Palin and her Church
Times Online Sept 10/08
Sarah Palin, second left, receives the prayers of Pastor Ed Kalnins, who sees conflicts over oil as a sign that the end of the world is nigh. She has now moved from his Assembly of God Pentecostal Church after 32 years as a member of its congregation
At the Wasilla Assembly of God Church, Sarah Palin’s former pastor sees powerful signs that the end of the world is nigh.
Pastor Ed Kalnins cites conflict in the Middle East, America’s dependence on foreign oil and the depletion of energy reserves as evidence that “storm clouds are gathering”. He told The Times: “Scripture specifically mentions oil instability as a sign of the Rapture. We’re seeing more and more oil wars. The contractions of the fulfilment of prophecies are getting tighter and tighter.”
He declined to set an exact date for the Rapture, or the “End of Days” – the belief in a time when Jesus will return, raising up believers to Heaven and leaving the wicked to be ruled by the Antichrist – but hopes it will be in his lifetime. “I’m looking out the window and I can see it’s going to rain,” he said. “I’m just looking at the turmoil of the world, Iraq, other places – everywhere people are fighting against Christ.”
Since Mrs Palin’s nomination as John McCain’s Republican running-mate 11 days ago, her social and religious beliefs have become subjected to intense scrutiny. As a supporter of the teaching of Creationism in schools, an opponent of abortion – even in cases of rape or incest – and a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, she threatens to reopen the culture war that has scarred American politics for a quarter of a century.
Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing Talk Radio star, delivered this verdict: “Babies, guns and Jesus. Hot damn!” Liberal blogs buzz with questions over whether she accepts the constitutional separation of Church and State.
The Governor of Alaska left the Wasilla Assembly of God Church in 2002 after 26 years’ attendance, but she returned there in June to link religion to both energy and war. She said that troops in Iraq were on “a task that is from God”, and went on to urge the congregation to pray for the completion of a $30 billion pipeline across the state. “I think God’s will has to be done in unifying people and companies to get that gas line built,” she said.
Interviews with friends confirm that the foundation of her beliefs and constant source of guidance is the Bible. On the way into Wasilla, a 10ft-high sign has been painted in red on top of Pete’s tobacco shop reading, “Go Sarah Barracuda” – her nickname in high school – “we’re praying for you”.
And they are. At the main Sunday service at the Assembly of God, hundreds gathered to ask God to help their former mayor. “We’re showing our support through Jesus,” said Pastor Ed, “Sarah is a great woman. A religious woman.”
The service began with 40 minutes of song. Teenagers with ponytails and bandanas gathered at the front of the stage, dancing and swaying in time. Their eyes screwed tightly shut and their arms lifted towards the ceiling, some worshippers started speaking and singing unintelligibly. Pastor Ed said afterwards that they had been speaking in tongues, a common part of the church’s services.
This was the church into which Mrs Palin was baptised – or “saved”, as she described it – at the age of 12, immersed in the waters of a lake during a family holiday. Before that she had been baptised a Catholic as an infant, but her mother began to take her and her siblings to the Wasilla Assembly of God and her faith began to change.
She gradually embraced practices of the Pentecostal faith, such as the laying on of hands and speaking in tongues. “I grew up in the Wasilla Assembly of God,” she once said. “Nothing freaks me out about the worship service.” Later, as a high-school basketball star, she became the leader of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, writing Bible verses in her friends’ senior yearbooks.
Of course, she may not have agreed with everything she heard in the Assembly of God pews. Indeed, her decision to switch to the nondenominational Wasilla Bible Church has been interpreted by some as politically motivated – not least because it coincided with her first run for state-wide office.
Nor, by any measure, is she the only candidate for the White House with a “pastor problem”. Mr Obama’s campaign was almost derailed when sermons delivered by the Rev Jeremiah Wright – claiming that the 9/11 attacks were a case of “America’s chickens coming home to roost” – came to light. He has since left the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago and severed links with the pastor whose words inspired the title of his autobiography, The Audacity of Hope.
Pastor Ed knows that sermons such as the one he delivered in 2004, when he suggested supporters of John Kerry’s Democratic presidential campaign would go to Hell, are unlikely to help Mrs Palin this time around. He promises to refrain from “tongue-in-cheek” comments in the future.
Mrs Palin’s new church practises a less extrovert religion than the Assembly of God, where members stand up, clap, sing and cry with joy. “We’re more reserved,” Larry Kroons, the pastor of Wasilla Bible Church, said. “People can just sit down and worship.” Of the Palins’ attendance, he added: “When they come in here, it’s just Todd and Sarah and that’s just it.” Pastor Kroons said that he tried to take a sophisticated approach to Bible studies. “I look at who wrote it, when it was written, to work out whether something’s a metaphor or literal truth.”
But the Wasilla Bible Church is not necessarily a safe haven from controversy. Mrs Palin attended a service recently where a guest speaker, David Brickner, suggested that terrorism in Israel was God’s judgment against the Jews for failing to accept Christ as the Messiah.
The McCain campaign played down the sermon, saying that Mrs Palin “would not have been sitting in the pews of the church if those remarks were remotely typical”. But Pastor Kroons said that Mr Brickner had a point and that he would invite the “Jews for Jesus” leader back.
Last Sunday’s church bulletin advertised a forthcoming meeting of Focus on the Family, a group that believes homosexuality is a sin that can be “prayed away”. Pastor Kroons said he had no problem with the group, adding that he would like to see religion used to cure other “sins” such as pride or lust.
Should she get to the White House, Mrs Palin will be by no means the only person with a belief nurtured in a strong religious environment to reach a position of extraordinary influence. President Bush, who had a Presbyterian and an Episcopalian upbringing, became a born-again Evangelical Christian in 1988. It came – as he struggled with business difficulties and a drinking problem – after a weekend spent with the evangelist Billy Graham, a long-time family friend.
In July 2004 Mr Bush told a group of Amish members: “I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn’t do my job.” He once told an interviewer: “You got to understand some of my view on freedom. It’s not American’s gift to the world. See, freedom is God – is God-given.”