Why Palin’s “Baptism by Waterboarding” is Sacrilegious

Sarah Palin has made headlines once again, this time over remarks made this past weekend in a speech delivered at National Rifle Association’s annual convention in Indianapolis.

Throughout the speech, Palin mockingly criticized “intolerant, anti-freedom leftist liberals” for seeking to “strip away our Second Amendment rights.” Such rhetoric, coupled with a hefty dose of fear-mongering, isn’t all that surprising, of course. A NRA gathering just wouldn’t be an NRA gathering without it.

But, perhaps as a way of once again gearing up for a not-too-distant future presidential run, Palin also waded into foreign policy, specifically focusing her ire on the Obama administration’s supposedly benign attitude and lax policies towards “our enemies,” those “who would utterly annihilate America.”

Palin’s remarks were, not surprisingly, on the generic side, but she clearly has so-called enhanced interrogation techniques—i.e. torture—in mind. Rather than “coddle” those who “obviously have information on plots, say to carry out jihad,” we should instead put “the fear of God in our enemies.”

And then Palin assured her audience: “If I were in charge, [our enemies] would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.” At that, the crowd erupted into applause.

There’s so much wrong with the equation of waterboarding with baptism, not to mention the entire speech itself, that it’s hard to even know where to begin.

Suffice it to say that the comparison manages to instantly offend both Muslims and Christians. Insofar as Palin’s speech in general trades in the right wing rhetoric that paints Muslims as other, as opposed to “our rights, our values, our tradition,” all Muslims tend to slide into the category of “terrorists.” Palin reduces the latter—which now includes all Muslims—to objects of a violent evangelistic effort: torture, here, is no longer only an interrogative tool, used to wrest information from its subject; it’s now considered salvific, as a means of redeeming “our enemies.”

The equation of torture and baptism manages to come off as offensive to Christians, as well. As a sacrament to many Christians, baptism signifies regeneration, the rebirth of the individual as “a new creature” in Christ.

So understood, baptism is a work of grace; it is, as Gregory of Nazianzus says, “God’s most beautiful and magnificent gift.” To equate it with torture is, in this sense, not only unthinking, but borders on the sacrilegious. This remains the case even if you don’t believe waterboarding is torture. Writing for The American Conservative, Rob Dreher says:

Palin and all those who cheered her sacrilegious jibe ought to be ashamed of themselves. For us Christians, baptism is the entry into new life. Palin invoked it to celebrate torture. Even if you don’t believe that waterboarding is torture, surely you agree that it should not be compared to baptism, and that such a comparison should be laughed at. What does it say about the character of a person that they could make that joking comparison, and that so many people would cheer for it. Nothing good — and nothing that does honor to the cause of Jesus Christ.” 

It’s also interesting to point out that the irony of the comparison is completely lost on Palin. To conceive of torture as baptism, which in this context amounts to a forced conversion, is the opposite of “our rights, our values, our tradition.”

Nothing good, indeed.