Casting Stones

Casting Stones

Sarah Palin: Sending the Signals (By D. Michael Lindsay)

lindsay.jpgSarah Palin electrified the Republican National Convention last week. The Democrats are still smarting from her one-liners, and senior McCain advisors have to be concerned that, while she excites the party’s base, she also outshines the candidate. They will, no doubt, continue using her as the campaign’s “attack dog,” but there’s another aspect of her rhetoric worth thinking about. Consider the following section from her acceptance speech in St. Paul:
…Politics isn’t just a game of clashing parties and competing interests. The right reason [for political involvement] is to challenge the status quo, to serve the common good, and to leave this nation better than we found it. No one expects us all to agree on everything, but we are expected to govern with integrity, and goodwill, and clear convictions, and a servant’s heart.
Palin offered these same lines in Dayton, Ohio, on the day she was tapped to be McCain’s running mate. Why would a person seeking the country’s second most powerful office talk about governing with a “servant’s heart,” and more importantly, why would she repeat such an odd phrase in the biggest speech of her life?
Quite simply, it is one of her main assignments–to mobilize fellow evangelicals for the religiously unmusical John McCain. Up until two weeks ago, 2008 was looking an awful lot like 1996 for the Republicans. Most evangelicals were going to vote for McCain, but they weren’t that excited about it. Their support was tepid at best. That is no way to win the White House, especially with the Democrats’ surging enthusiasm over the Obama-Biden ticket.
John McCain has many advantages for a year when Republicans are so unpopular, but he has been plagued by not being able to connect with evangelical voters. No matter how many times he recounts the story of the cross on the ground in the Hanoi Hilton, the Episcopalian-turned-Baptist cannot speak the evangelical vernacular like a native.
If there is one political lesson McCain learned from George W. Bush, it is that a Republican has to signal his allegiance to evangelicals early and often. However, it must be done with a measure of subtlety. To be truly effective, the politician has to communicate to evangelicals “I’m one of you” without being explicit. Once you know what to look for, though, one can see that public figures broadcast these signals all the time. As I showed in my book, Faith in the Halls of Power (Oxford, 2007), entertainers who are Christians signal their faith commitments as often as politicians. For example, the cover of U2’s album All That You Can’t Leave Behind features an airport sign with “J33-3?,” alluding to Jeremiah 33:3. In his 2006 co-authored book, Bono explained the signal as a reference to the Bible: “That’s Jeremiah 33:3. The Scripture is ‘Call unto me, and I will answer you.’ It’s celestial telephony.”
When Sarah Palin referred to governing with a “servant’s heart,” the phrase resonated with millions of American evangelicals who have heard that phrase all of their lives. It is a shorthand for the humble leadership Jesus admonished in the Gospel of Mark, and the term is so prevalent among evangelicals that it has become a punch line for sermon jokes.
Politicians signal messages to all kinds of audiences when they are speaking to large, diverse crowds. Signaling allows the speaker to communicate certain messages subtly without risking full disclosure. When overt reference is inappropriate or might draw unwanted attention, evangelicals use signaling to reveal their faith allegiances without even mentioning God or Jesus. The effect is blunted when, as Barack Obama did in concluding his acceptance speech, the speaker explicitly states “in the words of scripture…”
And it happens not just with biblical allusions. Seemingly secular phrases can be endowed with religious significance for evangelical audiences. That is what made Sarah Palin’s reference to the “common good” even more intriguing. After John Kerry lost the 2004 election, Mara Vanderslice, Kerry’s religious outreach adviser, established Common Good Strategies, a political consulting firm for Democrats interested in connecting with people of faith. Within a few years, “common good” had become the mantra of left-of-center believers. The slogan for Faith in Public Life, an initiative housed at the Center for American Progress, is “a resource center for justice and the common good.” Bill Clinton lectured at Georgetown on the topic in 2006, and devout Democrats such as Senator Bob Casey regularly incorporate the rhetoric in speeches and on the campaign trail. In fact, BBC News noted in 2006 that Casey mentioned the phrase 29 times in a single talk.
Could it be that Sarah Palin’s use of the phrase is coincidental, that it was not intended to tap these religious sensibilities? Not likely. The same person who helped President George W. Bush master the art of signaling to the faithful–Matthew Scully–wrote most of Palin’s speech. Moreover, the address was vetted extremely carefully; it was, after all, her national introduction before 37 million Americans. McCain advisors knew enough to realize she was far more fluent in the evangelical vernacular than the Arizona senator.
Critics may claim these are only rhetorical flourishes. Nothing guarantees that signals translate into votes. That may be so, but politics is largely about symbols. Political symbols mobilize the masses. No Republican has won the White House in modern history without the staunch support of evangelical voters. When John McCain began his bid for the Oval Office, observers thought he didn’t have a prayer of winning their support. With this “Hail Mary pass” of enlisting the Alaskan governor as his running mate, John McCain’s political savior may just turn out to be a pit bull with lipstick.
D. Michael Lindsay is a sociologist at Rice University and is the author of Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite (Oxford), which is being released in paperback next month.

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posted September 10, 2008 at 12:50 pm

Great post. I wonder why republicans must signal while it seems Obama can speak more openly about faith, as could B. Clinton, who I believe referenced “Jesus Christ” and utilized explicitly religious phrases more regularly as president than has G.W. Bush. Maybe the contemporary cultured despisers of religion who police the public square assume that for the dems, it’s nothing more than expedient pandering.

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posted September 10, 2008 at 7:05 pm

Wonder how Sarah Palin’s use of a quotation by an anti-Semite in her convention speech is going to play among conservative Christians who are–or at least professed to be–pro-Israel?
And then there’s this:
Palin was in church to hear a sermon by radical member of Jews
for Jesus who called terrorist attacks against Israelis (and all previous
suffering by the Jews) God’s judgment for not accepting Jesus.

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posted September 11, 2008 at 5:26 am

I read here often, and have learned much. I consider myself a person of deep Christian faith, and I find that my parent’s religious example, one of quiet faith practiced in everday life of good works and personal reflections and conversations with God, to be best suited to me. Still, my beliefs would not satisfy most of the Evangelical denonimations who guarantee me, as I have been told on more than one occasion, that I and my family will surely go to hell unless I embrace God and Jesus as my Lord and Savior in the manner the Evangelicals have decided to do. Despite this, I would fight to the rafters and beyond to protect the right of practicing Evangelicals to freely, openly and peacefully pursue their faith. I have growing doubts they would do the same for me.
And so I am very frightened, and increasingly moved to anger, when I see Evangelicals making every effort to seize the reigns of government and force through fiat all that they cannot achieve by teaching and gentle pursuasion-which for me and many other Christians are the true teachings of Jesus. All other ways are created by man for his purposes, not those of our Lord. It scares me and a great many other Americans who pick up on Evangelical signaling, in the media and elsewhere. We are beginning understand the call to action it represents for the Evangelical. And we are very concerned.
Now, it seems, we are at the crossroads Jefferson, Madison and the other founders so eloquently wrote about. This is the place where tyranny begins its reign, the looming tryanny by a people who see our nation as their rightful Christian domain, to be shaped and controlled as they believe Scripture gives them the right to, no matter how it may affect those who do not share their beliefs. Mundane concepts of liberty and freedom hold no sway with such Evangelicals if they stand in the way of their aims, except perhaps if they are useful toward their own ends. I find an chilling and frightful arrogance about all of this in many Evangelicals today, who thunderously and easily bless their actions with Scripture and a “servant’s heart”, so as to empower themselves with self-determined devine right to remake our nation as they would have it.
This is the Great Commission, the call to Evangelical Christians, the realm of the true believers who are convinced that they do God’s work. Sadly, history is repleat with the countless millions of lives lost in religious zeal and Gods name; as if God would ordain such a perversion of his love for man. Yet still it goes on, and those Evangelicals who would so righteously grab the reigns of our government-the Dobsons, the Perkins and all who follow them, will do anything, say anything, justify any lie and scurrilous action under the cloak of holy writ to make it happen. They make a mockery of the quiet faith of my parents; they would judge them and me and all like me who do not believe as they do.
Most Americans are troubled and confused, I think, about how to react to all of this. They can feel the building of an implied, if not yet direct threat, against those who would question the political motives of Evangelicals, and who see the sheer cynicism and powerplay behind the Palin nomination for what it is. They are afraid to speak up and challenge what is happening because they, on the one hand, simply don’t believe that God fearing people would be so ruthless, and on the other, are afraid to challenge those who are so messianic in their zeal for power.
Fear is the forever weapon of choice of religious zealotry, but thankfully, my parents, and me and all like me are still safe in the voting booth, at least for the moment. I think they, like me, will reject the blatant grab for power that should never be the province of people of faith. Jesus achieved His greatness and holy purpose precisely because He sought not the power of the political realm, but the power in people’s hearts. Politics is an earthly activity far beneath the magnificance and love of God. And those who think, as so many Evangelicals seem to do these days, that they do Gods work when they seek to control the reigns of government, do no such work at all. What they accompish is the diminishment of Gods glory, and reveal their ignorance of Jesus’s message of love and forgiveness to us all.
Jefferson was right when he said a for a society to be free, separation of church and state must exist, not only to protect religious people from persecution of government, but more importantly, society from the real threats of religious tyranny. I am afraid we are about to find out just how right he was. I pray to God I am wrong.

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posted September 11, 2008 at 5:34 pm

Wow–it seems like there are some serious issues to be dealt with in the previous post.Yikes! As I watched the 9-11 memorial this morning I couldn’t help but picture the leftwing liberals in this country cringing over G.W. Bush’s mention of praying and invoking the name of God for the family members of those who lost loved ones. How dare he do something so heinous? It’s the end of the free world as we know it! Oh the humanity of it all!! You talk about keeping faith private, well it’s a good thing many people don’t do that!! If they did alot of people would go hungry, homeless, sick and lonely without their assistance.Be careful what you ask for.

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posted September 11, 2008 at 7:39 pm

I thank you for the response Slider. Unfortunately, I think that you infer from my post a favoring toward a religious nature that is somehow uninvolved or disconnected from the realities of life. If so, you have inferred incorrectly. My family and many others like ours are drawn from all walks of life: military veterans, teachers, bankers, hair dressers, physicians, economists, social workers, police officers, business people…people who also care for the sick and the lonely, feed the hungry, house the homeless, and defend our nation. One does not have to wear his religious beliefs openly on his sleeve or shout them at every opportunity to love God or receive His grace, nor is doing those things necessary to care deeply and act decisively for our communities and our country.
While we are at it, I certainly make no claim that our president’s evolking of God’s name is in any way a “heinous” act, indeed doing so can and should be a call to a greater good. The issue I raise is that many Evangelicals these days seem to believe they have God all to themselves, that somehow he stands with and for them above all others who do not believe as they do, and therefore they have some pre-ordained right to impose through government fiat beliefs they cannot pursuade others to embrace. I surely do not think that is the case, and I certainly don’t think that is the lesson Jesus wanted us to learn. Moreover, I believe there are many Americans, indeed many Christians, that feel that way too, and who deep down fear the alternative.

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gabe angres

posted September 12, 2008 at 11:33 am

Fundamentailtstic thinking is scarry at best. Shades of Mary Dyer, Galileo Galilei. Thank you CBL for your reasonable approach to faith. GA

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posted October 26, 2008 at 7:49 pm

When I was busy working as a professional engineer I personally had no time for or a real concept on how bad the real world is with much too many liars, thugs, bullies, abusers, distorters, racists , thieves, now too.. and someone how next I could not help but encountered many of them, but by I had by now learned how to best deal with them. It is a two fold approach, first the Public exposure, the pen is mightier than the sword, and a good name is worth more than any silver and gold. But next also there is rightful demand, a need for their termination of employment, their real prosecution of the guilty, bad persons. Both of these approaches personally so works best, for everyone’s’ betterment. Ideally and rightfully I do not hesitate to recommend any crook, bad minister, bad pastor, bad news reporter as well to be fired , terminated from his our her job. Sadly there are many people in this world who are hatred mongers, they have a false persistent agendas against some others, and they for many wrong reasons now wrongfully pursue much of their time in these matters now too foolishly and unwisely. Too often they the bad people firstly proclaim themselves as angels of lights, good Samaritans try to help others, but rather it too often seems they are merely trying to gain an advantage over others, and to promote themselves in some powerful, key job, economic, superior positions under these false agendas, disguise’s in all kinds of social groups now too, the religious, political, cultural, governmental. Now I really hate these types of snakes and I rightfully do not hesitate to expose them once I encounter them.
Now we all know that in north America we all do really have freedom of religion, freedom of choice, freedom of speech, the right to be hard now as well.. Some people are now falsely abusing these right to promote a false war against a particular Christian group, the Pentecostal ones, or even the Catholic ones, etc. When I see this kind of unacceptable personal behavior I too do not accept it but do loudly object to it to all and do ask these hate mongrels be immediately fired, put in jail as well. No matter who they are now too.
“Sarah Palin losing her sway over Christian voters
The Sarah Palin effect, which brought evangelicals and other Christians rushing on to the Republican wagon when her nomination was announced, is now fading. In some cases fast.
A poll by the respected Pew Forum has found that some white evangelicals are losing their excitement about the political coupling of John McCain and Palin, who has deep Pentecostal roots in Alaska. White evangelicals, the crucial group that got George W. Bush into the White House in the past two elections, are beginning to edge away from the Republicans. Their support has dropped from 74 to 67 per cent in the past week or so.
Meanwhile, pollsters are beginning to predict that mainline Protestants, who tend to be more liberal than evangelicals, are moving firmly to Barack Obama and Joe Biden. The Democrat contender is now attracting 48 per cent of mainline Christians’ votes. As well, non-Hispanic Catholics have also switched and are now leaning more to Obama-Biden than McCain-Palin.
Go here for Pew’s easy-to-read poll
Comment by todd — October 26, 2008 @ 8:13 pm ”
Thanks for your input Todd, this is the second time you posted back to me on my blog, unusual for a news reporter to comment on my blog too.
>>A poll by the respected Pew Forum has found that some white evangelicals are losing their excitement about the political coupling of John McCain and Palin
My personal straight forward, honest, personal summation, experiences of Politics, dealing with you, the Vancouver Sun as well, and pollsters… they are statistically just liars, biased, people with hidden agendas.. and I told you that now in writing too many times too.. I rightfully have no respect for what you write still about Christians, evangelicals and so do many others now too.
what about the polls that show 30 percent of white people will also not vote for a black persons? racisms exists in the churches and police stations now too.
And my own experiences with Canadian liberal news media, liberals, liberal politicians are so blind they had undeniably now underestimated the starch of the all of evangelical churches, who had themselves formed the Reform, Alliance, and the new Conservative party, and next had wiped out both the old Conservatives under Brian Mulroney, and the Liberals under Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin.. I saw it coming , wrote about it 2 decades ago, but you did don’t see it coming. Do get an honest job now..
But the fact that Sarah Palin is getting now so much free publicity attention even from the liberals, democrats it all next simply means when I see the devil breathing on her back, she must be doing something really really good
Any possible Christian support of Obama is another liberal, democratic, news media false spins.. just like the devil often dos the same thing.. I read many of their emotional, gushy, lying, slanderous , sewage posts, opinions, but they are spins, lies and not facts and the US news media has lost loads of credibity, CNN especially the big liars, in their slanted election presentations, and that fact is not unnoticed.. but that was the same complaint thing they had often said about the Canadian News media, CBC, under the liberals who lost next.. wow!
And basically too no true, real practicing Christian would support the clearly anti Christ Obama.. who does supports abortions, gay marriages, alcohol as well..
My site statistics undeniably do show Sarah Palin is the most read topic in the last few months of over 100 different subjects, topics on my 6 related blogs, and that support I encounter is the tip of the iceberg only.. 80 percent of the posts read are about her.
Even the Canadian PM Stephen Harper, and the federal election. Bilden, McCain, Obama do not get 10 percent of her attention too.. the undeniably crooked Christian Missionary alliance church got just as much attention now, 10 percent as they all did as well.. note this a new runner up in reading POPULARITY is the bad RCMP, bad Traffic cops of Alberta next.
As I also wrote often to thousands, Canadian politicians and news editors too now.. The truth about the ungodly Pentecostals bashings, wars against the Pentecostals on the net, even by the Vancouver Sun now too, or anyone else… is that I also still do not have to accept it or put up with it still too, it is an unacceptable perversity, human rights abuse, immoral. And it better stop otherwise I too will have to write to a lot more people about it too.. very much more.. etc

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