Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman

Sam Harris’s (Mostly) Unfair Attack on Sarah Palin

Sam Harris’s attack on Sarah Palin in Newsweek is a mix of brilliant analysis and grossly unfair bits of stereotyping.
First, the unfair.

“Every detail that has emerged about Palin’s life in Alaska suggests that she is as devout and literal-minded in her Christian dogmatism as any man or woman in the land.”

As dogmatic as anyone in America? That’s quite a claim. Actually, her record shows her to be a pol first, and a “movement conservative” second. She talked about teaching creationism in schools – but then as governor didn’t push it. She opposes gay marriage but did nothing to push that line while governor. In her interview with Charlie Gibson, she said abortion policy should be left to the states. Her oft-quoted line about the Iraq war being “God’s plan” was taken out of context. (On the other hand, she DID say it was “God’s will” that they build a natural gas pipeline).

“Given her long affiliation with the Assemblies of God church, Palin very likely believes that Biblical prophecy is an infallible guide to future events and that we are living in the ‘end times.’….
“You can learn something about a person by the company she keeps. In the churches where Palin has worshiped for decades, parishioners enjoy “baptism in the Holy Spirit,” “miraculous healings” and “the gift of tongues.” Invariably, they offer astonishingly irrational accounts of this behavior and of its significance for the entire cosmos. Palin’s spiritual colleagues describe themselves as part of “the final generation,” engaged in “spiritual warfare” to purge the earth of “demonic strongholds.”
Palin has spent her entire adult life immersed in this apocalyptic hysteria. Ask yourself: Is it a good idea to place the most powerful military on earth at her disposal? Do we actually want our leaders thinking about the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy when it comes time to say to the Iranians, or to the North Koreans, or to the Pakistanis, or to the Russians or to the Chinese: “All options remain on the table”?

Beyond simply the assertion that those in Assemblies of God churches “very likely” believe such things, is there any evidence Palin believes the end is nigh? Those who believe in End Times fall into at least three categories. Those who think the end is imminent and have shaped their behavior around such things (stockpiling water in the basement, not bothering to recycle etc); those who believe the end is near but live their life as is; and those who think the end will come but have no idea when. We have no idea which category she’s in. It’s definitely a legitimate question for her, but being a member of Assemblies of God doesn’t per se mean she’ll be revving up the nukes to goose along Armageddon.

“There is no question that if President McCain chokes on a spare rib and Palin becomes the first woman president, she and her supporters will believe that God, in all his majesty and wisdom, has brought it to pass. Why would God give Sarah Palin a job she isn’t ready for? He wouldn’t. Everything happens for a reason”

This might be true – as it was for John Adams and George Washington. Adams told Abigail that his election to the presidency reflected “the voice of God.” Washington ascribed battlefield victories to the “astonishing interpositions of Providence.” Believing that God influences history doesn’t necessarily make one either an idiot or a bad leader.
Now, I thought the best part of Harris’s piece was his defense of elitism, which was actually a defense of excellence.

“What is so unnerving about the candidacy of Sarah Palin is the degree to which she represents–and her supporters celebrate–the joyful marriage of confidence and ignorance….Ask yourself: how has “elitism” become a bad word in American politics? There is simply no other walk of life in which extraordinary talent and rigorous training are denigrated. We want elite pilots to fly our planes, elite troops to undertake our most critical missions, elite athletes to represent us in competition and elite scientists to devote the most productive years of their lives to curing our diseases.
And yet, when it comes time to vest people with even greater responsibilities, we consider it a virtue to shun any and all standards of excellence. When it comes to choosing the people whose thoughts and actions will decide the fates of millions, then we suddenly want someone just like us, someone fit to have a beer with, someone down-to-earth–in fact, almost anyone, provided that he or she doesn’t seem too intelligent or well educated.”

This has been bugging me too. The last thing I’d want in a President is someone just like me! I noticed in a recent letter by a conservative Christian who believed that Sarah Palin was sent by God to fight the anti-Christ (i.e. Obama), he didn’t mention her qualifications at all. He loved Palin because she’s “a born-again, Spirit-filled Christian, attends church, and has been a ministry worker.” I’m not sure why that would qualify someone to be President.
UPDATE: The Weekly Standard’s publisher, Terry Eastland, has just produced a very fair overview of Palin’s religion.

Comments read comments(12)
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posted September 22, 2008 at 8:06 pm

An ignorant electorate is easier to manipulate and deceive. Thus the conservative evangelicals attack anything that might promote education and a better understanding of what is going on in the world. Public education, the news media, science, libraries, movies…all forms of information come under attack because they shed light on the efforts of the conservatives to keep people in the dark.
This is what happens when religion overtakes reason as the guiding light of our lives. Anything that questions the religious belief must be wrong, because our belief cannot be questioned.
Ignorance…throughout the centuries it has been the tool of those who would oppress people and keep them from achieving their highest calling in this world.

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Charles Cosimano

posted September 22, 2008 at 9:08 pm

I’ve no love for Palin or the religious right but the characterizing of the Assemblies of God as a pack of screaming lunatics all waiting fervently for the End of the World is just plain flat-out wrong.
Yes, they are Pentecostal. Yes, they get a bit noisy at times and speak in tongues, at the proper times in the service, and yes there are individual churches within the denomination that are over the edge of the world, but as a denomination they are largely right-of-center mainline, sort of like loud Baptists.
My objection to Palin’s Pentecostalism is less theological than physiological, for reason’s I’ve stated before. The practice of tongues creates a massive endorphin rush which leave the person with impaired judgement for a period of about 24 hours on average. And if she, God forbid, should be in a position of real authority and that happens, we are all in serious danger.

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Kid Rhythm

posted September 22, 2008 at 11:13 pm

Palin was not sent by God and she is an IDIOT of the very worst kind!!!! Al Gore is the only person with the right idea!!!!

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John K.

posted September 23, 2008 at 12:56 am

Don’t know how reliable it is, but one Alaska activist who has had conversations with Palin claims to have gotten the answer out of her:
“Munger also asked Palin if she truly believed in the End of Days, the doomsday scenario when the Messiah will return. “She looked in my eyes and said, ‘Yes, I think I will see Jesus come back to earth IN MY LIFETIME.'”” [Emphasis Added].

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posted September 23, 2008 at 7:09 am

You mention that Palin talked about teaching creationism but “as governor didn’t push it.” Remember she has been governor less than two years. We don’t know what Palin might have done, because her record is paper thin. That, more than her religious beliefs, is what troubles me. What frightens me is how the McCain campaign has kept her under wraps — no press conferences, no more Charlie Gibson interviews, no freewheeling debate with Sen. Biden. She’s like one of those grab bags they used to sell in my hometown department store. You’d take a chance, buy it, then see what’s inside. What a way to run a country.

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posted September 23, 2008 at 9:45 am

“…conservative evangelicals attack anything that might promote education and a better understanding of what is going on in the world.”
Elitist liberals attack anything that might promote family, traditional values, and faith.
Guess were even.

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Karen Brown

posted September 23, 2008 at 10:21 am

Except that she HAD those two years, being a popular member of the majority party, with supposedly 80-something percent approval. She had been mayor, so while there’s a learning curve (which there would be for any non-incumbent) shouldn’t have taken two years to just figure out what she was supposed to be doing with her time.
What, exactly, was she waiting for? Why, with 2 years, (half of a term, as an executive, after all, and how many terms IS she supposed to serve before you do anything?) and that much approval, does she HAVE a paper thin record?
Would we, if she got in, expect her to coast along for half her term before doing anything?

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posted September 23, 2008 at 12:03 pm

Bob, if by “elitist” you mean educated, then I stand convicted as charged. But I am an educated liberal (and a religious one) who supports both family and faith. “Traditional values,” of course, is Christianist code for patriarchy and heterosexism, which I oppose.
Karen, as mayor Palin had no leverage over the state’s public school curriculum. Perhaps, as governor, she was biding her time to appoint creationists to the board of ed — I don’t know, to be honest. But 20 months (not even a full two years, let’s be honest) is not a lot of time if creationism was not high on her agenda. She might have gotten to it eventually; we just don’t know. And yes, 20 months as the executive of a very small state is a paper-thin resume, indeed, when one is a candidate for vice president. And before anyone brings up Obama, his intellect, sheer capability and record of public service are all infinitely deeper than Palin’s.

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Karen Brown

posted September 23, 2008 at 1:29 pm

Then, if she had no control over that area of governing, putting it in her platform as a campaign promise was actually.. more dishonest.
She wasn’t just not doing what she said she’d do, she said she’d do something she would have no power to deliver.
I mean, if she couldn’t do it in almost 2 years with a majority in BOTH houses in her own party and almost 90 percent approval rating, it was beyond not high on her agenda, and not even on her radar at all.
Her resume is paper thin not only due to her being a small state (population-wise) governor, but because she was famous for not even showing up for quite a bit of those 20 months in the first place.
Alaskans started wearing ‘Where’s Sarah?’ buttons a few months in her administration.

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posted September 27, 2008 at 11:42 am

There is no logical way to refute Harris on this. Palin is an ideologue with an ideolgy rooted deeply in the past, and nothing could be clearer than than the fact that we need a leader who can reason and act in a pragmatic manner. With out disproportionate influence from religious “special interests”
I thought that both candidates had that ability until McCain made this unwise and dangerous choice

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posted September 27, 2008 at 11:51 am

The very party that has promised to remove special interests from our government, has sanctioned the most powerful lobbies of all…organized Religion and foreign countries Israel ( a virtual blank check?)
Our leaders should truly put “America First”.

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posted September 28, 2008 at 11:25 pm

I see, so Elitist = Educated. I am sorry that you have to rant against anyone who talks reasonably against Palin. I might not agree with Harris on many points about religion but his points about Palin are absolutely correct.
-An elitist PIOUS woman AGAINST Palin

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