Nothing about the religious right has troubled its opponents over the years more than premillennial dispensationalism (or, if you prefer, dispensational premillennialism). The widespread belief among conservative evangelicals in a more or less imminent End Times comprising a Rapture of the Saints, the Antichrist, seven years of Tribulation, the return of Christ for a 1,000-year reign, and the Final Judgment has long conjured up nightmare scenarios of what someone who actually believed that stuff would do if elected to high national office. The late James Watt, Secretary of the Interior, is commonly (but falsely) believed to have favored the rapid exploitation of natural resources because, given his premillennialist beliefs, preserving the environment was really an inconsequential proposition. To the proposition that Jews should embrace the religious right because of its vigorous support of Israel, the counterargument has been that such support is not of Israel (and the Jews) per se, but merely part of a theological scenario that requires an ingathering of Israel in the Holy Land, after which only those Jews who convert to Christianity will be saved while the rest are consigned to the flames of Hell. (For the record, evangelical support for Israel is also based on God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis; call it overdetermined.)
Charges of crypto-depensationalism have occasionally been raised against the two presidents that have been most closely identified with the religious right, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush; but I’ve never seen anything like convincing evidence that either entertained the belief in any way that mattered. Bush, so far as I can see, is motivated by religious convictions far more akin to good old Protestant postmillennialism; God’s “gift of liberty” enables us on earth to extend the benefits of democracy to all the world, preparing the way, etc. But now comes Sarah Palin, bidding fair to become a heartbeat away from being the most powerful person on earth, and her spiritual formation was in a premil church. Here’s what her longtime pastor had to say on the subject, according to Manya Brachear’s piece in the Chicago Tribune yesterday:
Rev. Tim McGraw, Palin’s pastor when she became mayor of Wasilla, said believers look to Israel for signs of the coming end times and where they are in God’s plan. That would undoubtedly influence Palin’s approach to foreign policy, McGraw said.
“I believe Sarah would not live in a fragmented world,” he said. “The idea that Sarah would take this huge influence of the worldview that really only the Bible and the relationship with Jesus opens up … and suddenly marginalize it and put it over on the shelf somewhere and live apart from it—that would be entirely inconsistent.”
So what, exactly, are we entitled to know about Sarah Palin’s religious worldview?
As the calls resound for Palin to say what it is she believes, her partisans will respond that this violates the constitutional ban on religious tests for office; to which the reply will be that you guys didn’t seem so worried about the Constitution when what was on the table was Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. Let’s be clear: The Constitution doesn’t prevent anyone from voting on religious grounds, or from organizing others to do so. But the prohibition in Article Six, which had in mind formal test oaths of the kind used in England to keep Catholics from serving in Parliament, does cast a shadow on efforts to stir up political opposition based on religious hostility; the antebellum anti-Catholic American Party has gone down in history as the Know-Nothing party because its adherents were ashamed to own up to what they were.
Be that as it may, in an era when it is deemed not only appropriate but necessary for presidential and vice presidential candidates to say something about their religious identity, it is inconceivable to me that Sarah Palin won’t be speaking about her faith–what she believes and how that has affected and will affect her conduct in public office–and soon. It will doubtless be anodyne stuff, more Wasilla Bible Church (where she now worships) than Wasilla Assemblies of God, designed to smooth away any suspicion that she’s some kind of religious wacko. Many will find this convincing. Many won’t.
In Unsecular Media, my book on religion and the American news media, I tried to show that such discussions usually turn on mutual accusations of intolerance. “Sarah Palin’s guilty of intolerance.” “No, it’s you who are intolerant of her.” As predictable and mindless as the argument is, it does tend to reinforce one of civil society’s more important values. At the end of the day, however, I find it hard to resist the thought that a true premillennialist believer, one who actively interprets current events–and especially those in the Middle East–as signs of the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, is not someone I would want as president of the United States of America.