Beliefnet
The Deacon's Bench

Multiple sources say John McCain’s running mate was baptized Catholic, but after that it gets murky.

One blogger put it this way:

Like most Pentecostal denominations, going all the way back to the Azusa Revival a century ago, the Assemblies of God ordains women as pastors. Palin, born a Catholic, left a denomination that denied pastoral authority to women in order to join one that embraced women as leaders — while still holding to traditional social views on issues like “life” and sexuality. Unlike among the Southern Baptists or conservative Calvinists, it’s not unusual in Pentecostal circles to find women who are both church leaders and mothers of young children. Palin belongs, it seems, to that tradition.

Christianity Today, meantime, takes a closer look:

John McCain’s vice presidential pick Sarah Palin has a Pentecostal background, but reporters seem to be struggling to define her faith.

A profile in the Wall Street Journal says she’s Lutheran.

The Washington Post writes, “Her evangelical Christian faith — she believes in creationism and is adamantly opposed to abortion — may help [McCain] court skeptical social conservatives.”

Hm. I’m not sure those two beliefs necessarily link to an “evangelical Christian faith.”

Instead of assigning a label to her faith, Eric Gorski of the Associated Press reports that a business administrator in Pentecostal Assemblies of God told him that her home church is The Church on the Rock, an independent congregation. A spokeswoman for the McCain-Palin campaign told Gorski that Palin attends different churches and does not consider herself Pentecostal.

Tennessean religion reporter Bob Smietana writes that Palin grew up among evangelicals, and attended the Wasilla Assembly of God as a teenager and young adult. Smietana writes that while in Juneau, Alaska’s capital, she sometimes attends Juneau Christian Center, an Assemblies of God congregation.

Boston College professor Alan Wolfe writes at The New Republic that Palin is an evangelical, shaped by the region in which she lives.

“… she is not a Southern evangelical, and therein lies a tale.”

Southern Baptists, he writes, became preoccupied with sin, while those in the west were more libertarian where sins could become forgiven.

He writes, “Sarah Palin named two of her children after witches, once took drugs, and refused to sign a bill forbidding domestic benefits for gay couples. Any one of these–especially the first–would raise suspicion in the eyes of a traditional Southern Baptist.”

With Richard Land’s high praise, however, I’m not seeing that suspicion quite yet.

“Palin, the gun-toting mom, has a libertarian streak in politics and a libertarian streak in religion,” Wolfe writes. ” … [W]hile Palin may be quickly endorsed by men speaking in Southern accents, she is neither a Billy Graham nor a Jimmy Carter. American evangelicalism, like John McCain, has many mansions. Sarah Palin inhabits only one of them.”

UPDATE: I see that John Allen has done some ruminating on Palin’s religious background, and gives particular attention to a phrase from her first appearance that struck a chord with me, the idea of a “Servant’s Heart”:

Those who watched Palin’s announcement speech yesterday in Dayton, Ohio, might have noticed a throaty roar from the crowd when she said, “We are expected to govern with integrity and goodwill and clear convictions and a servant’s heart.”

That reaction wasn’t simply about approval of good government; the phrase “servant’s heart” is a popular bit of Evangelical terminology, used as a short-hand for Christian humility. A quick web search reveals thousands of churches, ministries, and bands that use some variation of “servant’s heart” in the title; there’s even a residential cleaning service in Calgary called “Servant’s Heart.”

The term is so common, in fact, that Christian comedian Tim Hawkins has poked fun at it. “I hate it when somebody tells me I’ve got a servant’s heart,” Hawkins says. “It means they want me to start stacking chairs.”

When Palin pledged to govern with a “servant’s heart,” Christians, especially those with an Evangelical background, had no trouble recognizing one of their own, even without the convenience of a denominational label on Palin’s résumé. (It’s akin to a public figure making reference to a “near occasion of sin” or a “state of grace”; even without an official bio, Catholics would recognize a fellow member of the tribe.)

Palin’s nomination, therefore, does not simply mark a breakthrough for women, or for western states. She also puts a face on the fastest-growing and most dynamic segment of global Christianity these days – even if it’s proving difficult for journalists and political handicappers to get their minds around.