Questions Abound About Palin's Faith

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The conservative views of GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin have been scrutinized by the media. Palin's roots in the Pentecostal church are also a matter of interest. The Rev. Cheryl Sanders, a professor of Christian ethics, is joined by the Rev. Hershael York, who teaches Christian Preaching at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary about Palin's religious roots.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Just ahead, listeners have had a lot to say to us over the past couple of weeks about the political conventions, about Tuesday's Mocha Moms. We'll share your comments and letters in just a few minutes. But first our weekly Faith Matters conversation. Sarah Palin has been scrutinized for her conservative views, her family dynamics, her peep-toe pumps, but like Barack Obama her faith is also a matter of interest. She hasn't spoken much about it since becoming John McCain's running mate. To find out more about Palin's religious roots, we invited the Reverend Cheryl Sanders who teaches Christian Ethics at Howard University in Washington D.C., and the Reverend Hershael York, he's been a frequent guest on our program and he teaches Christian preaching at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Louisville, Kentucky. Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

Reverend CHERYL SANDERS (Professor, Howard University): It's good to be here.

Reverend HERSHAEL YORK (Professor, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary): Well, thank you.

MARTIN: I mentioned that this is the day we address listener questions, actually our idea for the segment came from a listener question. Lisa Nelson Hanes from Lansdown, Pennsylvania, was responding to our coverage of the Republican Convention and this is the question she wanted to ask, here it is.

Ms. LISA NELSON HANES (caller): Can someone please provide me with the definition of an Evangelical Christian? And why are they all white? Is the term Evangelical Christian simply code for white Christian ultra-conservative?

MARTIN: And we thought we should answer that question. So, Reverend York, what is the definition of an evangelical Christian?

Reverend YORK: Well, an evangelical Christian is defined by belief and certainly not by skin color. Evangelicalism is basically an orthodox view of Christianity which would include belief in the for instance the bodily resurrection of Jesus and the orthodox matters of faith, but then also a belief in the necessity of a personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and savior. It's certainly not all ultra conservative and it's not all white.

MARTIN: Reverend Sanders, your thoughts?

Reverend SANDERS: I would just add to the definition that's already been given that the root of the word is evangel which means good news. And so evangelicals are people who adhere to the good news of Jesus Christ and promote that and believe that in preaching the good news, there's a possibility of personal and social transformation.

MARTIN: It's been reported that Sarah Palin was raised Pentecostal and she was brought up in a Charismatic Wasilla Assembly of Gods. Reverend Sanders what do those terms mean? What do Pentecostal and Charismatic mean?

Reverend SANDERS: First of all Pentecostalism is a subset of evangelicalism so all Pentecostals are evangelicals but all evangelicals and not Pentecostal. Now, Pentecostal and Charismatic, there are more sociological differences than theological differences between the two. But, basically those are people who adhere to a strong doctrine of the Holy Spirit, their practices in the gifts of the Spirit, and what sets the Pentecostals apart is a belief in practice and speaking in tongues.

MARTIN: Do you have any, Reverend York, thoughts about - well, I'm curious if you're reacting to the fact that we're asking these questions. I mean, do you think these are relevant and fair questions? Yeah.

Reverend YORK: Well, I understand there's a curiosity. But frankly, I'm a little bit disturbed when I see Greta Van Susteren and others going and interviewing Sarah Palin's pastor and former pastor about theological matters. You know, I've heard Matt Damon's rant against Sarah Palin based on the fact that she might be a young earth creationist as though and that would just automatically disqualify her from any type of public service and certainly being president. You know, and frankly it does seem one sided to me because...

MARTIN: Well, let me ask though - let me ask though, because if part of the belief is that God intervenes in matters of the world and is a guide to one's daily living, if one is interested in how one would govern, isn't it a sort of a total experience that one would assume that one's belief should guide one's behavior? Do you see what I'm saying? How do you - where's the line?

Reverend YORK: Yes, I do. But, no one is sticking a mike in Joe Biden's priest's faces asking these questions. And Catholics would believe that that God intervenes in daily life, but no one's asking him about any particular point of Catholic theology. You know, like do you really believe that the host literally turns into the body of Christ? As though, the belief in that would disqualify him from being president or vice president. It seems to me that there is an inherent bias against conservative and Evangelicalism and especially from the media and Hollywood types, I would say.

MARTIN: OK. Reverend Sanders, what are your thoughts?

Reverend SANDERS: With all due respect, I think it's very clear that a few months ago, a president was set for making pastor's statements and sermons and theological views an issue in this campaign. The whole serious controversy over the Reverend Jeremiah Wright and his - the videos of his sermons and of the - that whole issue, as far as I'm concerned, set the president for making this. I don't understand how this is biased, because I think the bias - if there's any bias, that precedent was set several months ago.

MARTIN: I'm wondering though, Reverend York, if part of it has to do with newness or someone not being familiar and wanting to know. For example, Mitt Romney who was - his father ran for president briefly, who is Mormon, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and was asked questions, or Joe Lieberman when he was on the ticket, I mean, Judaism is certainly well-known and well understood, but many people asked him whether his faith commitments would influence his governance. Is this really that different?

Reverend YORK: I think it is in the sense that there - you know, it's proper to ask a candidate what - how his beliefs influence his actions. It's a different thing certainly going and interviewing, you know, church members and asking people who aren't accustomed to being in front of a microphone and in front of the media to suddenly be there, through no decision that they made. And even in the Jeremiah Wright controversy, I would argue that Barack Obama should not be judged by statements of his pastor and I thought that then, and I think that today even regarding Sarah Palin, that you have to let each candidate speak for himself or herself. And it seems to me, to start looking at theological strangeness, and as you say, newness and making judgments about one's fitness to serve based on theological positions is a little bit out of bounds.

MARTIN: If you're just tuning in, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and I'm speaking with the Reverend Cheryl Sanders of Third Street Church of God in Washington D.C. and Pastor Hershael York of the Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky. We'd like to know what you think. How much do you want to know about a candidate's religious beliefs? To tell us more about what you think, go to our blog at npr.org/tellmemore. You can also call our comment line at 202-842-3522, that number again is 202-842-3522. Well, let's talk about the candidate. This past June, Palin returned to her church, the Wasilla Assembly of God. She was speaking to a group of church members. During her talk, she committed herself to working toward the construction of a 30 billion dollar project to build a natural gas pipeline in Alaska. Here's a clip of her talk.

(Soundbite of Governor Sarah Palin's speech)

Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska; Republican Vice Presidential Candidate): And pray about that also. I think God's will has to be done in unifying people and companies to get that gas line built. So, pray for that.

MARTIN: OK. Reverend York, tell me, how do you interpret this sort of theologically - do you see what I'm saying, for people from different backgrounds...

Reverend YORK: Sure.

MARTIN: Would wonder why would God be interested in that? Doesn't he have other things to do?

Reverend YORK: Well, Christians always seek the will of God and different Christians see different degrees of God's involvement in our decisions and actions. But typically, conservative Christians see God as sovereign. God is - we're not deist, we're theist. We believe that God is involved in the workings of our lives, and for a public servant to pray and ask God's guidance is not new. Read Lincoln's second inaugural. This is what Christian public servants do. They seek the will of God and try and government - govern based on sound principals and what they believe is in the best interest of those that they govern.

MARTIN: Reverend Sanders.

Reverend SANDERS: But praying for reconciliation of a nation that was divided by war and praying for a pipeline are two different things. And I think that even though prayer is a good thing, I think it would be helpful for us to perhaps move away from religion and look more toward ethics, because I don't know that Sarah Palin's religion is really the issue here. As a voter, as a citizen who's concerned about the direction of this country, I want my decision to be based on the ethics of the person and not so much the particular tenants of their theological background.

MARTIN: How would you address this, Reverend Sanders, because ethics and religion for some are linked, for others they are not, for some there are no ethics without faith. Ethics are rooted in faith. What is an appropriate question in evaluating something like this? How do you interpret what she's saying? And do you think it's OK to ask what she's saying?

Reverend SANDERS: It's always OK to ask. I think that we struggle in this country with the issue of the separation of church and state. We struggle with the separation of religion and politics. I think what we're saying is that sometimes religion gets used in the service of politics. It's not so much the faith position of the person as what are the implications of that faith for how they treat other people.

MARTIN: Reverend York, what do you think?

Reverend YORK: Well, I certainly agree with that. You cannot help but live out your faith. What you really believe is going to come in to play and how you treat people and what your values are and how you govern. The American people are going to have to be comfortable with I think what Reverend Sanders is saying is the ethical aspects of that faith without being too concerned about particular theological positions underneath.

MARTIN: But if you hold to certain theological precepts which guide your decision making, do we not have a right to ask about that or do you think that is fundamentally private and what we should judge is the quality of you decisions and your past decisions?

Reverend YORK: Well, I certainly think that's true but for instance, you know again, whether or not Joe Biden believes in transubstantiation that the host literally becomes the body of Christ is not going to affect his governing and that would be an example to me of something that is really off-limits but now his view of the value of humanity, the value of life, that emanates from his faith would be a proper area to pursue.

MARTIN: Rev. Sanders what's the one question you would like to ask these candidates?

Reverend SANDERS: One question that I would ask the candidates would have to do with vision and issues. What is your vision for America and why should I vote for you? How does your vision include hopefulness and good news for my constituency, for my family, for my children? The same question that I had an opportunity some years ago to ask President Bush, can you put yourself in my shoes now that you're the president and see if the life opportunities of my children are equal to the life opportunities of yours. Those are the kind of questions that I want to hear addressed.

MARTIN: Rev. York, what's one question you would ask these candidates?

Reverend YORK: Well I would like to ask almost exactly what Reverend Sanders said. What is your vision for America, what do you see us being and doing. What are we capable of? What kind of leadership can we observe in the world that is humble? And as she so beautifully put is not self righteous. I couldn't agree more. That is the beauty of Lincoln's second inaugural. There is such a humility to it that does not say gee God was on our side and we won. He saw the possibility that God had judged America through the civil war but it was we need to have humility and do the right things we proceed. I would really love to hear that kind of atone from all these who are running from office instead of some of the silly stuff we've seen about lipstick on a pig. What that means...

Reverend SANDERS: And let us add civility. I think we need to recover civility in this debate.

MARTIN: Yes ma'am. Reverend Cheryl Sanders is a pastor at Third Street Church of God in Washington DC. Reverend Hershael York leads the Southern Baptist Church in Frankfurt, Kentucky. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Reverend YORK: Thank you.

Reverend SANDERS: Thank you too.

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