Same song, different verse: A conservative, Republican woman is suddenly in the national political spotlight and her detractors use what they know about her religion to paint her as nuts.
Happened to Sarah Palin in 2008 when she ran for vice president. Happening now to Christine O'Donnell, the GOP's surprise Senate candidate in Delaware. In both cases, the record shows that they share some
religious beliefs, practices and convictions with substantial percentages of Americans -- but that some
of their faith positions can be found further from the nation's religious center.
When John McCain stunningly named Palin to the GOP ticket, I was one of a swarm of religion reporters who tried to figure out where she stood. We quickly discovered that she attended churches for most of her life that were either formally Pentecostal or included some Pentecostal practices. These would include speaking in tongues, faith healing ceremonies and other elements that believers understand as visible manifestations of the Holy Spirit.
The snide commentaries and offensive cartoons depicting Palin as a religious rube
prompted a prominent theologian in the Assemblies of God to respond. Mel Robeck, professor of church history at Fuller Theological Seminary, took no political side for or against Palin. He objected to the caricature being made of his spiritual tradition
and ended with a plea to religion journalists: "I would appeal to each of you to find a way to address what I believe is an unfair condemnation of the faith and faithfulness of roughly half a billion Christians on this planet."
Which puts Palin's practice in a pretty large company. As many as 30 million Americans worship in churches that incorporate elements of Pentecostalism. Those worshipers include more than a few elected officials.
On the other hand, there were elements of Palin's religious record that were fairly called into question because of relevance to her potential governance. Back in 2005, then-gubernatorial candidate Palin's church hosted a Kenyan pastor (no kidding: Kenyan) who placed hands on her and prayed that she be protected against witchcraft. And then preached that the public schools are teaching students "how to worship Buddha,
how to worship Mohammad."
Would Palin endorse explicitly Christian religious instruction in public schools, as this pastor called for in her approving presence? That's an appropriately political question with religious roots. (See: the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.)
Shift to candidate O'Donnell. Much sport has been made about her earlier role as an abstinence advocate where she spoke out against masturbation and any other kind of non-procreative sex.
Cue the sniggering. MSNBC seemed to have O'Donnell's anti-masturbation quote on a near-continuous loop for a while. Jon Stewart used it for a laugh on "The Daily Show" -- moments before pointing out that focusing on that topic would be dumb politics.
What did she say, back in the 1990s? Here's the money line:
"The Bible says that lust in your heart is committing adultery. So, you can`t masturbate without lust."
Here's the chapter and verse for some of that: "You have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart." (Matthew 5:27-28)
(Those of you with long political memories will recognize that passage from Jimmy Carter's 1976 Playboy interview, where he admitted "I've looked on a lot of women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times.")
Unlike Palin, whose exact religious membership was a bit mysterious for a while, O'Donnell is famously Catholic. Catholics, equally famously, have official doctrine and dogma. Here's the straight dope on masturbation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
"Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action."
Most American Catholics disagree with one or more important elements of official Catholic doctrine -- probably including this one. But even Catholics who object to the dogma don't want to hear someone else show disrespect to the tradition as a way to score political points. Particularly since there's no indication she'd want to pass laws against getting busy with one's self. (In fact, as PD's Jill Lawrence reported a few days ago from Deleware, O'Donnell says that's personal and not a matter for government
On the other hand, just as with Palin, O'Donnell's religion is fair political game when it would impact her governance. She started her public career, after all, as press secretary for the Concerned Women for America, which aims "to bring Biblical principles into all levels of public policy." What might that mean?
Abortion is the obvious issue, and here O'Donnell actually shows a tiny sliver of difference between her own position and the unyielding stance of her church: She's willing to allow an exception if the life of the mother is at risk.
There are other governance-related issues where her faith is relevant: Her dismissal of evolution as a "theory," for instance. And her support for abstinence-only sex education.
More broadly, though, her recent speeches indicate a religious view of Republican political exceptionalism that may be worth looking into if she chooses to face reporters' questions.
O'Donnell was one of the stars at this weekend's Values Voter Summit. Her 18-minute speech, read from notes (no 'prompter), was passionate in the red-meat sections, dragged a bit when she got to actual policy. (Watch it here for yourself
.) I'll highlight a couple of bits that had religious and political implications:
She quoted from C.S. Lewis' "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," the opening volume of the Narnia series. And she compared her political supporters with Aslan, the lion character that O'Donnell said represents God in the books (Lewis actually said Aslan was specifically a Jesus allegory). As O'Donnell renders the quote:
"Is he safe. Safe? Who said anything about safe? Of course he isn't safe. But he's good."
The Tea Party movement , she said, isn't safe either. "But boy, it sure is good."
Really? Her political base shares the power and unquestionable righteousness of the Almighty?
She cloaked the current political situation in one other explicit religious metaphor:
"I think it's a little like the Chosen People of Israel in the Hebrew scriptures who cycle through periods of blessing and suffering and then return to the divine principles in their darker days. It's almost as if we're in a season of Constitutional repentance."
Really? Her political base has been chosen by God for eventual success?
Those are political questions worthy of political discussion. But that's a far cry from making jokes about her religion.
Since pretty much all of us have some religious or spiritual belief, we're all going to look like rubes to someone else. As Weiss's Law of Religious Relativism says: Every religion is crazy, by definition, to a nonbeliever.
That puts the doctrines of faith -- where belief in something otherwise impossible is a requirement -- outside the boundaries of politics -- where reason is supposed to be the primary tool. Or at least the two are separate unless the candidate puts them together.
O'Donnell's record is clear enough to justify some tough questions about where she draws the line. Making fun of her faith? Not so much.