The video clip is from 2005, and Sarah Palin, who is running for governor, stands on the dais of a small church; three pastors surround her in a huddle. They are touching her shoulders, her forehead, her back. The would-be governor is stone still, eyes cast down, palms up toward heaven. The man on her left, the one touching her forehead, bends occasionally to whisper in her ear.
This is Ed Kalnins, senior pastor of Wasilla Assembly of God, the church Palin attended from the time she was 4-years-old until 2002. The man behind her is praying loudly, relentlessly and with an intensity rarely seen in America's mainstream churches. This is the Kenyan pastor Thomas Muthee, a Pentecostal powerhouse who has a reputation for being able to cast out demons and witches through prayer.
First, Muthee urges the congregation to pray for Palin's success "even in the political arena ... [to] bring finances her way ... and give her the personnel." And then he offers this cryptic blessing: "In the name of Jesus. Every form of witchcraft is what you rebuke." The laying of hands on the Alaska politician, the invoking of Jesus and witches in the same sentence—what the heck is going on?
The scene has been played on YouTube about half a million times, a kind of Rorschach test for Americans of religious faith. Left-wing observers cite the clip as evidence that Palin is a right-wing Christian nut who believes in witches and exorcisms and, most probably, in crazy end-times scenarios. The right repeats its mantra about Palin's Bible-based values, knowing that her religious background aligns her with at least 20 million of the country's most conservative Christian voters. They know that Pentecostalism, the branch of Protestantism embraced by Muthee and in which Palin was raised, is the fastest growing religious movement in the world. Perhaps they are also aware of a recent Gallup poll, in which ++a fifth of Americans say they believe in witches.
Palin's Christian faith is, well, a matter of faith; that her Christian resume helped earn her a spot on the Republican ticket is understood. But what does she believe about God, really? More important, how does her religious faith affect her life and inform her decision-making day to day, and in crisis? In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network last week, Palin addressed these questions but did not answer them. The governor said she prayed and that she believed that God protected America. She took a swipe at the media for "mocking God" in the campaign and then went on to say, "I don't think that there's anything that I can do about it, so you know, I won't whine or complain about it, but nobody is going to convince me that my foundation of faith is not good for me and for my family. No matter the mocking, no matter what anybody says about it, I'm going to keep plugging away at this, and I'm going to keep seeking God's guidance and his wisdom and his favor and his grace, for me, for my family, for this campaign, for our nation."
Palin left Wasilla Assembly of God in 2002 (though she made frequent visits thereafter), and joined Wasilla Bible Church, a bigger, more conventional congregation nearby. Her former pastor Paul Riley says she chose the Bible church because she preferred the children's programs there; others hint that the Bible church is a safer choice for an ambitious politician. "The Assembly of God is more charismatic, very evangelical. Wasilla Bible is a very conservative church and therefore it's comfortable for politicians to be there and be part of it," says Bill White, a member of Wasilla Bible Church for 20 years.
The McCain campaign has had little to say on Palin's religion, except that she does not identify as a Pentecostal and that her faith "is a personal matter." Two of the three Alaska churches with which Palin has recently been affiliated—Assemblies of God churches in Wasilla and Juneau, Alaska—have taken some potentially controversial content off their Web sites. In September, the Web site of the Juneau Christian Center, which Palin attended as governor, was heralding an upcoming visit from the Rev. John Hagee, from whom McCain had to distance himself after Hagee's anti-Islam comments came to light. That announcement is now gone. Both churches have posted statements online confirming Palin's attendance, supporting the electoral process, and begging for privacy.
Though we may never know what Palin really believes about God, we do know a lot about the religious milieu in which she lives, an environment that puts her both squarely within and somewhat outside the American Christian mainstream. This worldview can best be summed up as "very conservative Christian plus Alaska." Palin has spent most of her life in the Assemblies of God, a denomination with an apocalyptic outlook. Members of the Assemblies of God believe the world will end in a fiery battle sooner rather than later; that the forces of good (that is, Christians) will win, and Jesus will return to earth to reign for a thousand years. This belief is common among many conservative evangelicals, not just Pentecostals. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, a third of American evangelicals believe the world will end in their lifetime. According to a September piece on Salon.com, Palin told a political opponent in Wasilla she believes the same.
No analysis of Palin's faith is complete without taking into account the Last Frontier. Alaska is a place of all types of extremes—including religion. Alaska has a large number of Russian Orthodox, and adherents of Native American religion. It is home to many of the most conservative Christian denominations, such as Latter Day Saints and Assemblies of God. More people unaffiliated with any traditional Western religion live there, too. The missionaries who came to Alaska in the early part of the 20th century worked in isolation, far from their peers and central command. Religious affiliation is thus fragile on the Last Frontier, says Patricia Killen, provost at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash. "A great deal of religion in Alaska is do-it-yourself," Killen explains. "There is not much sense of loyalty to what headquarters says."
Video clips have circulated online that show Palin endorsing the Iraq war as a "task from God," and praying for the proposed Alaska pipeline; these clips have incited inflamed commentary from the left. But this kind of rhetoric is unexceptional in conservative evangelical churches, where Christians are taught to think of themselves as soldiers in the cosmic battle between good and evil. Last summer, Mike Rose, pastor of the Juneau Christian Center where Palin attended church as governor, delivered a sermon in which he called his congregation "a chosen generation and a royal priesthood ... If you're a believer this morning, you've been born again, you've been washed by the blood of Jesus, you are a priest of God." And then he singled out Governor Palin and other local politicians for special praise. "We have people in positions of authority that are establishing a new kind of righteousness in the land."
In a Pentecostal worldview, God talks directly to the righteous and the righteous talk to God. "I was sweeping the car off this morning, and the Holy Spirit spoke to me so clearly," said Rose's son Ben in a sermon last February. Palin comes from a world in which God intervenes in people's lives. "What I'm hearing [from Palin] is just boilerplate," says Grant Wacker, professor of religious history at Duke University. "I grew up in that tradition, my father, my grandfather, my uncle were all AG [Assemblies of God] ministers. I've heard it ten thousand times, it's as normal as getting on a freeway and driving to Poughkeepsie ... It doesn't mean anybody's going to go out and buy a truckload of ammunition and get ready for the apocalypse."
An apocalyptic theology combined with a Last Frontier identity can give evangelicals like Palin a special sense of destiny. In one of the more controversial video clips circulating on YouTube, Palin's former pastor Kalnins talks about Alaska as a "refuge state" at the End of Days.
"Hundreds and thousands are going to come to the state and seek refuge and the church has to be ready to minister to them," he announced, with Palin standing near him at the altar. In Alaska, an apocalyptic worldview is prevalent even among the nonreligious, explains Killen, because many Alaskans see their wilderness as a refuge from the evil and corruption of the world. So Kalnins's view is not entirely surprising. Nevertheless, says Killen, "it is appropriate in trying to understand Sarah Palin's religious milieu, to ask about the degree to which Christian apocalyptic notions or secular apocalyptic notions inform how she thinks about political issues and public policy decisions."
If any pastor can make political problems for Palin in these waning days of the campaign it's Kalnins, who took over the Wasilla AG in 1999. In 2004, Kalnins preached that anyone who voted for John Kerry had a slim chance of salvation (a statement he has since clarified on his Web site: "There are certainly times when our mouths have said things that our hearts do not mean."). In a survey of his sermons from 2006 until the present, NEWSWEEK found nothing theologically radical (sermons from the time when Palin was in the congregation are not online). But Kalnins does occasionally veer into odd territory. In October 2006, he spoke of finding a dead pigeon on his doorstep. That pigeon, he announced, was evidence that someone was trying to put a curse on him. "I just picked that thing up and said, 'It's too bad you've got to have the blood of animals.' I said, 'By the blood of Jesus Christ I command my house to be protected, I command my children [to be protected]'." In another sermon, Kalnins preached that 1st century Jews were jealous of the Messiah. "That's what made the Pharisees miss the Messiah," he said, "jealousy. The gentiles, us, non-Jews, are going to make Israel jealous for [of] the Messiah, Christ." So when you evangelize, he continued, do so gently—you don't want to make people jealous. Some Jews are suspicious about how Christians with end-times theology view Israel—and with good reason; certain fringe Christian sects hold that Jews deserve God's punishment for denying the divinity of Jesus.
Palin has strongly and repeatedly articulated her support for Israel. "I do love that country," she told an interviewer last month, adding that an Israeli flag hangs in the Alaska governor's office. But among the most controversial YouTube clips is one of David Brickner, executive director of Jews for Jesus, preaching at the Wasilla Bible Church on the same day Palin was there for her new baby Trig's dedication ceremony. Brickner preached that terrorism in Israel was God's judgment on the Jews for their not believing in Jesus—comments that were roundly denounced by Jewish groups. In an interview with NEWSWEEK, Brickner explained that he wasn't singling out Jews for judgment, that "the whole world is under God's judgement because of sin and disbelief." He said he had no personal interaction with Palin that day, adding, "I love Israel. And I support her [Israel] and stand by her against all efforts to bring harm to the Jewish people." The only thing that struck him, as she stood up at the altar with her new baby two weeks before her nomination, was how much she looked like Tina Fey.