Does Sarah Palin Have a Pentecostal Problem?

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Left to Right: Al Grillo / AP ; Chris Hondros / Getty

A sign for the Wasilla Assembly of God Church in Alaska, left, and Sarah Palin

If conservative columnist William Kristol is to be believed, Sarah Palin is surprised that her own campaign hasn't made a bigger deal out of the controversial remarks of Barack Obama's former pastor. The relationship between Obama and Jeremiah Wright is, according to Palin, fair game in the presidential campaign because it speaks to the question of the Democratic candidate's character. "I don't know why that association isn't discussed more," Kristol, writing in the New York Times, quoted Palin as telling him.

John McCain's campaign aides could probably answer that question for Palin. The ink on Kristol's column had barely dried before they were on the phone to political reporters declaring that the GOP nominee had long believed it would be inappropriate to raise the Wright issue. But McCain's current sensitivity is much more related to his running mate's own pastor problems than to any newfound campaign honor code.

Palin's religious background must initially have been seen as a positive to McCain campaign vetters, who assumed that her faith would appeal to the conservative base of the party that has always been suspicious of McCain. But ever since she joined the ticket in late August, the Alaska governor's various religious affiliations have caused headaches. First came reports that her pastor at the nondenominational Wasilla Bible Church was connected to Jews for Jesus, an organization that seeks to convert Jews to Christianity. Prominent Jewish leaders, including the co-chair of McCain's Jewish outreach effort, have since demanded to know whether Palin also believes that Jews must be converted. The Bible Church became an issue again when Katie Couric asked Palin about the church's promotion of a program to help gays "overcome" their homosexuality.

And finally, a videotape surfaced of a 2005 service at the Wasilla Assembly of God Church, the Pentecostal church that Palin attended for most of her life. In the scene captured on video, Palin stands at the front of the sanctuary while a visiting African pastor prays that God will help her gubernatorial campaign and protect her "from every form of witchcraft." Later in the same service, the pastor complains that "Israelites" held too many prominent positions in business, a comment that has further alienated Jewish voters.

While the McCain campaign has promoted Palin to religious conservatives as a woman of "strong faith," they have gone to unusual lengths to avoid providing a picture of that faith. In fact, a Palin spokeswoman says the Alaska governor is "not a Pentecostal," and points out that Palin was baptized as a child as a Roman Catholic, although there is no record that her family attended Catholic services before joining the Pentecostal church where she became saved at age 11. The candidate does not even claim the Evangelical label, instead using the code phrase "Bible-believing Christian" to describe herself. Palin's official biography on the McCain campaign website makes no mention of her religious affiliation.

According to Tom Minnery, vice president of the conservative organization Focus on the Family, Palin "is absolutely unashamed of her faith ... She is from the heart of Evangelicalism, a Bible church. There are just millions of Evangelicals who know how to place her because of that church connection." But Palin herself has at times consciously distanced herself from her Evangelical faith. When asked by ABC's Charlie Gibson about a comment for which she has been criticized — asking her former congregation to pray that U.S. soldiers in Iraq are "on a task that is from God" — Palin argued that she had been paraphrasing an Abraham Lincoln quote. In fact, she had used fairly standard Evangelical language in expressing a desire that human actions conform with God's will. In trying to separate herself from that tradition, Palin's explanation struck both secular critics and many Evangelicals as scripted by political strategists.

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