Sarah Palin’s baptism-by-waterboarding comment at the National Rifle Association this weekend has disgusted Christians across the spectrum, both for her blaspheming of a religious sacrament, and her cavalier dismissal of the inhumanity of torture.
Now, it’s also true that Palin, from what we know of her congregational affiliations, is influenced by subsets of Christianity that take a different and far lower view of what baptism accomplishes. They say that it’s mere symbolism rather than means of God’s grace. In fact, that’s exactly what the web site of Wasilla Bible Church says. But I would hope that even these traditions wouldn’t take it so lightly as to joke about it in the context of waterboarding. Or even if it is considered OK to joke about waterboarding being baptism by these folks, I’d hope they recognize how blasphemous it sounds to the ears of Christians who retain the historic and high view of the sacrament.
But it’s not just that Palin sees baptism differently, and as a lesser rite than does Hemingway.
When Palin has spoken publicly of her own baptism at Wasilla Assembly of God, where she grew up and was saved, she described it as “so cool.”
Most of Palin’s public expressions of religion are performative rather than sacramental, and her invocations of them to political audiences strike a tone of irreverence rather than piety.
That’s not just because Palin comes out of a different Christian tradition than does Hemingway, or, for that matter, Rod Dreher. It’s because Palin has manipulated that tradition for self-serving purposes.
One feature distinguishing this charismatic tradition is the elevation of individual religious authority over that of trained religious leaders, and the power of personal revelation over catechism. (Sorry, Mollie.)
I’m not saying every charismatic Christian would take their view of God and the Bible to the Republican National Convention, or the National Rifle Association, and use it to the effect Palin has. Rather, Palin’s particular ego has deployed this view of religion in the service of her political career.
Like many from a similar Christian tradition, Palin sees herself as a warrior for God, engaged in spiritual warfare to save America from evil and to keep America Christian. But in joking that torture was like a baptism, Palin revealed her view of evangelization as an act of force, not love, and her view of salvation as something one imposes on irredeemable enemies, who further prove their lesser worth by protesting and resisting it. Get it? It just shows how the Muslims can’t even see how something “so cool” is actually good for them.
No wonder many conservative Christians are aghast. But even setting aside the underlying meaning of Palin’s torture “joke,” her speech, once again, exposes a rift between traditional or orthodox (and politically active) Christian conservatives and the charismatic and Pentecostal movement of which Palin is a part. (I hesitate to say that Palin “represents” it because she more represents a Palin brand, although by virtue of her public profile she does in a way represent it.) In Palin’s mind, she’s engaged in spiritual warfare with spiritual enemies. She believes herself to be acting out God’s will. She believes her prayer warriors will protect her. She believes in the spiritual gifts of revelation and prophecy, which for many charismatic and Pentecostal believers are real phenomena, but are easily manipulated by religious charlatans, and when translated to the political stage are dangerously inflammatory.
Palin has taken this religious tradition in which she grew up, and manipulated it to maximum effect in political settings. When she used “Allah” in place of “God” to denote her disdain for what she perceives as the savagery of Muslims (a theme repeated in her waterboarding remarks), or when she had hands laid on her to cast out witchcraft, or when she on numerous occasions declared herself to be acting out God’s will or plan for her or for the country, Palin is manipulating a religious tradition to draw attention to herself.
For her fellow conservatives, this time she might have gone too far.