Nothing to Fear?


A couple of days ago, Matt Sutton (a young American religious historian who’s knows from American Pentecostalism) argued on the History News Network that, whatever reasons one might have for being concerned about Sarah Palin in high national office, her religion should not be one of them. (He assumes, by the way, that she is in fact a prophecy believing, speaking-in-tongues Pentecostal.)

If Palin’s beliefs are cause for alarm, then we should never have elected John F. Kennedy. After all, the Roman Catholic Church of 1960 wanted to bring down the wall of separation between church and state. Shouldn’t we have kept him out of the White House?
And what about Barack Obama? This guy should make the average American tremble. After all, he is very serious about the social ethics of the New Testament, especially Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Doesn’t that mean that if terrorists attack the United States, Obama will ask us to love our enemies as ourselves and to turn the other cheek?
How about Joe Biden? The Catholic Church forbids the use of contraceptives. If we elect him, isn’t he going to take away all of our condoms? Is the Vatican going to be writing the sex-ed curriculum for our schools?
No, no, and no. Obama is not going to turn the other cheek, Biden will not outlaw contraception, and Palin is not going to call down the Apocalypse. These men and women are politicians, not preachers, and they are certainly not prophets. Each has a serious and abiding faith. But it is one that has been deeply influenced by American civil religion—that mealy-mouthed creed of God (but not too much God) and country that has been the hallmark of our leaders since George Washington. The one thing that we can always count on is that our politicians never take their faiths too seriously. If they did they wouldn’t be able to stomach the world of American politics.

This seems to me far too blithe. During their respective national campaigns, JFK, Obama, and Biden all addressed the relationship of their religious identity to their conduct in public office. Palin has had little to communicate about that. But more to the point, it goes too far, it seems to me, to simply state apodictally that an American politician’s religious commitments will have no discernible effect on his or her policies or decisionmaking. Woodrow Wilson’s certitude about his divine mission is commonly judged to have shaped his uncompromising support for the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations–and not for the better. I’m prepared to believe that George W. Bush’s pigheaded engagement in Iraq has something to do with a conviction that God gave the U.S. the mission of spreading his gift of liberty to the peoples of the world.
I certainly don’t think a Pentecostal who accepts the gifts of the Holy Spirit, including the gift of tongues, should therefore be disqualified from holding public office. But I fail to see why there is no reason to be concerned about the conduct of foreign policy–particularly with respect to the Middle East–on the part of a president who makes a practice of scrutinizing the signs of the times for indications of a coming Tribulation. Prophecy belief really has affected American evangelicals’ views on, for example, the establishment of the State of Israel. It seems to me contemptuous of all politicians’ faith to wave away such beliefs as so much spiritual window dressing. If Sarah Palin’s faith has led her to oppose abortion and same-sex marriage, why is it out of bounds to suppose–and be concerned about–how she looks at the world?