Except for the awesome view of pink-tipped peaks from its parking lot, Wasilla Bible Church, in Wasilla, Alaska, is perhaps most remarkable for being unremarkable. It's a big modern building near a strip of car lots. Its sanctuary is full of folding chairs; two video screens display the lyrics to hymns and there's a simple cross behind the altar.
Wasilla Bible Church, however, is having an extraordinary week. On Sunday, its senior pastor Larry Kroons confirmed that Senator John McCain's vice presidential pick, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and her family, regularly attend services there, and have done so for the last six years or so. "They attend here as Sarah and Todd in the presence of God, honoring God as God," he said before he began his sermon. The Palins' new baby, Trig, was "dedicated" at the church two weeks ago, another pastor told NEWSWEEK. (Many conservative churches do "dedications" of infants instead of baptisms-postponing the baptism ceremony until the child is old enough to make a conscious decision for Christ. At a dedication, the parents and the pastor ask for the congregation's help in raising the child.)
On Monday, the church had another cause for notoriety. Kroons told NEWSWEEK that Palin's campaign staff had contacted him that morning to ask for his discretion when discussing the pregnancy of Palin's teenage daughter Bristol. "All I'll say is that Bristol is a young lady. We care about her and want to support her and the family," Kroons said. Ashley Brown, another pastor at the church, said he'd also been contacted by the campaign with the same request. Teenage pregnancy "is not so uncommon up here," adds Brown. "It's easier to accept in Alaska. Maybe it's part of Alaska mentality. In many ways, you raise your kids to assume a lot more responsibilities, than people do around the nation at an earlier age." If a teenager came to him asking for contraceptives, he said he would send the teen home to have a talk with the parents. According to 2000 data from the Guttmacher Institute, Alaska ranks 30th in teen pregnancy nationwide. Nevada, Arizona and Mississippi had the highest rates. (A Palin spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment).
Except for the national spotlight, Wasilla Bible Church resembles thousands of conservative evangelical churches across the country. Its statement of faith says its members believe that the Bible is the "inspired, inerrant word of God." It offers a half a dozen ministries devoted to children and families, including a chapter of MOPS, a popular nationwide support group for Christian mothers of preschoolers. The sermons of its ministers steer clear of politics and hot-button social issues and dwell instead on scripture. Its membership is largely conservative.
"I'm 'Valley Trash' and proud of it," said Nate Bair, a church member on Sunday morning. (Valley Trash is a pejorative term for people who live in Wasilla and its environs.) An advocate for small government and lower taxes, and an opponent of national health care, Bair calls the Democratic nominee Barack Obama "a socialist." He was lukewarm about McCain, until the Arizona senator put Palin on the ticket.
Palin has said she was baptized in the Roman Catholic church. As a teenager, she began attending the Pentecostal Assemblies of God church in Wasilla and was baptized there by the founding pastor, Paul Riley. Todd Stafford, an associate pastor at Wasilla Assembly of God, says Palin often publicly thanks Riley--now nearly 80 and still working as a prison chaplain--for bringing her to Jesus when she visits the church. She attended that Pentecostal church until she was 38 years old, when she switched to Wasilla Bible Church, saying she preferred the children's ministries there.
Pentecostalism is one of the fastest growing branches of Christianity in the world, and the Assemblies of God is one of the largest Pentecostal denominations in the country, claiming 1.6 million members. Pentecostals are generally characterized by a strict adherence to moral codes--no tobacco, no alcohol, no social dancing, no sex outside of marriage--and by their belief that the Holy Spirit bestows upon some the gift of "speaking in tongues," a reference to Acts 2: "And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost and began to speak with other tongues." A spokeswoman for the McCain-Palin campaign has said that Palin attends many churches and does not consider herself to be Pentecostal.
This past Sunday, worship at the Assembly of God fellowship in Wasilla was as euphoric as the Bible Church was staid. The congregation of about 100 was on its feet, shouting and clapping. Some members on another Sunday might murmur and keen in low voices, the sound of speaking in tongues. But the purpose of the sermon this Sunday was to prepare the church for the media onslaught that was sure to follow. "Because Jesus Christ died on the cross," the senior pastor, Ed Kalnins, told the crowd, "we can worship in public. How many people are thanking God for what's happening to Governor Sarah?"
Kalnins guessed that about half of the people in his church have the gift of tongues. He has it himself, he says, though he rarely demonstrates it. "It's not meant to be shown off," he said. "It's not like flexing muscles. I received the gift in college, and it transformed my life." It's not something like from the "remote parts of the jungle," he adds: It's a decision.
And if the staff of Wasilla Bible Church shies from taking political stands, Kalnins does not. Homosexuality, he says, is a choice. He would not vote for a pro-choice candidate. When asked about the evolution-creationism debate, Kalnins is clear: "You present the facts of creation versus evolution and the truth will come out," he says. What does Palin think? "This is something inside every human heart of a believer," he answers. When Palin worships in Juneau, she attends an Assembly of God church there. Sarah Palin may not call herself a Pentecostal, but she has deep and long experience in Pentecostal churches. And as the race wears on, this biographical fact will likely become another religious Rorschach test--pleasing to some, discomfiting to others.