Sunday, September 21, 2008

Holy war

When Charles Gibson interviewed Sarah Palin, one exchange got a lot of attention:

GIBSON: You said recently, in your old church, "Our national leaders are sending U.S. soldiers on a task that is from God." Are we fighting a holy war?

PALIN: You know, I don't know if that was my exact quote.

GIBSON: Exact words.

PALIN: But the reference there is a repeat of Abraham Lincoln's words when he said -- first, he suggested never presume to know what God's will is, and I would never presume to know God's will or to speak God's words.

But what Abraham Lincoln had said, and that's a repeat in my comments, was let us not pray that God is on our side in a war or any other time, but let us pray that we are on God's side.

The words Gibson spoke were not, of course, Palin’s “exact words” and there has been a great deal of comment about Gibson’s misquote. Unfortunately, the idea that Palin referred to the United States' presence in Iraq as God’s will seems to be ineradicable. Nonetheless, here’s my attempt to get on the record exactly what Palin said.

I want to start with a brief tour of Palin’s church history since references to “Palin’s church” and “Palin’s pastor” can be confusing. Palin was baptized Roman Cathoic. When she was four years old (around 1968), her family joined the Wasilla Assembly of God church. Assemblies of God churches are Protestant, Trinatarian, Evangelical, and Pentecostal.

Around 2002, Palin began attending the Wasilla Bible Church as her home church in Wasilla. An article in the New York Times quotes a member of the Wasilla Bible Church who believes the Palins moved from the Wasilla Assembly of God church because the Bible Church is less extreme - it is not Pentecostal - and because the Palins preferred to maintain a lower profile when in church. Palin also attends the Juneau Christian Center when in Juneau.

The Wasilla Assembly of God church was founded by Paul Riley. Mr. Riley was pastor for most of the time the Palins attended the church. In 1999, Ed Kalnins became pastor, apparently because Mr. Riley, who would have been about 70 at the time, retired.

Larry Kroon has been the pastor of the Wasilla Bible Church since 1978, one year after the church was founded.

The Juneau Christian Center has not figured prominently in any stories about Sarah Palin. The Center’s
statement on Palin refers to her as a visitor who “has occasionally attended Juneau Christian Center.”

The statement that Gibson mangled was made in a talk Palin gave at the Wasilla Assembly of God church, her former home church, on June 8, 2008. The occasion was the graduation of a Master’s Commission class. Master’s Commission is a one-year program devoted to discipleship and learning ministry. You can view the video of Palin’s June 8 talk in this Huffington Post article.

Palin talks about God’s will in connection with a natural gas pipeline she wanted to build and in relation to the United States’ military mission in Iraq. Palin’s comment about the pipeline begins around 3:55 into the video. She is striking a deal with the Master’s Commission graduates, essentially splitting up God's work and Caesar's:

I can do my part in doing things like working really, really hard to get a natural gas pipeline - about a $30 billion project that's going to create a lot of jobs for Alaskans and will have a lot of energy flowing through here. 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.

I read Palin's comments to mean not that the pipeline is God's will but that in order for the pipeline to be built it must be God's will that people and companies be unified so she is asking her audience to pray that such unification is God's will.

Palin’s comment about Iraq begins around 5:35 into the video. She says:

Pray for our military men and women who are striving to do what is right. Also, for this country, that our leaders, our national leaders, are sending [U.S. soldiers] out on a task that is from God. That's what we have to make sure that we're praying for, that there is a plan and that that plan is God's plan.

I simply don’t see any way to read this the way Gibson did, that “[o]ur national leaders are sending U.S. soldiers on a task that is from God", much less to wonder if Palin thinks we are “fighting a holy war”. She is clearly asking the congregation to pray that our leaders are sending troops on a Godly task. This is entirely in keeping with Lincoln’s sentiments:

To a minister who said he hoped the Lord was on our side, [Lincoln] replied that it gave him no concern whether the Lord was on our side or not "For," he added, "I know the Lord is always on the side of right;" and with deep feeling added, "But God is my witness that it is my constant anxiety and prayer that both myself and this nation should be on the Lord's side."

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