• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Sarah Palin and the (White) Evangelical Binary Mind

The question I set before myself today is the one I threw out a few days ago to y’all, namely, what does it say about American evangelicals that the vice-presidential candidacy of Gov. Sarah Palin has been described as “galvanizing” them. So here are a few thoughts about that.

Let’s start with the observation that evangelicals tend toward a binary mind (as historians Mark Noll, George Marsden, and others have delineated in detail). Some things are appropriately thought of in binary terms, to be sure: “Jesus is Lord,” “Ye must be born again,” and so on. But the world of politics is the world of assessing a situation and making the best of it with what, and whom, you have to work with. Binary thinking rarely helps get anything done, because politics rarely presents an actual choice between Good and Evil. More specifically, political campaigns never present a choice between Jesus and Satan.

So this year evangelicals were torn between some impressive candidates who also have impressive drawbacks, as well as a few whose candidacy was unlikely to appeal to more than a minority–pretty much the usual situation in American presidential contests. Why, then, didn’t evangelicals seem to get involved much until recently?

Let’s be clear that many evangelicals were involved much earlier. Obama was supported by many, as was Senator Clinton (although less obviously so); candidates Huckabee and Romney enjoyed the support of many others; and John McCain was seen, especially once he emerged as the presumptive Republican candidate, as the better choice over either Obama or Clinton for those evangelicals who simply prefer a Republican to a Democrat.

But no candidate looked like a (white) evangelical. That parenthesis is important, to be sure, since Barack Obama looks a lot like a black evangelical. Some have tied him to so-called black liberation theology, but it is simply commonplace among literate black evangelicals to have read at least some James Cone and the like as part of equipping themselves to carry on the civil rights concerns and general public policy outlooks of their forebears, from Dr. King on down. Again, black evangelicals were plenty “galvanized” already in his campaign.

As for white evangelicals (what most journalists still mean when they speak simply of “evangelicals”), McCain was not stoutly prolife, as most of them are, and that’s enough for many of them to sit on their hands and, as one evangelical leader put it, “wait for the next election, since the Democrats are going to win this one anyway.” Given prolife rhetoric of so many babies being aborted each day, let alone the fact of all of the other social problems worsening on their own timelines, conceding four years to the opposition strikes me as odd and, frankly, irresponsible. And how can these evangelical leaders know that the Democrats will win, especially in a country as evenly divided as this one has been in the last several elections?

None of the candidates was an evangelical the way Sarah Palin is an evangelical: white, prolife, and . . . what else? She talks freely about her faith, but so have others. Barack Obama has been quoted as believing that other religions lead to God (Franklin Graham notoriously tried to pin him down on this during a White House visit), but as a theologian I’d be interested to know exactly what he was asked, exactly what he said, and exactly what he meant, given that neither he nor Brother Graham are themselves theologians and this area is a murky one even for evangelical theology and missiology these days.

(For example, he might have meant that he believed that at least some other religions worship the true God, such as Judaism and Islam. He might have meant that God works through people’s religions in some cases to draw them toward himself, eventually to be saved even with their necessarily confused theology, by their faith in him on the basis of Christ’s work on the cross–as some evangelical theologians and missionaries believe. See my blog entry on this here.)

I confess that I wasn’t immediately happy with what I read of Senator Obama’s reply in that exchange. But I do wonder what was asked and answered. And I further caution evangelicals that lots of people attend evangelical churches–as Sarah Palin does–and have quite peculiar doctrines in mind that are brought to light only on occasion. But evangelicals just assumed–the binary mind again, I’m afraid–that if she checked out “here” and “here,” then her theology would be fine and she was one of “us.” Evangelicals who care about theology should have waited for more religious vetting, so to speak, before assuming she would “check out” theologically.

And morally? Sarah Palin is a family woman, and many evangelicals prize that feature of her life. Some critics have given her a hard time about her pregnant daughter. But I’m much more interested in questions about how her family life impinged on her job: for example, how much time she spent in Juneau as governor (over 300 nights spent at home rather than in the state capital, a plane flight away) and thus how inaccessible some have said she was (notably the state’s mayors). I’m interested to know how her family, and especially her husband, has figured and will figure in her political decisions–just as I would be about any other candidate’s spouse. And evangelicals didn’t know any of that–did they?–before leaping onto her bandwagon.

Now what about the reports of her awarding contracts and positions to childhood friends and punishing anyone who disagrees with her? Politicians are often criticized in just this way, so perhaps Governor Palin is no worse than most others and better than many. But abuse of power is something the Bible speaks to quite a bit. Did evangelicals check that out before cheering for “our Sarah”?

To conclude: Since the 1970s and Jerry Falwell’s leading many conservative evangelicals back into political engagement, many evangelicals have enjoyed playing a part in politics. But they’re caught between their tendency to binary thinking and the gray realities of the real world of government.

They knew too much, in this media-saturated age, about John McCain to embrace him fully–and that’s fine. He isn’t one of them, so it’s well that they recognized that fact, especially having adopted the decidedly nonevangelical Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Nor, indeed, is Barack Obama one of them, although some would say he lines up with historic evangelical religion at least as well as does McCain, and perhaps much better.

Sarah Palin comes along, however, and she is a white, pretty, working-class, hockey mom whose son is a soldier and whose church is evangelical. I understand her appeal–but it’s the appeal of a one-page c.v. with photo. Evangelical leaders especially should know far better by now that they need to wait for more digging to expose more of the candidate to light before endorsing someone, and especially before embracing someone as “one of us.”

More fundamentally, however, evangelicals had a pretty clear choice already, between the Republican and the Democratic platforms-in-process, and between either Senators Clinton or Obama and McCain. Such evangelicals seem very quick now to point out the relative strengths and weaknesses of McCain and Obama and to argue vigorously (!) for McCain. So where was this passion before?

Held back by the fact that “we” didn’t have “one of us” on the ticket, I’m afraid. And that to me is immature political thinking on two counts: (1) there was already enough in play to get excited about before, according to those evangelicals’ own values (witness their passion about those same issues now); and (2) it remains to be seen, I think, how much evangelicals really will want to identify with Governor Palin once the press has done its usual work. Stay tuned…