the really good ones are going to push you to your boundary lines. That's what they do."

Gov. Sarah Palin, Antichrist

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 distain 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 his best shot.

When it comes to faith and politics, he said, 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."