Who (or What) are Sarah Palin’s Prayer Warriors?

Last week’s Vanity Fair piece on The Many People Who Can’t Stand Sarah Palin For Her Petty Temper And Self-Aggrandizement has spawned a lot of journalistic criticism: some of the anecdotes in the piece were simply not true; it was sexist; the reporter, Michael Joseph Gross, burned sources to whom he promised confidentiality; and he otherwise made excessive use of anonymous sourcing, frequently for the sole purpose of purveying gossipy tidbits.

At Get Religion, Sarah Pulliam Bailey — who also covers politics for Christianity Todayrips into another shortcoming that has received little attention: Gross’s blithe and superficial treatment of Palin’s religion.

Gross devotes a few hundred words out of the 10,000 word piece to what he portrays as Palin’s belief about “Angels and Demons.” He writes that instead of hunkering down and learning policy, she read emails from “prayer warriors” on her Blackberry. On the eve of her debate with Joe Biden, he tells us, she read an email from evangelist Lou Engle telling her it was her “Esther moment” and “your identity is ‘Sarah Barracuda.'” (As I reported at the time, Engle told this to anyone who would listen.)

Gross continues with an attempt to explain what a “prayer warrior” is in a very general sense (his “expert” is an unnamed “leading member” of Palin’s church) and points out that Palin gives “shout-outs” to “prayer warriors” in a stump speeches and frames her career trajectory in terms of prophecy and divine intervention. (Old news.)

As Bailey points out, we don’t know what exactly Palin thought about her prayer warriors. Perhaps she viewed them mostly as a fan club, or perhaps she believed their prayers would indeed help defeat demonic forces. Similarly, we don’t know what she did with the email from Engle; again, at the time, I wrote that the concept and practice of “spiritual warfare” takes many forms. In the charismatic-Pentecostal world in which Palin was saved and attended church, there are a lot of “leaders” who show up to guest preach or to speak at conferences; just because somebody is in the audience or had hands laid on them by a preacher or said something nice about an evangelist doesn’t mean they believe everything that the person preaches. (Just like President Obama doesn’t — or didn’t — believe everything preached by Jeremiah Wright.)

Gross is right that Palin’s word choice resonates with certain Christians (Bailey complains that he fails to distinguish between “fundamentalist” and “born again” and that some of Palin’s cited statements could be intended to appeal to conservatives more generally). But what was most striking to me was that in focusing on her “dog whistle” word usage, Gross fails to address or even mention Palin’s Pentecostal style. That has a certain je ne sais quoi with fellow Pentecostals — they believe she is anointed by God, as Anthea and I discussed in this Bloggingheads segment.

I’ve written quite a bit about Palin’s religion, and it’s not easy. That’s because she at once invokes religion — often with imagery of battles, wars, or enemies — as a political tool but tells her audience (or the press) little more than platitudes about what she believes. As regular readers know, I’m not a big fan of mixing religion and politics, but things get messy once a politician throws it out there and then won’t talk to reporters. That leaves reporters guessing about what the politician “really” believes.

Because of this, Gross was right to bring it up, but treated it most superficially. Injecting the concept of “spiritual warfare” into politics is incendiary (for example, when the “enemy” is homosexuality) and anti-reason (since policy one disagrees with is dismissed based solely on satanic metrics, if you will) and it’s crucial to address it when a politician or activist uses it. If a politician believes herself to be an agent of God, we need to know what she thinks God is asking her to do. Still, though, Gross’s treatment of Palin’s religion wasn’t new or enlightening.

While it seems freaky in concept to outsiders, “spiritual warfare” drives many Pentecostals, as I found, for example, in reporting my piece on the “Women, Weapons of Warfare” conference, the purpose of which was not to support Palin, but whose organizers believed Palin to be presidential material. That’s why what may be more crucial here is understanding Palin’s warriors, rather than Palin herself.