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

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And in her interview with Couric, Palin was, if not ashamed, purposefully vague about her churchgoing habits. "I don't have a church, I'm not a member of any church," she said. "I get to visit a couple of churches in Alaska when I'm home, including one, Wasilla Bible Church." Church-hopping is a common practice for many religious Americans, but it is relatively unusual for Evangelicals with children to shift among a number of churches instead of belonging to one stable faith community.

The fact is that Palin's most consistent religious home has been the Pentecostal church of her youth. Though her family left the Wasilla Assembly of God in 2002, just before she launched her campaign for lieutenant governor, Palin has continued to return. The now famous prayer to protect her from witchcraft took place during a visit in 2005, three years after Palin's official departure. She returned again as recently as June 2008, making reference to that earlier service and crediting the African pastor's prayer with leading her to gubernatorial victory. And when she works from the state capital, Palin attends the Juneau Christian Center, an Assemblies of God congregation.

It is this Pentecostal association that most concerns and confuses the McCain campaign. As Minnery makes clear, millions of Evangelicals have accepted Palin because of her membership in a Bible church. But there is no denying that mainstream Evangelicals and Pentecostals, while political allies on many social issues, have historically had significant tensions over theological differences. The Evangelicals' swoon for Palin might fade if it turns out that she continues to hold fast to Pentecostal practices and beliefs.

So what exactly is Pentecostalism, and could it really pose a political problem for Palin? Here's a brief TIME primer on the religious tradition that is such a touchy subject for the McCain campaign:

What is Pentecostalism? Pentecostals are named for the feast of Pentecost described in the New Testament Book of Acts as taking place shortly after Jesus' ascension into heaven. During the feast, his followers were said to have been "filled with the Holy Spirit" and gained the ability to speak in many different languages, or "tongues." The modern Pentecostal movement is relatively new — just over 100 years old — and is usually dated to the Azusa Street Revival that began in Los Angeles in 1906. (The revival was a nine-year series of near continuous worship services that popularized Pentecostal worship and practices.) Pentecostalism can be best understood as a branch within evangelical Protestantism, characterized by a focus on the Holy Spirit and a belief in spiritual gifts, such as healing and speaking in tongues.

How many Pentecostals are there? Pentecostalism is the fastest-growing Christian tradition, but it is also a diverse religious movement, so the numbers vary by definition. The World Christian Encyclopedia, however, estimates that 500 million Christians worldwide are Pentecostal, making the tradition second only to Catholicism in overall Christian numbers. Pentecostalism is now more dominant than Catholicism in South America, and it is rapidly spreading throughout Asia and Africa as well. In 30 years, Pentecostals have increased their share of the global Christian population from 6% to 25%. In the U.S., the Assemblies of God is the largest Pentecostal denomination with 2.8 million members, and it is also generally viewed as the most mainstream. The largest African-American denomination is the Church of God in Christ.

Are Pentecostals the same as Charismatics? The Charismatic movement began around the 1960s when some Christians within mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches adopted certain Pentecostal beliefs, including the acceptance of gifts — or "charisms" — from the Holy Spirit, like speaking in tongues. While Pentecostals can be broadly described as Charismatic, what distinguishes Charismatics is their desire to remain within their original traditions.

How are Pentecostal beliefs different from Evangelical theology? Almost all Pentecostals are also Evangelical, meaning they put great emphasis on the authority of the Bible, believe in spiritual conversion, conceive of a personal relationship with God and follow an imperative to "share the Good News." They also tend to share theological beliefs regarding the End Times with fundamentalists and more conservative Evangelicals. But they also believe in a separate baptism of the Holy Spirit that is subsequent to and distinct from conversion by accepting Christ as the savior and son of God. This baptism is the core doctrine that separates Pentecostals from other Evangelicals, and it is seen as manifested by physical evidence such as healing powers, speaking in tongues and even bodily inhabitation. (Some Pentecostals take "being filled with the Holy Spirit" to mean that the spirit is actually in them and moves their limbs.)

How does the praying about witchcraft fit in? Pentecostalism's heavy emphasis on the Holy Spirit appeals to converts from cultures that believe in spirit worlds, particularly cultures in Africa, and it encourages those who think there is an ongoing spiritual war between good and evil. They point to New Testament accounts of Jesus casting out evil spirits, and some argue that while many spirits may exist, the Holy Spirit is the only one "true" spirit.

Who are some famous Pentecostals? Some of the most prominent televangelists have been Pentecostal, including Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robertson and T.D. Jakes. John Ashcroft, the former U.S. Attorney General and Senator from Missouri, is a member of the Assemblies of God and is the first Pentecostal to have attained such high political office.

Are Pentecostals politically conservative? A diverse range of political opinions is part of the general variety within Pentecostalism. Some Pentecostals are very active in social ministries, while other focus almost exclusively on individual salvation (early Pentecostal missionaries used to buy one-way tickets to their destinations, believing that the End Times were imminent). In some regions like South America, Pentecostals are part of the most liberal political movements. In general, white Pentecostals tend to be mostly politically conservative and concerned with social issues. But a 2006 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life Survey found that they are more likely than other Evangelicals to support active government, a position that reflects their lower income status. Nearly 20% of American Pentecostals are Latino, and they make up a rapidly growing constituency in the U.S. that supported George W. Bush in 2004 but is shifting over in greater numbers behind Barack Obama this year. In addition, a handful of African-American Pentecostals hold high positions within the Democratic Party, including Joshua Dubois, Obama's religious outreach director, and Leah Daughtry, chief of staff at the Democratic National Committee.

(View a gallery of candidate gaffes here.)

(See photos of Sarah Palin here.)

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