In Whose Tongues?

After a couple of weeks of intense interest in Sarah Palin, Sen. John McCain’s choice for a Vice-Presidential running mate, we are still learning about who she is. As Dan Solove points out, one of the consequences of McCain’s choice is that a lot of time in the remaining election season may be focused on getting to know Gov. Palin, rather than on clarifying the issues and the views of the presidential candidates. Perhaps more than expected, the choice of Sen. McCain’s vice-presidential running mate matters, making this discussion unavoidable (even if regrettable given the time constraints). First, obvious age and health questions surround Sen. McCain’s candidacy, making his choice of running mate more pressing. As Frank Rich points out, that message was embedded in Gov. Palin’s invocation of Harry Truman in her acceptance speech. Second, the everyday role of the vice presidency has been redefined under Vice President Cheney, opening up the possibility for this unknown to play a greatly augmented role in crafting federal policy. Finally, the renewed enthusiasm among the Republican Party base suggests something about Gov. Palin’s worldview that some both find exciting and substantively consequential for a McCain presidency.

These revitalized voters are reported to be religiously-motivated voters, more specific than the general “values-voter.” (Is it even possible to be a “non-values voter”? After all, voting is always about values, the only questions are whose values and which ones). What do they expect from Gov. Palin, and what do they see in her? What conception of church-state relations does she have? How might her specific religious beliefs inform her worldview as a Vice President or President? Tracing her roots in the charismatic beliefs of the Assemblies of God Church, and her comments this summer to the Wasilla Assembly of God Church, I offer some reflections.

In her recorded talk to the Wasilla Assembly of God Church, she leaves no doubt that the Church has continuing importance to her, telling the Master’s Commission graduates to whom she is speaking, that as Governor she is “where God has sent me from underneath the umbrella of this Church.” She also articulates a view of religion’s role in ordinary politics. She wants to build a natural gas pipeline. This is a matter of ordinary political policy about which there may be differing views based on economic, social, environmental, or other public concerns. Gov. Palin adds that “God’s will has to be done in unifying people and companies to get that gasline built . . . so pray for that.” I take this to be an expression that her policy preferences are God’s policy preferences. Other versions of the relation between policy and prayer would approach the issue with more humility: this is my best judgment of what would be the right policy for the people of Alaska, and let’s pray that I have the wisdom to make the right choice, and that God will bless Alaska. This version does not equate ex ante a specific policy preference with God’s will. Gov. Palin’s version does.

In the same speech, Gov. Palin continues by claiming that “I can do my job” to develop Alaska’s natural resources, to get roads paved, to provide guns for state police, and to fund public schools, as she explains. But, “all of that stuff doesn’t do any good if the people of Alaska’s heart isn’t right with God” [sic]. Already, this statement reveals a distinctive view about the relation between government policy and specific religious practice (one in which it is necessary to have one’s heart right with God). She continues: “That’s gonna be your job. As I’m doing my job—let’s strike this deal—your job is gonna be to be out there reaching the people, hurting people throughout Alaska, and we can work together to make sure God’s will be done here.” Putting the two thoughts together, Gov. Palin—as a sitting Governor—is suggesting that successful governance doesn’t matter unless government works together with active religious practitioners to ensure that God’s will is done. She does not ask her audience to go out into their communities and volunteer to provide services for the needy, or to work on developing creative ways government might better serve the people. She asks them to attend to the people’s hearts, and she’ll take care of the rest (fulfill God’s will). Moreover, it would seem that for Gov. Palin prayer and active religious activity of “reaching the people” are necessary conditions for successful governance. She and Assemblies of God believers can work together to impose God’s will on Alaska. By way of contrast, remember John F. Kennedy’s speech on religion where he states, “I believe in an America . . . where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials.” I hear Gov. Palin speaking in direct conflict with President Kennedy.

What motivates such a vision of the relations between governing and religious belief? I think some motivation must derive from the Assemblies of God (“AG”) belief in speaking in tongues. Although she has not stated whether she participated in the practice, speaking in tongues is a fundamental AG practice, and by growing up in and attending the church until just a few years ago, she would no doubt have regularly experienced services in which individuals spoke in tongues. What follows is a brief account of the practice. The AG believe that after Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, he sent the Holy Spirit to comfort his church. They believe that the Holy Spirit is manifest through the speaking in tongues. The first example of this is in the Book of Acts 2:1-4 on the day of Pentecost (thus the Assemblies of God are “Pentecostals”). The passage states that, “[a]ll of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages [tongues], as the Spirit gave them ability.” (New Revised Standard Version). On the basis of this miracle and other Pauline exhortations, the practice of speaking in tongues through baptism in the spirit is central to the AG. Baptism in the spirit manifests one’s obedience to God and one’s availability to serve as a vessel for God’s will. The fact that one speaks “in tongues” is a manifestation of the absence of conscious control over the voice of God who speaks through the sounds or “language” of tongues; the speaker, however, will not understand the content of what God says. Every person can be baptized in the spirit, but only some persons have the gift from God that allow them to address a congregation in tongues, requiring someone else gifted as an “interpreter” to deliver the message of the Spirit.

If every member of the church can speak in tongues, and if speaking in tongues is the ultimate manifestation of one’s belief in Christ and one’s salvation (another key AG belief), then it seems to follow that the ultimate manifestation of one’s relation to God is to become a vessel for God’s will. In fulfilling God’s will, one makes oneself available to God, giving up conscious control even of one’s own voice in order to allow the Spirit to direct one’s life. Applied to governing, it seems that under this view, one would want to become the vehicle for fulfilling God’s will on earth. One need have no agency over the process of governing itself. By way of obedience to God, one relies on content-independent reasons for action because one is simply obeying God, not conducting an independent inquiry into what the right action would be. Here’s where governing from the gut must appeal to many, when “the gut” is a euphemism for God’s will. One does not need to rely on content-dependent reasons for policies if one is fulfilling God’s will. Greater certainty can attend one’s decisions if they are manifestations of God’s will or God’s plans. Such a view is manifest in another of Gov. Palin’s remarks, this one later spun to Charles Gibson as inspired by Lincoln. Gov. Palin asked the AG audience to pray, “[a]lso for this country, that our leaders, our national leaders, are sending them out on a task that is from God. That’s what we have to make sure that we’re praying for — that there is a plan, and that plan is God’s plan.” The plan is not the people’s plan for which it might be thought desirable by some to have God’s post hoc blessing (and perhaps God’s process-wisdom and guidance in having devised the plan in the first place); rather it is God’s plan, God’s task, for which our national leaders and soldiers are the vehicles. This religious worldview is a long way from the more traditional invocation of God’s blessings or guidance in human decisions, or President Kennedy’s claim that there be no imposition by a religious body (or God?) on official actions.

From this one video, we have only a small sample from which to draw conclusions about Gov. Palin’s views on the relation between government and religion. Yet, her views appear to be remarkably consistent with what one might expect from an Assemblies of God political theory (has anyone ever developed such a theory?). The primary goals are to render people’s hearts “right with God,” and to use the institutions of State as vessels for manifesting God’s will (like using oneself as a vessel for God’s will). They are also remarkably consistent with a view that distrusts and despises government as (spiritually) corrupt. If the modern Republican Party is partially based on the fundamental idea that government corrupts the freedom of private markets, some religiously-motivated voters see government as often a barrier to fulfilling God’s will (notice how God’s will in Alaska is market-friendly). If one can get rid of many governing decision-making processes (which are supposed to be market inefficient anyway), and provide a more immediate way of manifesting God’s will (through prayer), then all the better. Who needs knowledge-based, content-dependent reasons – especially when the process of governing by and for the people is thought to be one of the very problems in the first place?

It is clear that she follows the current administration in opposition to President Kennedy, who “believe[d] in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” Beyond this clear fact, there is a pressing question: in whose tongue(s) would Gov. Palin speak? Would she speak with the voice of the people, or with the purported voice of God? What role would own her voice play in the process of governing?

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9 Responses

  1. an interesting use of church attendance…so maybe you can appreciate some of our concerns when we look at Senator Obama’s

  2. JP says:

    I suppose this is an instance of confirmation bias, but where you hear Palin supporting conflation of church and state, I hear an affirmation of the principle of separation of church and state. As I see it, she is distinguishing her job (governing, striking deals) from the students’ job (reaching people, praying for God’s will).

    I also disagree with your interpretation of her view of God’s will. I think the pipeline remark should be interpreted consistent with the Iraq war remark: a request for prayer that government officials and others are acting in accordance with God’s will. Notably, she makes policy arguments for the pipeline (energy policy, job creation, etc.), before noting that “God’s will has to be done….” In other words, even if it’s good policy, it won’t happen if it isn’t God’s will. This certainly isn’t the only way to interpret her (apparently unplanned) remarks, but I think in context it is more likely than insisting that Palin is a theocrat.

    Finally, the idea that reference to God’s will makes “knowledge-based, content-dependent reasons” unnecessary ignores a few millenia of religious philosophy (from diverse traditions) on the importance of reason to understand or follow God’s will.

  3. JP says:

    My interpretation of Palin’s views (again, which may be wrong; I don’t think we can tell from this speech) suggests they are similar to Senator Obama’s:

    “The prayer that I tell myself every night is a fairly simple one: I ask in the name of Jesus Christ . . . that I am an instrument of God’s will. I’m constantly trying to align myself to what I think he calls on me to do.”

  4. I think it comes down to this: legitimate concerns about “knowing” candidates were tossed when Obama was given the nomination of his party. Second, scrutiny of Palin’s religious beliefs amounts to a religious test for office – something not allowed by the Consitution. If, on the other hand, we are going to actually get to “know” Obama (is there anyone anywhere that know what he organized in communites and what level of success he enjoyed in the process?) and scrutinize his religious beliefs, what a great day that would be for us all.

  5. TJ says:

    Something missed (it seems to me) in the comments section here is context. Surely, for instance, we are not placing Sarah Palin at the end of “a few millenia of relgious philosophy” (though we might mark in her the end of that rich and diverse tradition). Political conservatism has a rich and diverse tradition of learning at its back, too; but I’m not so sure I’d see any key figure in the Republican party pairing well with Edmund Burke.

    Beyond this, is it really difficult to characterize the political and intellectual environment in which we are living? We have political leaders who trust their beliefs (their guts, as Crocker says) over information – over knowledge. The Bush Doctrine of which Palin seems ignorant is a good example. It is possible to argue that the US (or any other country) has the right to anticipatory defense if a threat is imminent. I don’t necessarily subscribe to this notion but I can see how it might be argued. But how was it implemented? Phony evidence, repeated false assertions, and an overwhelming sense of (national) belief that Iraq posed such a threat. From the perspective of political or economic reasoning, hindsight has shown the invasion to be thoughtless at best, disastrous at worst.

    And let’s not forget about global warming and creationism. Is the jury really still out on both? Forgive me if I find it hard to believe that anyone reading a blog written by a bunch of fancy law profs could possibly think so.

    Within our present context, in other words, Crocker’s remarks strike me as spot on. Stupidity and feeling from the gut have become national virtues (values?). “This is water,” as David Foster Wallace said (in a different context). And we are fish. One does not have to imagine the seriously scary set of beliefs someone like Palin brings to the Republican ticket to ask – loudly and repeatedly – for political leaders to make decisions based on knowledge and information rather than belief.

  6. KO says:

    After the roasting that Obama received for Wright, who can call Palin’s church and her own beliefs off limits? This is quite different from a religious test for office. Can we ask her if she has spoken in tongues? Doesn’t seem fair, but Obama’s opponents started this food fight.

    As for separation of church and state, if you are familiar at all with the culture war wing of the evangelical and pentecostal church, then her language fits clearly within a worldview that integrates the two. Obama comes from a very different tradition. Both are Christian, but they parted ways with Constantine, and again in Philadelphia in 1787.

  7. JP says:


    I certainly agree with you regarding context. I think the biggest point is simply that with regard to Palin, we don’t have much context. Neither you nor Thomas have much support for the inference that Palin makes decisions based on unreasoned, gut-level religious belief. You, Thomas, and KO all seem to start with the belief(!) that all conservative Christians want to integrate church and state, and you interpret the evidence to support that belief.

    Contrary to P.S., I think it’s important that we find out. TJ, you misstate part of the “Bush Doctrine,” but I think another aspect of the Bush Doctrine (of which Charles Gibson seems ignorant) is a good example. Wilsonian democracy promotion is a bad idea, particularly when it is religiously motivated (as in the Wilson and Bush administrations).

    I want to know whether Palin thinks she has a divine mission to promote democracy or free-market ideas, or defeat terrorists, drill ANWR, or anything else. I just don’t think the speech Thomas cites indicates that she does.

  8. TJ says:

    Hi, JP –

    Thanks for the comments. I certainly hope that I’m not starting from the belief that all conservative Christians want to integrate church and state (I don’t “believe” that and have no evidence to suggest it). I didn’t really mean to hit on that particular point at all, in fact. What I wanted to introduce by discussing context was the point that there is a certain trend in politics right now (anti-intellectual, anti-“elitist”) that seems to denigrate reasoned opinion (by which I simply mean here – for argument’s sake – opinion based on evidence and analysis rather than on belief and on what one feels to be right. Much of such feeling seems based on religion: doctor’s not wanting to prescribe the morning-after pill, for instance; financial support for faith-based clinics abroad – even when evidence suggests, for instance, that abstinence-only programs do not work. The way this gets discussed it’s not about, say, scientific evidence regarding a patient’s health or well being but rather about said health worker’s beliefs regarding what is morally right or wrong).

    I agree with you and others that we simply do not know much about Palin’s opinions because there is very little out there yet. But I also agree with Crocker that we need to ask certain questions because the little she has said (in the speech referred to, in her Gibson interview, in her Repub. convention speech) seems to go along pretty well with the whole anti-intellectual trend. I don’t think I’m being overly-cynical if I suggest that one shrewd reason for choosing Palin as a running mate for McCain is how well she plays to this trend in American politics (part of the Repubs base).

    So in other words, I’m not sure if Palin has any divine mission. But I don’t need to know whether she does or not to understand what she has said thus far as playing to the lowest common denominator of American politics. This frightens me not simply because she will erode the boundary between church and state (though she might), but because I think she represents a continuation of what we’ve already had these last eight years (I’m not a Democrat, by the way) – of which the pile of evidence is growing by the minute. I’ve had quite enough of the god-fearing, war-mongering, hypocritical type. In this regard, Palin is not the context. American politics is the context.

    PS: how did I “misstate” the Bush Doctrine? I only stated part of it!

  9. JP says:


    I apologize for unfairly attributing to you the automatic “belief” most evident in KO’s comment. Nevertheless, I think you’re still creating a false dichotomy between “reasoned opinion” and moral belief. An opinion can be both! The morning after pill implicates a moral question of when society should begin to assign basic rights to a (potential?) human life, and how those rights are balanced against women’s rights. Reasonable people (often drawing from religious teachings regarding the sanctity of life) might conclude that (innocent?) human life is simply so inviolate that it must be protected from the earliest possible moment. [I think they’re wrong, but I don’t have the moral certainty displayed by many elite intellectuals that I believe drives much of the “anti-intellectual, anti-elitist” trend that you decry). A similar argument can be made for abstinence-only education, and I’ll point out that people ignore evidence that sex-ed programs do not work (though that argument is in the comments of a different post).

    Granted that the Palin pick was designed to appeal to religious conservatives, I think Palin is still something of a blank slate that people are projecting their hopes or fears on to. (McCain is my fear, so that doesn’t really work for me, other than a vague and small hope that Palin could represent some far-off future rehabilitation of the Republican party).

    Re: the Bush Doctrine — “the right to anticipatory defense if a threat is imminent” 1) was Palin’s answer to Gibson’s question, 2) is pretty uncontroversial, and 3) has basically always been U.S. policy. Bush proffered a policy of preventative war; attacking any “enemy” with WMD’s regardless of whether a threat was “imminent.”