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…

0 Responses to “Sarah Palin and the (White) Evangelical Binary Mind”

  1. bmoney

    Interesting post. There has been a lot of discussion from pundits and the like about Palin revving up the evangelical base, but it certainly seems like a hasty decision on McCain’s part.

    There is a related discussion about Palin and evangelicalism over at–worth a look.

  2. N Turner

    The seminal source for information on Senator Obama’s faith is NOT the scant information that leaked from his meeting with evangelicals like Franklin Graham.

    It is the in-depth interview that he gave to Chicago Sun-Times columnist Cathleen Falsani in March 2004.

    That interview — in its entirety — can be read here:

    The column Falsani wrote that was based on the interview can be read here:,obamafalsani040504.article.

    Some, having read this material, have concluded that he is not “saved.”

    I cannot come to that conclusion. I cannot come to any conclusion about his salvation. I don’t think that is appropriate.

    BUT, I can see very clearly that Senator Obama, having attended church for 20 years, is very confused about the Christian faith (at least, from an evangelical point of view).

    Let’s put it this way, if he went to Sarah Palin’s church — which you identified as evangelical — I think he would be uncomfortable with much of the doctrine.

    Should he be viewed by evangelicals the same way as Sarah Palin, black or not? No. I firmly believe that I could sit down with Governor Palin, tell her about my faith in Jesus and what is going on in my life spiritually, and the resultant conversation would be as “iron sharpening iron.” Sadly, I do not believe that would be the case with Senator Obama (which, again, is not to pronounce a position on his salvation, but to speak to evangelicals’ discomfort with him).

    I do find it useful to note the mainstream media AND liberal blogosphere reaction when someone articulates their faith.

    When Obama or Bill Clinton say Jesus is their Lord and Saviour, NBC or the Daily Kos don’t seems even to wince. Bush? — he’s some nut that thinks God has ordained him to be president. Palin? — she wears a tin hat and gets messages from heaven. John Stackhouse (if he were a candidate)? … keen, but actually believes Jesus Christ rose from the dead? Why the disparate reactions? You tell me.

    And the suggestion that there is a racial component to the fervor over Palin is concerning to me. Don’t you believe that those same evangelicals would have been just as fired up about a Condi Rice nomination (if she did not have Iraq War baggage)? I do.

    I find it just as interesting to consider that Southern Baptists like Richard Land and non-Pentecostals like James Dobson have no reservation in supporting Palin who grew up in a Pentecostal church and still attends one when in Juneau (albeit her membership is held in a non-Pentecostal church in Wasilla). For me, it is the LACK of prejudice concerning Palin that has my attention.

    Another issue you raise is the lightning-like quick reception of Palin. I think that is your perception because you are a theologian and not a full-time political observer. Many political conservatives and evangelicals were aware of Palin long, long before you became aware of her. She was no ‘name out of the hat’ for Newt Gingrich and Richard Land.

    Finally, on the vetting of Sarah Palin — is that vetting done? I mean, you repeat the questions that the media (rightfully) is raising. Is that where the process stops — she gets introduced, Roman candles go off, the media questions … ?

    I would think that we would all be every bit as interested in Governor Palin’s answers as the questions (especially because some of the allegations have been swatted away quite easily). Stay tuned.

  3. twist

    I can’t believe this post!
    This is a condescending and bigoted post. To suggest that white evangelicals like Palin simply because she is young, good looking, an evangelical and white is bigoted! What, silly politically and theologically conservative Americans are not able to actually think through decisions about who to support? Do you honestly believe that they are unable to come to informed positions? Just because people are able to say “Jesus is Lord” and find it to be an issue with out any gray area, does not mean that they think that way across the board!

    Is it not possible that they recognized in Palin someone who shared their politically conservative positions? Is it not possible that the reason people on the right were not as excited about McCain was because he was a little too liberal in his politics and they found in Palin someone to bring him back to the right?

    And by the way, Obama has never claimed the position of being an evangelical — black or otherwise.

  4. N Turner

    One more question, Professor Stackhouse:

    Why didn’t these same conservative and evangelical leaders like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich, William Kristol, Richard Land, James Dobson et al, all jump and shout gleefully when President Bush nominated Harriet Miers for a seat on the Supreme Court?

    Though white and evangelical, they didn’t think she was qualified.

  5. twist

    Prof. Stackhouse,
    I would like to apologize for the tenor of my comment above. It was a gut reaction to your post on evangelicals. But to follow on the heals of a post that calls for people to rid the conversation of sarcasm and self-righteousness, this post smacked of looking down from on high on the lowly white American evangelicals from on high as you pronounced them to be silly lemmings just following the brightest evangelical star.

  6. John Stackhouse

    Brother Turner raises some good points and I’m grateful for the Chicago Sun-Times stuff as well.

    It is good also to remember the Harriet Miers case. I don’t have an answer to that beyond the fact that Harriet Miers seemed even to President Bush’s supporters to be oddly underqualified, and that was really that, while a vice-presidential nominee is a complex phenomenon, both about winning an election as well as about actually doing the job of governing–sufficiently complex, in fact, that conservatives such as those you’ve named might have had the reassurance–or political cover?–they needed finally to get on board with McCain. But I don’t have any strongly-based opinion on that one and I’d be glad for other viewpoints on that interesting comparison.

    As for twist’s conciliatory words, I thank you, and I want to assure you that my blog posting is not intended to be anything other than analytical. It may strike you as cold or even hostile, but I’m actually working hard simply to explain a phenomenon based on what I know a lot about (the American evangelical subculture) and what I know less about (American politics).

    As an analytical piece, yes, it can seem lofty and condescending, but I don’t intend it that way and I’m afraid that that sort of discourse can sound that way no matter what the author intends. So please don’t think I’m trying to tick off anyone! I am trying to speak as truthfully as I can about what’s going on.

  7. mac

    I just did a cursory review of your blog and I failed to find any serious questioning of the support many on the religious left are giving to Obama. Is the religious left’s support of Obama a caring and thoughtful support? I would argue that Obama is the result of Jim Wallis’ work to make the Dems more religion friendly. McClaren is front and center in his apology for Obama even defending the candidates positions on abortion. How many Christians distanced themselves from Obama when they discovered his Church preached racism?

    This post is not very helpful to dialogue. Identity politics is problematic, but to insinuate that the super majority of American Evangelicals are racist is beyond reasonable. Thinking you have a dog in the fight is an one thing, racism is quite another.

  8. John Stackhouse

    If you did a review of my blog, you’ll see that I discuss politics only from time to time, and usually to make points that are not partisan. Same here. I’m raising a question about why so many white evangelicals have so quickly championed Governor Palin. What does that indicate about evangelical political culture?

    Your first paragraph of questions confuses me: I can’t tell whether you really want answers or if they are merely rhetorical.

    As for racism, I never used the word and I didn’t imply the concept. I suggested that race is a factor because every poll shows that it is a factor when it comes to religion and politics. (See the work of John Green, Lyman Kellstedt, et al.) And to observe, as I did, that the political culture of black churches is different from that of most white evangelical churches is to state the obvious, isn’t it?

    As for Jim Wallis, I don’t think he’s terribly influential on most evangelicals, and I don’t think he ever has been. Ron Sider is much more influential as are similar more moderate sorts. What Wallis did in the last election was signal that, yes, not all evangelicals are Republicans (which was hardly news to those of us who study evangelicals).

    As for Brian McLaren’s endorsement of Obama, I don’t know of any data to track his influence. Instead, I’m pretty sure that after the last few elections, and particularly this Bush admnistration, a lot of evangelicals are wondering whether to stay in the GOP or to work harder to influence the Democratic party–as polls have shown for the last four years at least. (McLaren is more bellwether than cause, I suspect.)

  9. nate

    To address another topic of frequency on your blog, in my evangelical circles, I was surprised by some inconsistency in views of women in leadership. Many denounced Hillary, it seemed, not so much because she was a democrat but moreso because she was a woman, and a strong one, at that. But along comes Palin and that point of argument is conveniently forgotten; all of a sudden we have an Esther on our hands for such a time as this.

    In my mind, endorse who you want to endorse, but let’s strive to keep some consistency. Evangelicals aren’t always the best at that, I’ve found. Or, perhaps more accurately, humans aren’t. We’ll take the easy way out whenever possible.

  10. Bennett

    Reading the interview with B.O. on his spirituality I see honesty and doubt. I see the same spirituality most of the people in my area (not the South) would agree with. Particularly early in the piece he says, “I’m 42 now – and it’s not that I had it all completely worked out, but I’m spending a lot of time now trying to apply what I believe and trying to live up to those values.”

    The vast majority of Americans would be sympathetic to such a view. Even a lot of EVs (though they would not word it that way, because it sounds a whole lot like doubt and doubt is the unspoken unforgivable sin). My gut reaction was, “Here is a guy that is on the path to crossing the line of faith. Maybe he’s crossed it and doesn’t know how to say it right. Maybe he hasn’t crossed it yet and is looking for a bridge moment.”

    I have to say, from what I’ve heard from McCain, I get almost the exact same feeling from him.

    Then B.O. goes and says, ”
    Did you actually go up for an altar call?

    Yes. Absolutely.
    It was a daytime service, during a daytime service. And it was a powerful moment. Because, ti was powerful for me because it not only confirmed my faith, it not only gave shape to my faith, but I think, also, allowed me to connect the work I had been pursuing with my faith.”

    In most EV churches I know, he would be accepted as a full member ready for baptism and to serve in the children’s department simply based on this answer.

    I have to say, I share the uneasiness with the EV response to Palin so far that this post expresses. The comments have only helped confirm its accuracy.

    P.S. I am Southern Baptist and Richard Land does not speak for me or my church. He is not an elected official. He was appointed. Meaning it would take a stick of dynamite to get him out. Something the majority of SBaptists who disagree with him are graciously unwilling to resort to.

  11. N Turner


    Senator Obama gave that interview 16 or 17 years after the altar call.

    If it seems normative to you that a believer in the New Testament message is still muddled on basic concepts after 16 or 17 years of church attendance, I would guess you are often in prayer about the state of church.

    Oh, and BTW, whether or not Richard Land is well-regarded in the SBC, he is a high-profile evangelical, frequently sought out for an opinion by mainstream TV journalists.

    Does your church respect SBC conservatives if they are ELECTED, rather than appointed? If so, why?

  12. N Turner

    Perhaps all of us should tune into C-Span2’s BookTV this weekend. Stephen Mansfield, the author of the brand new book, The Faith of Barack Obama, will be featured at 1:15 pm and 8:15 pm on Sunday (EDT).

    Mansfield also wrote the best-selling, The Faith of George W. Bush.

    He is a historian, charismatic evangelical, and former pastor.

  13. J. Brent Bullock

    Evangelicals are not so different from other mainstream voters. They are much more interested in the alignment with specific issues and character identity, than with the overall policy positions. Most voters, evangelicals or not, do not examine the political ideology of candidates.

    For Evangelical voters, Palin lands the pro-life issue, and brings a re-freshing face. She’s like a common person, doing common things…

    I pray more evanglicals will start examining policy in light of Scripture. Calvin, the Founders, and others have set a great precedent in the area of Biblically based policy, and it has been lost along with moral abosolutes and a host of other binary issues.

    PS: There are only 10 types of people in the world. Those that can read binary and those that can’t.

  14. Paul McCord

    White evangelicals embrace her because she looks like them? Maybe they embrace her because they see authenticity, honesty, and trustfulness, something the left tries to imitate but tends to do a poor job. An example of their religious hypocrisy was given above. Here’s another example, when Michelle Obama claimed that the Obamas were ‘just like you,’–just good old, average, middle-class Americans, the left and the media swooned. But Palin–who is middle-class, with an average middle-class family–appears, they wail about how the last thing they want is someone just like them in office.

    It isn’t the color of her skin, not even her religious affiliation (I know of more non-Christians who have the same positive reaction to her than I do evangelicals). It’s having someone that people view as not having already been bought and paid for. Maybe it is the idea of taking the thieves out of Washington (and, yes, McCain, Obama, and Biden are not trusted by most–whether that is fair for an individual or not is another story, but as part of the mess, the ethics issues, the ‘me first and only’ view of government, they’re tainted).

    Maybe your view is binary? It might be helpful to look at the whole of her appeal, not your preconceived idea that it is only the bits and pieces they want to see.

  15. Mawm

    More bigoted liberal elite trash.

    Obama is religious and that is good. He is a multi-dimensional thinker.

    Palin is religious and that is bad. She is a binary thinker.

    This is just another example of a smart person thinking they are smarter than they are.

    My binary thought:
    1111 off!

  16. dopderbeck

    It seems odd to me that a mother of five, with a young baby who has Down Syndrome, is the family values candidate when she’ll certainly just about never be home if she becomes Veep. But that’s just me.

  17. N Turner

    Complementarian, eh, dopderbeck?

    If not, perhaps an unimaginative egalitarian.

  18. Paul McCord


    Now, if she were a NOW feminist she’d be welcomed as a female hero for her ability to do multiple jobs. Liberals are just too predictable–and as we’ve come to find out over the past few months, incredibly sexist–even to some liberal women. Intellectual honesty doesn’t seem to be a strong point for the left–whether they claim to be Christian, atheist, agnostic, or anything else.

  19. Jes

    Just to add another point into the mix… During the Bush-Kerry campaign 4 years ago, I couldn’t help but noticing most of my Evangelical friends stateside were supporting Bush, whereas my non-American Evangelical were very unsupportive of Bush (specifically they were Australians, Singaporeans, and other Southeast Asians, but I suspect that it would be the same for other non-American Evangelicals). I don’t have any data to support this, but I would uneducatedly guess that the same would be for this election, that most non-American Evangelicals would go for Obama, whereas it seems the American Evangelicals currently seem somewhat divided between the two.

    Any possible reasons for this?

  20. Paul McCord

    I would hazard a guess (and that’s just what it is, a guess)–most likely cultural. Most evangelicals in the US are in the ‘red’ states–conservative whether evangelical or not. Most non-evangelicals are in ‘blue’ states. Are people in red states less educated than blue states? Not really. Less sophisticated? Not really. Less politically aware? Not really. (I’m trying to completely discount the natural inclination of each group to believe they are somehow superior to the other) But in both areas there is something of a fairly common value set–a way of thinking–that influences those who were either born there or have lived there for a very extended period of time.

    I know extremely well educated people from both sections. Most from the red states have a vastly different world view from those in the blue states when it comes to the role of government, certain personal and community values, etc. Since many of these men and women went to the same universities, have traveled extensively across the nation and the world, and are equally well read, I have a hard time coming to the conclusion that those from the red states are just naturally predisposed to be conservative and those from the blue states naturally predisposed to be liberal. If then there is a major influence from the community upbringing, it would be reasonable to believe that would be universal, not just American. This difference n values from region to region could explain the differences you see among US and non-US evangelicals.

  21. Bennett

    Responding to 11
    I absolutely am in daily prayer for the state of the church. I think it is pretty normative for nominal Christians (even if they are church attenders)to be muddled in their faith. This is especially true when it comes to communicating their faith. It is further complicated when a person has a diverse spiritual background. I find they often avoid narrow definitions because they are still trying to integrate significant experiences and influences from their past.

    Regarding Richard Land, I did not mean to say I don’t respect him. I simply don’t always agree with him. I agree that he is high-profile and on TV. I’d just hate for people to think that what he says is the definitive SBC position. He cannot set policy for SBC churches. In fact, elected officials do not set policies for the local churches either. They oversee cooperation. But lets not get into a lesson on Baptist polity.

    “Does your church respect SBC conservatives if they are ELECTED, rather than appointed? If so, why?”

    Again, this is not a question of respect. I brought out the fact of Land’s appointment as opposed to his election to show that his position is not meant to be representative in the democratic sense. Even if a majority of SBaptist disagree with him on some issues, he is not likely to loose his job. Additionally, his high profile status is more a result of his political talents and his longevity in D.C. than his position with the SBC. At least, that’s how I see it. (Reading back over my comment above, it may seem that I was implying that a majority of SBaptist disagree with Land. I was referring to a majority of those who disagree. I would guess the majority of SBaptist don’t really know who Land is, or care.)

    I’ve probably missed the point of your question, but there’s some more fodder for discussion. I supposed if you pressed me I would have to say that no one can speak with much authority for the SBC except for the convention itself. This is done through resolutions passed each year. Even those are not binding on local churches.

    By the way, I heard Frank Peretti speak last night about abortion. It was amazing. Perhaps the author of This Present Darkness should be VP. Cabinet meetings would be more fun.

  22. dopderbeck

    Paul — liberals might be unpredictable, but if we want to stereotype, let’s acknolwedge that conservatives are hypocritical. And if she were a NOW feminist — whatever that’s supposed to mean — I’d feel exactly the same. Honestly, the kind of snarky arrogance and one-sided, unbalanced hoo-ha you’re throwing around here is one of the main reasons the religious right has lost me.

    NT Turner — my feelings have nothing to do with complementarian /egalitarian stuff — quite honestly, I don’t know which side to choose there in connection with church governance, but in event I think that question is specific to church governance. My feelings about Palin and her Down Syndrome baby are pragmatic, based on my personal experience raising a severely disabled child. You cannot have a 24-7 job and be a good parent to a child with a disability, period. Having a child with a disability is exhausting and all-consuming. If you want a 24-7 job, you have to outsource your parenting of that child. If that’s your choice, that’s your choice, but then don’t claim to be focusing on the family.

  23. N Turner


    You evidently didn’t get the thrust of the “unimaginative” reference.

    Does it not occur to you that Todd Palin can (and reportedly, will) choose to give a 100 PERCENT effort at home — in other words, be a stay-at-home dad?

    And, let’s be honest, until Al Gore and Dick Cheney, everyone knew the job was a dead-end post (unless, of course, tragedy occurs).

    So on both counts — Todd at home full-time AND Sarah sitting by the fire leafing through briefing books (when not twiddling her thumbs), I expect Trig and his siblings will be well-cared for.

    Did you HONESTLY think YOU were caring for the Palin children MORE than Todd and Sarah?

  24. Paul McCord


    You’re making the assumption I’m a member of the religious right. Your assumption is wrong. I have, however, read a number of books on politics, ethics, and culture written by very thoughtful evangelical Christians and I find the comments by those on the left to be condescending, arrogant, thoughtless, and apparently without ever having read anything by them. Don’t assume–I just find the condensation of them by the left to be just as hypocritical and full of snarky arrogance as you accuse them to be–more so really since at least their insistence on absolutes is logically consistent while the left’s insistence that there are no absolutes negates their argument by asserting an absolute.


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