Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Political Sermon Season

I've taken a break from writing this blog for the past few weeks. In that time I've moved to Iowa State University and begun my teaching schedule there. I very much enjoy my position and am looking forward to having a great teaching semester. In the meantime, there is no shortage of religious issues at hand in the news, certainly in the U.S political arena.

The recent buzz on the net in terms of religion and politics has been focused on the candidacy of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. After what seems to have been a very short vetting and interview process, she was asked to join the 2008 GOP Presidential candidacy of Senator John McCain. Social conservatives and reactionary evangelicals alike have been quite happy with her appointment, while it seems to have caught many others by surprise. Until 2002, Palin was a member of Wassila Assemblies of God church, well known for its Pentacostalism. During the time she has been governor, she addressed her old church, reminiscing about her time there, as well as asking for prayers for her agenda. While this seems to sit well with Christian fundamentalists, it is important to remember that Pentacostalism is rooted in the experience of the Holy Spirit, rather than a set of doctrines about the content of the Bible. And this can lead to serious disagreements and divisions.

This is all nothing necessarily new. While it may seem strange to some secularists and mainline Protestants, the notion of using prayer to assist in accomplishing political, economic goals is not that uncommon. Palin's interpretation of recent events and public history in Alaska as accomplishing more of God's work is also consistent with other themes seen in conservative and Pentecostal circles. What seems strange in retrospect is her contention that the Iraq War was divinely sanctioned, although when taken in the context of the "War on Terrorism" as a whole and the idea of a clash of civilizations, it too makes some sense, even if it makes me shake my head more than a little bit.

I find the premillenialist language of the pastor unnerving. Pentecostals commonly worship in such as manner as to, in the words of a legendary Jewish occultist (new window), "enflame themselves with prayer." The Book of Acts in the New Testament describes spiritual gifts that can be bestowed upon those who do so, and the gift of the Holy Spirit that arrives is often represented as a flame in classical art. Part of these gifts include the gift of prophecy. (new window) In premillenialist Christianity, the world is, by design, supposed to get much worse as a place to live before Christ can return in bodily form. Certain areas are talked about as places of refuge--and clearly the pastor sees Alaska as one of those spaces. Thus, Palin's audience is training to witness to both native Alaskans and those who will seek refuge in that state as conditions elsewhere deteriorate. Certainly, the older pastor (and church founder) prayed for candidate to achieve office, as well as giving thanks for those Pentecostal spiritual blessings.

The current senior pastor at Palin's Wasilla Assembly of God Church, Rev. Ed Kalnins, has been attracting his own attention. Palin left that church in 2002 for another Pentacostal church, but in 2004, Kalnins made some fiery statements--specifically challenging the salvation status of anyone who voted for John Kerry, the Democratic nominee. Reportedly, Re. Kalnins also equated criticism of President Bush after Hurricane Katrina with criticism of pastors and authority, which would also condemn one to hellfire. The liberal blog Huffington Post has been tracking this, and provided a link to the original media. Unfortunately, Wasilla's online media distribution is down, ostensibly because of the increased internet traffic. Some sermons and transcripts (not these) seem to be available at a different site. One sermon seems to include material that the Anti-Defamantion League is not happy about.

Contrast this, though, if you will, to the political prayers that were the focus of so much media attention earlier in the political campaign, the sermons of Rev. Jeremiah Wright at the Trinity Church of Christ.

Rev. Wright's sermon is known as a "Jeremiad." Its name comes from the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, who laid blame for Israel's woes at the faithlessness and adultery of its people from its covenant with YHWH. The jeremiad sermon is an extensive American tradition, at least since Jonathan Edwards, brought most to fruition by African-American Protestants. It often includes an indictment of the iniquities of the current culture and suggests that those woes are connected to the lack of moral behavior of its principles (new window). The sacred condemnation of God upon the United States ("God Damn America!") that was played and replayed without context endlessly on 24-hour news networks is also part of this tradition, designed to wake people up to both their religious and social responsibilities.

If there has been a greater season for 'political sermons,' I don't know of one. What impact will they each ultimately have, if any, on candidates Obama and Palin? For those who think it might not matter, you could ask Mitt Romney about that. Certainly Gov. Romney's candidacy was derailed when religious conservatives opted to vote for Gov. Mike Huckabee, not least of which because Mitt Romney is a Mormon.

(Note: The picture for this post is the front cover of John Winthrop's "A Model of Christian Charity," a foundational document in American religious history that gave birth to the American jeremiad. It is commonly known as the "City On A Hill" sermon)

No comments: