Sarah Palin's religion

Hans
Hans Rollmann
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With the announcement of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as Sen. John McCain's vice-presidential running mate, religion has once again surfaced as a central topic of the American presidential elections.

The stridently polemical defender of Republican values such as fiscal conservatism and less government is also heralded as a person who helps Sen. McCain to appeal to the so-called Religious Right and a broader spectrum of "evangelical" religion.

With the announcement of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as Sen. John McCain's vice-presidential running mate, religion has once again surfaced as a central topic of the American presidential elections.

The stridently polemical defender of Republican values such as fiscal conservatism and less government is also heralded as a person who helps Sen. McCain to appeal to the so-called Religious Right and a broader spectrum of "evangelical" religion.

As a determined foe of abortion, same-sex marriage, embryonic stem cell research and other hot-button issues, Palin has all the credibility that the unimmersed Baptist and reluctant religionist McCain seems to lack among this constituency.

Palin's leadership in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at Wasilla High School and her membership in "Feminists for Life," as well as an impeccable lifelong record as a church-going, "Bible-believing Christian" - first in a Pentecostal and then in a nondenominational community church - add to her credibility as a fervently committed Christian.

Palin's record of ethical leadership in city and state government is less clear-cut, since her electoral victories and political strategies also left behind many victims and fired employees who happened to cross her path. In her populist appeal among voters, especially her stand against the large oil companies, she seems even to outdistance by several percentage points our province's wildly popular premier.

Unpleasant aspects

Yet some observers of the brawling and bruising northern political scene note an unpleasant taste for control and ruthlessness that seems to clash with values that Palin's master proclaimed during his Sermon on the Mount.

Palin has publicly opposed abortions even in cases of rape or incest, has supported discussion of creationism in schools and campaigned for a successful 1998 state constitutional amendment that banned same-sex marriage. Yet the governor opposed making religion a litmus test in teaching and even vetoed a law denying health-care benefits to same-sex partners employed in government, since it would have been unconstitutional.

Some of this restraint may have served her well in a state that is the least religious in the union.

A recent Pew survey found that Alaska is the state with the highest number of religiously unaffiliated people.

More than one in four (27 per cent) Alaskan adults describe their religion as "atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular," compared to 16 per cent of the national population. While a majority of Americans (56 per cent) consider religion as "very important" in their lives, only 37 per cent of Alaskans share this view. Weekly church attendance of 22 per cent as opposed to 39 per cent nationally confirms this trend toward weakened religious commitment in the governor's state, and corresponds to an equally pervasive lack of church affiliation and commitment in the Canadian northwest.

While Palin appears to have been an asset in energizing some religious voters, particularly the organized Religious Right, another recent Pew poll found that a good portion of social conservatives are increasingly questioning organized religion's role in politics.

These conservatives still hold to their personal religious convictions, but they are disillusioned with church involvement in social and political matters.

In 2004, only 30 per cent of social conservatives believed churches should stay out of politics, but in 2008, this number has grown to 50 per cent.

Uncomfortable discussion

Also, six per cent more Americans are now feeling uncomfortable with politicians who speak about their own religion as compared with four years ago (46 per cent to 40 per cent). This discomfort may account for some Republican reluctance to showcase Palin's religion in public, as much as it may have helped to restore faith in the Republican ticket as a credible choice among diehard evangelicals.

It is not clear whether, and how much, religion or Palin's charisma and aggressive conservative rhetoric have contributed toward the recent increase in McCain's statistical fortunes.

A Daily Gallup Poll conducted among registered voters during three days in September, and after McCain chose his running mate, showed no demonstrable change in voting patterns. While McCain retained a commanding lead among non-Hispanic whites (65 per cent to 26 per cent) who attend church weekly, his support from those who attend church "nearly weekly/monthly" remained flat (51 per cent in July and 50 per cent on Sept. 1), and Obama's support among this group had gone up slightly, from 37 per cent at the beginning of July to 41 per cent in September. Obama continued to hold, and even slightly improved, his standing among those non-Hispanic whites who attend church seldom or never, from 48 to 51 per cent, while McCain was supported by 39 per cent.

Gained lead

As I write this column, McCain has, however, gained a lead over his opponent Obama and has become a more attractive choice for independents. The overall lead Obama held in early September was based largely on the strong support he received from non-whites (African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians).

It will be interesting to see how future polls that correlate church attendance and voting patterns of non-Hispanic whites may change in the wake of the Republican National Convention and to what extent Sarah Palin's religious beliefs become a factor.

Hans Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at Memorial University and can be reached by e-mail at hrollman@mun.ca

Organizations: Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Wasilla High School, Republican National Convention

Geographic location: Alaska

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