Progressive Revival

With media attention directed toward the largest economic story in recent American history, other stories are falling by the way.  One of the most interesting–and surely least understood–is the story of Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s religious faith.

As a mainline Protestant whose faith values pluralism, I confess that I have been reluctant to blog on Ms. Palin’s religion or to make that an issue.  But a small turn of phrase in her Katie Couric interview has given me pause and underscored the importance of Ms. Palin’s theology in relationship to her politics.

In Part II of the CBS interview, Katie Couric pressed Ms. Palin on the issue of Russia and how Alaska’s proximity has an impact on her experience in international affairs.  Her answer, like her answer to Charlie Gibson to the same question, was awkward.  In the midst of it, she proffered a strange expression to explain her worry about a resurgent Russia: “as Putin rears his head.”

To most observers, that phrase may seem an unusual way to talk about increased Russian military activity in Eastern Europe and Asia.  However, what secular observers do not know is that the specific phrase is also theological code for “as the Anti-Christ rears his head.”  

For most of the twentieth century, American evangelicals and Pentecostals believed that the Anti-Christ would, most likely, come from Russia–as would the army to lead the Anti-Christ’s legions at the Battle of Armageddon.  With great regularity, fundamentalist and Pentecostal pastors identified Soviet leaders with the Anti-Christ, believing that with Russia’s every military move the apocalyptic clock ticked closer to the end of the world.  A common way of talking about Russia and the apocalypse was, “as Russia rears its head.”  Ms. Palin used the phrase in the exact way, with the exact intonation, as had millenarian pastors for decades–belying a kind of theological connective tissue between her church and her geo-political worldview.  

Alaska played an important role in this theology.  As the United States’ closest geography to Russia, it stood as a buffer to the advance of the Anti-Christ’s army.  With its oil resources, it also provided a kind of domestic reserve of energy supply when anti-Christian political forces cut off God’s chosen nation from the rest of the world.  Some strands of millenarian Christianity in Alaska came to identify their state as a “refuge” during the tribulation, as hundreds of thousands flee Russia’s oppressive dictatorship.  Thus, Alaskan millenarianism is a sort of theological stew of apocalypse, oil, and survivalism–themes all echoed in Governor Palin’s stump speeches.

In the last twenty years, many evangelical leaders have explicated rejected this sort of theology–most respectable evangelical colleges and seminaries do not teach it any longer.  But this sort of millennialism remains a formidable shaping influence in many congregations, especially Pentecostal ones.   And, for those with longer political memories, it is the same theology that shaped John Ashcroft.  

Ms. Palin has rather cleverly avoided issues related to her church, staying instead to populist rhetoric about reform and taxes.  However, her home church is a Pentecostal congregation with extremist theological views, including an apocalyptic vision with potentially dangerous implications regarding key issues in today’s world.  As Pastor Rick Warren pointed out in the recent forum at Saddleback Church, a candidate’s “worldview” is an important part of evaluating his or her fitness for office.  It is high time for the media to examine Governor Palin’s theology fairly to allow voters to make a more informed choice about the woman who may be a single heartbeat from the presidency.

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