Monday, September 8, 2008

Sarah Palin's Religion

THE CATHOLIC KNIGHT: Sadly, some members of the media have now decided to go after Sarah Palin's religion. Why not? They've slandered everything else. So once again, it's up to 'The Catholic Knight' to do the media's job for them and report the facts in a reasonable and accurate way. Hopefully, the above video filmed by Fox News will serve as a good primer to this article, and perhaps begin to dispel the media hype and Internet propaganda surrounding Governor Palin's religion.

Let me begin by pointing out what so many of my readers already know. 'The Catholic Knight' is a former Evangelical, who converted to Catholicism in the year 2000. In fact, I was more than just a member of an Evangelical church. I headed up some ministries within my former church, and was in training to become a full-time pastor. My pastoral training in Church history is actually the very thing that led me into Catholicism, but that's another story. I'm divulging this information for the purpose of establishing my credentials as somewhat of an expert on Evangelicalism.

Left-wing bloggers on the Internet, along with the biased mainstream media, have focused like a laser beam on Governor Palin's upbringing in the Assemblies of God. Already we can find articles and videos that can be described as nothing less than hatchet jobs, not only on Sarah Palin's childhood church, but the Assemblies of God denomination  and Pentecostalism in general. Assemblies of God Pentecostals are being depicted as radical maniacs, who worship God in ecstatic frenzies of emotional orgasm, behaving in strange ways, and acting as if they've lost their minds.   The media also showcases their conservative Protestant doctrine as if it was some kind of freak show in and of itself.

That's the media spin anyway.  Now here is the voice of reason.  Pentecostal churches vary in practice from congregation to congregation, and this is particularly true in the Assemblies of God.  Some are quite old fashioned and traditional.  Others are contemporary and modern.  Some do engage in high charged emotional worship, others do not.  In fact, you really never know what a particular Pentecostal congregation is going to be like until you actually walk in, sit down, and watch the show.  These so-called "news" stories on Pentecostalism are hit pieces designed to link Governor Palin to an erratic religion, which their creators hope will frighten voters away from the Republican presidential ticket this November. In the end, their efforts will backfire, but it looks like they're going to have to learn that lesson the hard way.

So let's get into what we know about Governor Sarah Palin's religion. Sarah Louise Heath was born to Catholic parents in the confusion and turmoil immediately following the Second Vatican Council. She received the sacrament of baptism while an infant, but her parents left the Church shortly thereafter. They were converted to Pentecostalism and made their new home in the Wasilla Assemblies of God. Though baptized a Catholic, Sarah was raised as a Pentecostal. Like many conservative Protestant movements, Pentecostalism does not recognize the validity of infant baptisms. Therefore, Sarah was re-baptized, according to the Pentecostal tradition, at around the age of 13. In 1988 she married her high school sweetheart Todd Palin. She continued in the Assemblies of God until 2002, when it appears she made a break from her parent's Pentecostalism, choosing to join Wasilla Bible Church, an independent Evangelical organization. Today, both Sarah and Todd consider themselves "nondenominational Christians" - an identity more consistent with the Evangelical mindset.

For those readers who may not be familiar with the differences between Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism, allow me to elaborate. Both traditions fall under the socially conservative wing of Protestantism. When it comes to morality, their teachings are strikingly similar to what one might find in the Catholic Church. They value the sanctity of life from conception to natural death, uphold traditional marriage between a man and a woman, while advocating school-choice for parents. When it comes to theology, their teachings fall somewhere between those espoused by the Reformation fathers John Calvin and Conrad Grebel. Their eschatological views are usually a form of Dispensationalism. Politically, they are usually social conservatives, though their views on fiscal matters may vary between conservative and liberal. In both Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism there is a heavy emphasis on missionary work, and bringing the gospel to the world, as well as every aspect of social life.

Where Pentecostals and Evangelicals differ is in their take on the Azusa Street Revival, which took place in the early 20th century in Los Angeles. Pentecostals credit this as the beginning of their movement, and because of that, they place a heavy emphasis on the "signs and wonders" of the Holy Spirit, along with the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit, particularly the one of "speaking in tongues." Strict Pentecostals emphasize "speaking in tongues" as a sign that one is truly saved.  Most Pentecostals have a more moderated take on this, though "speaking in tongues" is always considered important to them. If you think all this is strange, you're not alone, but don't think for a second that it's foreign to Catholicism.  A charismatic renewal exists within the Catholic Church as well, which includes "speaking in tongues," and was endorsed by Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II.  The U.S. Catholic Bishops, in their pastoral letter to the American Church on the Charismatic Renewal, wrote in 1984: "… the Charismatic Renewal is rooted in the witness of the gospel tradition: Jesus is Lord by the power of the Spirit to the glory of the Father."  The Catholic Charismatic Renewal, as it's called, does not emphasize "signs and wonders" to the degree that Pentecostals do, but it does acknowledge the existence of such things, and encourages those who claim to have such spiritual "gifts."  In contrast with Pentecostals, Evangelicals (like most mainstream Catholics) downplay these displays of overt spirituality and mysticism, without denying their authenticity.  They prefer instead to emphasize the teaching of scripture, evangelism and personal growth toward spiritual maturity.  So when it comes to the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit anyway, Evangelicals tend to be a bit closer to Catholic teaching.

What many of the left-wing pundits in the media, and on the Internet, seem to be missing is that Governor Palin is no longer a Pentecostal. She may still have fond memories of her childhood church, and may still occasionally visit when convenient, but she hasn't been a Pentecostal for the last six years. She's been an Evangelical, which is much closer to traditional Protestantism as it existed about a hundred years ago. The core of Sarah Palin's religious beliefs are expressed in the Statement of Faith from Wasilla Bible Church....
  1. We believe in the Bible as the only inspired inerrant Word of God authoritative for faith and practice. 2 Tim 3:16,17; Heb 6:12; 2 Pet 1:19,20
  2. We believe that there is one God, eternally existent in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit; Who is the creator and sustainer of all things and worthy of our worship and praise. Mt 28:19; Gen 1:1,2; Jn 1:1-3; Col 1:15-17; Heb 1:1-3
  3. We believe in the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, in His virgin birth, in His sinless life, in His miracles, in His vicarious and atoning death for our sins by His shed blood on the cross, in His bodily resurrection, in His ascension to the right hand of the Father, and in His personal visible return in power and glory. Jn 1:1-18; Lk 1:26-35; Rom 3:24,25; 1 Pet 2:24; Jn 11:1-45; 14:1-3; Acts 1:11; Heb 6:14,15; 7:26; 9:11-14; Rev 19:11-16
  4. We believe that based upon Christ's death for the salvation of lost and sinful people, regeneration by the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential. We believe that all people are lost and without God in their natural state; but by the grace of God those who exercise genuine faith in the Lord Jesus Christ are saved - justified, baptized into his death and born again, from above, by the Holy Spirit. Jn 1:12,13; 3:1-21; Rom 3:23,24; Eph 2:8,9; 1 Pet 1:23
  5. We believe in the present ministry of the Holy Spirit. By His indwelling the Christian is enabled to live a godly life, and is spiritually gifted for ministry to others. Acts 2:1-4; 17-21 (cf.Joel 2:28-30); 1 Cor 6:19,20;12:7
  6. We believe in the resurrection of both the saved and the lost; they that are saved unto the resurrection of life to be forever with God, and they that remain lost unto the resurrection of judgment and damnation. Mt 25:31-46; 1 Thess 4:13-18; 2 Thess 1:4-10; Rev 20:11-15; Jn 3:17-19
  7. We believe in the spiritual unity of believers in our Lord Jesus Christ, having been baptized into one body by the Holy Spirit. We believe in the responsibility of all believers to love and minister to one another. 1 Cor 12:13; Jn 13:1-17; 17:20-26; Eph 1:13-18; 1 Jn 4:7-11,20-21
  8. We believe in our responsibility to be disciples of Christ, to love all people and to fulfill the Commission of Christ to go and make disciples of all nations by bearing witness of Christ through life and word in the power of the Holy Spirit. Lk 9:23-26; Mt 22:36-40; 28:18-20; Acts 1:8; Rom 1:16
What we have here is very typical of mainstream Evangelical doctrine. It is very Protestant. There is nothing on the fringe or radical about it. This is what most Evangelicals believe. The same goes for most Pentecostals. The difference between them is mainly in detail and practice.

Catholics may take exception to some of the beliefs enumerated above, as well we should, but we should understand that nothing in them is unusual for conservative Protestants. This is the norm. From a Catholic perspective, Evangelicalism is a small step closer to Catholicism than Pentecostalism. So I suppose we could say that in 2002, Sarah Palin took her first step back toward the Catholic Church. Only God knows if she'll ever complete that journey, but one thing is certain. By leaving the Pentecostal religion of her parents, she has asserted herself as her own woman, with her own thoughts on religion, and her own ideas of how things ought to be. She may not be a Catholic anymore, but she's no longer a Pentecostal either. Governor Palin has joined the mainstream of Evangelical Americans.

As Catholics we must remember the teachings of the Second Vatican Council toward Protestants. While we Catholics are expected to oppose Protestant teachings that contradict Catholicism, at the same time we are expected to embrace our Protestant brethren as "brothers" and "fellow Christians" even when they don't return the favor. That's because anyone who has been baptized in the Trinitarian formula IS a Catholic in at least some imperfect sense. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church...
818 "However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers .... All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church."

819 "Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth" are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: "the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements." Christ's Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him, and are in themselves calls to "Catholic unity.
As for Evangelicals, the seventh point of Wasilla Bible Church's Statement of Faith expresses a view that is extremely common among most Evangelical churches. It reads as follows...
We believe in the spiritual unity of believers in our Lord Jesus Christ, having been baptized into one body by the Holy Spirit. We believe in the responsibility of all believers to love and minister to one another. 1 Cor 12:13; Jn 13:1-17; 17:20-26; Eph 1:13-18; 1 Jn 4:7-11,20-21
While Catholics can, and should, take issues with the way this statement is written, and the lack of recognition of the visible element of the Church, we can also agree with the premise that the Holy Spirit does play a central role in our unity as Christians by virtue of our common Trinitarian baptism. When Evangelicals use the phrase "spiritual unity," they are acknowledging that the Church exists beyond the visible borders of their own denominations, and one can find fellow Christians in non-Evangelical churches. Most Evangelicals would agree this includes Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, and yes, even Catholics. Though Evangelicals are more likely to discern whether one is truly a Christian not on a person's profession of faith alone, but rather the level of commitment and enthusiasm one shows toward that profession of faith. Case in point, it is fairly common for Evangelicals to refer to practicing Catholics as "real Catholics," and cafeteria Catholics as "fake Catholics." They would regard "real Catholics" as their Christian brethren, and "fake Catholics" as non-believers who need to be "saved."  This judgement may be crude, but it is effective, and perhaps one that many practicing Catholics would have a hard time disagreeing with.

As a further example of their ecumenical nature, Evangelicals show a fairly significant partiality toward Jews, Judaism and the modern Nation-State of Israel. Part of this has to do with their eschatological beliefs about end-times prophecy, but it would be unfair to say that is the only reason. Evangelicals acknowledge the particular Jewish character of the Christian religion, and because of this they feel a kindred spirit with the Jewish people and their religion.  Ironically, this is something that is deeply manifested in the Catholic Church by the way. While most Evangelicals are unaware of the Jewish roots within Catholicism, they do acknowledge that both Jesus, and all of his apostles, were Jewish. Catholics miss a huge window of opportunity for ecumenical relations with Evangelicals by glossing over the Jewish character of Catholicism. Emphasis on this element in Catholicism would not only help Evangelicals better understand the Catholic Church, but would also result in more Evangelical conversions to the Catholic faith.

Like Pentecostals, Evangelicals are diverse in practice. Some are very traditional. Most are very modern. Some cling to Fundamentalism. Others do not. Some communities are introverted, others are extroverted. Some prefer to worship using old gospel music. Others prefer contemporary praise music, and some prefer pop and rock music. It's hard to easily categorize them, or predict exactly what to expect in an Evangelical church. The major difference between Evangelicals and Pentecostals is the emphasis on "signs and wonders" of the Holy Spirit, and this effects the way they conduct their church services. As a result, Evangelical churches are less concerned with exciting emotional experiences, and prefer to emphasize teaching and instruction instead.

Make no mistake about it, the media and Internet assault on Sarah Palin's religion is nothing short of a direct assault on the religion of all Pentecostals and Evangelicals. The wild and bizarre accusations made against Palin's religion directly reflect the level of fear and ignorance people on the political Left have toward the Christian religion and those who practice it. Their inability to distinguish between Pentecostals and Evangelicals, along with their inability to differentiate between radical and mainstream forms of each, again demonstrates their level of ignorance toward the Christian religion. We have finally reached a point in our national history where we can honestly say that the political Left no longer knows Christianity, and does not understand even the most basic concepts of it. Ignorance leads to fear, and fear leads to bigotry. That's what we're witnessing in the Left-wing media and Internet today. Because of Governor Sarah Palin's nomination to the office of Vice President of the United States, she has become a lightning rod for this kind of anti-religious bigotry. We Catholics should remember that the people who are attacking her religion, are often the very same people who attack ours.