WASILLA, Alaska —
Pat O'Hara, a journalist who served on the Wasilla school board for twelve years, remembers how the religious right made her feel like a stranger in her own community. The Mat-Su Valley, which includes the neighboring towns of Wasilla and Palmer, had once been a libertarian sort of place, full of blue-collar individualists who didn't fit in elsewhere. “I had the dog team in the woods, the cabin in the woods. My friends were teachers, farmers, construction workers,” she said as she stood with about 1,500 demonstrators at a September 13 anti-Sarah Palin rally in Anchorage. “It was kind of a working, very much Democratic community. And then it changed.”
The Valley, Alaska's fastest-growing region, is a spectacular area of lakes and birch and spruce forests, surrounded by granite-colored snowcapped mountains that poke through the clouds. Palmer has a community core, a walkable few blocks with a lively coffee shop, Vagabond Blues. Wasilla, though, has developed as a sprawl of strip malls containing a mix of pawnshops, gun shops and chain stores--and, incongruously, a decent sushi place, with a Korean chef from California. It is a little piece of the American South near the North Pole, rough-hewn but slowly upscaling.
It wasn't until the 1990s that local churches like the Wasilla Assembly of God, which Palin grew up attending, became aggressively political. A few years before Palin became mayor, a group of preachers confronted the school board with questions about social issues that had never before surfaced in local politics, according to O'Hara, who wrote first for the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersmanand then for the Anchorage Daily News. “They started asking me, 'Would you allow a homosexual to teach in schools?' and 'Do you favor abortion?'” she said. “At the time, I didn't know what was coming. I said, 'This is not a school board issue. We have overcrowding. We have funding problems.'” The last time O'Hara ran, conservative pastors mounted an effort to defeat her, saying she favored hiring homosexuals, but they failed. Nevertheless, in 1996, feeling increasingly alienated in a place she'd lived for twenty-five years, she quit the school board and moved to more liberal Anchorage.
“The whole community changed,” she said. “It became extremely rigid and intolerant, and you can see that in every election since.” Palin, said O'Hara, “represents the worst of those values. She feels that because she's a member of the right church, she's chosen by God to inflict her values on everyone.”
With her vice presidential nomination, Sarah Palin has become the ultimate religious-right success story. Ever since the Christian Coalition was formed using the infrastructure of Pat Robertson's 1988 presidential run, the movement has focused on building power from the ground up, turning conservative churches into little political machines. “I would rather have a thousand school board members than one president and no school board members,” Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed said in 1996. Palin, who got her start in a local church-backed political struggle, is very much the product of Reed's strategy.
She has not always governed as a zealot; in fact, she's a bit of a cipher, with scant record of speeches or writings on social issues or foreign policy. Nevertheless, several people who've dealt with her say that those concerned about church-state separation should be chilled by the idea of a Palin presidency. “To understand Sarah Palin, you have to realize that she is a religious fundamentalist,” said Howard Bess, a retired liberal Baptist minister living in Palmer. “The structure of her understanding of life is no different from a Muslim fundamentalist.”
Palin's nomination, and the energy she has injected into the GOP, show that, once again, reports of the death of the Christian right have been greatly exaggerated. Not long ago, pundits and journalists were lining up to explain how the religious right, long the largest and best-organized faction in the Republican Party, was deteriorating. Last year the liberal evangelical Jim Wallis published a piece in Time headlined The Religious Right's Era Is Over. Several months later The New York Times Magazine followed with a cover story titled The Evangelical Crackup. Liberal columnist E.J. Dionne argued, in his book Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right, that the movement was collapsing.
Obviously the religious right has endured many setbacks in recent years. Ted Haggard, former head of the National Association of Evangelicals, slunk away in disgrace following a scandal involving a gay prostitute and crystal meth. Ralph Reed was tainted by his association with the extravagantly corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Jerry Falwell died, as did the influential Florida televangelist D. James Kennedy. Tom DeLay, one of the movement's fiercest allies, left Congress after being indicted on charges of criminal conspiracy. Nonetheless, the Republican Party is actually more dependent on religious conservatives than ever. In the 2006 midterms, the most significant GOP defeats were among moderate Republicans from the Northeast, where the party lost almost a third of its House seats, and from the Midwest, where it lost 15 percent. As moderates and independents abandoned the party, its center of gravity moved rightward. In order to maintain the support of the party that reluctantly nominated him, John McCain had to choose a vice president who represented the base. Indeed, never before has someone with such deep roots in the movement been on a major party ticket.
It's a familiar pattern: the Christian right often has its greatest triumphs just after it's been pronounced moribund. In 1999, just as the Christian right was about to achieve unprecedented power in the Bush administration, The Economist wrote, “The armies of righteousness, which once threatened to overwhelm the Republican Party, are downcast and despondent.” One could have written the same thing last month. Now, as then, the movement has been resurrected. At the recent Values Voter Summit, a religious-right gathering in Washington, DC, sponsored by the Family Research Council, attendees were ebullient. “The surge of energy is unbelievable,” said Emily Buchanan, executive director of the Susan B. Anthony List, a PAC that supports antiabortion candidates and aims to mobilize antiabortion women. “Sarah Palin is going to be our poster woman,” she said. “She represents exactly what we've been trying to do since we were founded in 1992.”
Palin--who opposes gay rights, believes abortion should be banned even in cases of rape and incest, and supports the teaching of creationism--wasn't known as a leader in Alaska's religious right, but she clearly had ties to it, and to some of the more extreme fundamentalists in the United States. As has been widely reported, her husband, Todd, was a member of the separatist Alaskan Independence Party. She reportedly attended the party's 1994 convention, and as governor she gave a video address to the group's gathering this year in Fairbanks. Less well-known are the Alaskan Independence Party's ties to the theocratic Constitution Party--a vice chair of the former is the state representative for the latter. According to its platform, the Constitution Party aims “to restore American jurisprudence to its Biblical foundations” and advocates criminalizing gay sex and abolishing Social Security.
When Palin ran for mayor in 1996, she leveraged the support of the religious conservatives. Wasilla mayoral races are nonpartisan and in the past had been focused on local issues like taxes and policing. In her challenge to Republican mayor John Stein, Palin changed that, touting her opposition to abortion, her religion and her support for gun rights. “She got a lot of help from the Christian groups,” said Curt Menard, mayor of Mat-Su Borough (which includes Wasilla). “They came out and did telephone polling and things like that.”
Menard and his wife, Republican State Senate candidate Linda Menard--the former director of the Miss Wasilla pageant--have known Palin since she was in third grade. She was a classmate and close friend of their late son, who, before he died in a 2001 plane crash, was the godfather of Palin's son Track. Their families attend the same church--Wasilla Bible Church, which Palin joined in 2002--and the Menards are caring for Palin's dog, Agia, named after Palin's proudest legislative accomplishment, the Alaska Gasoline Inducement Act, while she is on the campaign trail. They clearly adore Palin, and when Curt Menard describes her connections to the religious right, he doesn't intend to be critical.
Echoing Pat O'Hara's account, he recalled that the area had been solidly Democratic until the rise of politicized right-wing religion. “Pat Robertson, when he organized the Christian right...that's when this area really changed,” said Menard. “To my knowledge, I would say [Palin] was supportive of the movement,” he added, though he said she wasn't at the forefront of it.
Nevertheless, the movement was at the forefront of her mayoral campaign. According to Stein, a national antiabortion organization sent out postcards to Wasilla voters on Palin's behalf. There was a whisper campaign that Stein, a Lutheran, was actually Jewish. Some Palin supporters suggested that Stein and his wife, Karen Marie, weren't really married because they didn't have the same last name. “We had to produce a marriage certificate just to demonstrate that,” said Stein. “I believe that was Sarah's campaign committee who brought that up.”
Much has been made of Palin's gestures toward book-banning as mayor. To understand what happened, it's useful to realize that the Mat-Su Valley was in the middle of a roiling controversy over a book by Bess, the retired minister, titled Pastor, I Am Gay. Bess, 80, is deeply respected by the Valley's small progressive community. Educated at Northwestern's Garrett Biblical Institute--now called the Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary--he comes from a Baptist tradition committed to church-state separation. In 1980 he left his church in Santa Barbara, California, to become pastor of Anchorage First American Baptist. Over the years Bess developed an intense concern about gay rights, and he went out of his way to welcome gay people into his Anchorage church. After he had served seven years at First Baptist, the board of the church asked him to lower his profile on the issue. Unwilling to do so, he resigned, took early retirement and ended up moving to Palmer to pastor a tiny liberal congregation, the Church of the Covenant, which he did without pay.
Bess published Pastor, I Am Gay in 1995. It recounts his experiences ministering to gay men and lesbians, calls for the church to take a stand against discrimination and even draws parallels between the experience of gay people and that of Jesus. “They are despised and rejected,” he wrote. “They suffer and are acquainted with infirmity. They are rejected by a perversion of justice.... Is it possible that the will of the Lord will prosper through them?”
Local conservatives, including at Wasilla Assembly of God, mobilized against the book. Christian bookstores as well as secular retailers refused to sell it. Bess donated two copies to the Wasilla Public Library, but they vanished from the shelves, so he donated more. The atmosphere toward Bess was toxic; a 1997 cartoon in the Frontiersman showed a slobbering, doll-clutching pedophile approaching his church, whose sign said, Wasilla Church of the Covenant. Howard Bess, Pastor. All Sinners Welcome! Bible Interpretations to Suit Your “Lifestyle.”
Most reports have said that, when asking about banning books, Palin never mentioned any specific titles, but the presence of Pastor, I Am Gay in the library was, at the time, a matter of fierce contention. “I'm as sure that that book was at issue with Sarah Palin as I am that I'm talking to you right now,” said Bess.
When Palin ran for governor in 2006, Christian conservatives mobilized to help elect her--the Alaska Family Council, a group that formed that year and is loosely affiliated with Focus on the Family, distributed a voter guide showing Palin's alignment with its ideology. During her nineteen months as governor, it's important to note, she has mostly ignored divisive social issues, instead focusing on getting a gas pipeline built. If she hasn't governed as a fire-breather, though, her record nevertheless offers some evidence that in Washington she would likely continue George W. Bush's injection of religious dogmatism into government appointments and policy-making. Opposition to abortion is, for her, a litmus test. When Sarah Palin ran for mayor of Wasilla, Faye Palin, Todd's stepmother, supported her, but when Faye Palin ran for mayor in 2002, Sarah supported her opponent. The reason, said Menard, was that Faye Palin is prochoice. “To my knowledge, that was the big issue,” he said.
Last year, when Vic Kohring, a Republican State Representative from Wasilla, left office after being indicted for bribery and extortion, Sarah Palin appointed Wes Keller, an elder in her church, to replace him. He introduced a bill to make the performance of intact dilation and extraction abortions--so-called “partial-birth abortions”--a felony, and according to a McClatchy Newspapers report, he plans to introduce legislation mandating the teaching of intelligent design in public schools.
Like McCain, Palin appears to believe that the United States is a Christian nation. As governor, she signed a resolution declaring October 21-27 Christian Heritage Week in Alaska, in order to remind Alaskans of “the role Christianity has played in our rich heritage.” Written in the mode of some right-wing revisionist historians, it describes the nation's founders--including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson--as “Christians of caliber and integrity who did not hesitate to express their faith.”
The conviction that America is a Christian nation could be especially worrisome when coupled with the kind of apocalyptic beliefs espoused by the Wasilla Assembly of God, since the combination suggests a profoundly messianic foreign policy. In a widely seen video taken just months before she received the vice presidential nomination, Palin stood onstage in her old church with pastor Ed Kalnins as he explained how, in the last days, Alaska would be a refuge for Christians fleeing the Lower 48. “Hundreds of thousands of people are going to come to this state to seek refuge, and the church has to be ready to minister to them.” Palin's current religious home, Wasilla Bible Church, is rather more moderate and low-key, but it, too, subscribes to a theology that includes a literal belief in a biblical End Times scenario. In August, it hosted David Brickner, executive director of Jews for Jesus, who told the congregation, “But what we see in Israel, the conflict that is spilled out throughout the Middle East, really which is all about Jerusalem, is an ongoing reflection of the fact that there is judgment...there's a reality to the judgment of unbelief.”
Brickner's beliefs, said Menard, are shared by many at Wasilla Bible Church, though he said he couldn't speak to the particulars of Palin's faith. Whatever her original convictions about the Middle East--or anything else--they have likely stayed intact throughout her tutorials by the McCain campaign team. “Once she makes her mind up on an issue, it takes a ninety-mile-an-hour Alaska north wind to move her off course,” said Menard. Of course, he meant it as a compliment, not a warning.
Research support for this article was provided by the Puffin Foundation Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.