By Michael Gerson
Friday, September 12, 2008
There are reasons to question the choice of the commander of the Alaska National Guard as a prospective commander in chief (though there were equally serious reasons to doubt the military qualifications of another backwoods candidate, Abraham Lincoln, who served for a few months as a private and a captain in the Black Hawk War).
But instead of engaging this issue, liberals have been drawn, helpless and mesmerized -- like beetles to the vivid, blue paradise of the bug zapper -- toward criticizing Sarah Palin's religion. Palin's former Pentecostal church is called a "shout-and-holler tabernacle." Reporters press Palin's former pastor to reveal if she has ever spoken in tongues, the way it was once asked if candidates had ever used drugs. Palin's beliefs are compared to those of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright -- though it turns out that she was caught on tape requesting prayers for the success of her country instead of railing against it. In that sense, Palin sounds most like President Franklin Roosevelt, who prayed on D-Day that, "by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph."
And, of course, Palin is portrayed as a "theocrat" -- a Muslim fundamentalist in lipstick. She has "a right to her religious beliefs" in precisely the same sense that one has a right to believe the moon is made of Muenster, but she must not be allowed to "impose" such beliefs on others.
There are serious responses to such silliness. If religious beliefs about the dignity of human life were illegitimate as a basis for public policy, there would have been no abolition or civil rights movements. The idea of a divine image found in every human person is one of the main foundations for the American tradition of liberty, tolerance and pluralism. Religious duty motivates millions to love and serve their neighbors -- and thus to respect their neighbor's rights of conscience.
But it is the political effect of these attacks that must have Team McCain shouting and hollering with the joy of a frontier camp meeting. In general, liberal political and media elites demonstrate a religious diversity that runs the spectrum from secularism to liberal Episcopalianism -- all the varied shades from violet to blue. Yet they assume their high church or Mencken-like disdain for religious enthusiasm is broadly shared. It was the sociologist Peter Berger who observed, "Puerto Ricans, Jews and Episcopalians each form around 2 percent of the American population. Guess which group does not think of itself as a minority."
The media treatment of Pentecostalism (Palin's main religious background) and Bible church evangelicalism (her current affiliation) has had the quality of a National Geographic special on a newly discovered Amazon tribe. You might not suspect that Pentecostalism -- grown from the admirable, racially integrated roots of the Los Angeles Azusa Street Revival of 1906 -- is one of the fastest-growing and most influential forms of mainstream Christianity. There are now between 250 million and 500 million Pentecostals in places from Latin America to sub-Saharan Africa to rural Alaska. It is often described as the faith of the dispossessed -- many adherents come from poorer backgrounds. But it is also the faith of the socially mobile -- promoting virtues of hard work, savings and self-denial that would make Max Weber proud.
And so Democrats and their liberal allies set out a self-destructive mixed message. Democratic politicians press their appeal to blue-collar workers and the working poor -- while liberal intellectuals and pundits express their disdain for the religious values and motivations of the poor and middle class themselves. While most religious people in America don't speak in tongues, many pray for healing in times of sickness and trouble, and most are offended when sneering elites attack the religious practices of their friends and neighbors. And it is even more insulting when the argument is made that "pocketbook" issues will somehow override a man or woman's deepest beliefs.
All this can only work to Barack Obama's disadvantage, given his cool, aloof manner and his patronizing comments about the bitter and religious. And it has brought an unintended benefit to the McCain-Palin ticket -- a populist, religious appeal that McCain alone did not possess.
Deriding Palin's religion has been a poor strategy -- and the mistake has been made before. During the first Pentecost -- the one recorded in Acts -- Christians spoke strange languages in public. Many observers dismissed them as drunk.
The critics of religion, as is often the case, did not get the last word.