V&V Q&A: Dr. Steve Jones on Palin, Pentecostals, and Evangelicals

Editor’s Note: The “V&V Q&A” is an e-publication from the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. Each issue will present an interview with an intriguing thinker or opinion-maker that we hope will prove illuminating to readers everywhere. In this latest edition, Dr. Paul Kengor, the executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College, interviews assistant professor of sociology and contributing scholar with the Center for Vision & Values, Dr. Steven L. Jones, on the faith of the Republican vice-presidential nominee and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

V&V: Dr. Jones, Sarah Palin’s faith is in the news. In fact, an article on her faith is currently featured in Time magazine. Understanding that no one out there is an expert on her faith, and that you’re currently learning these things just like the rest of us, what can you tell us thus far about her faith background? What basics do we know, even if merely a little?

Dr. Steven L. Jones: According to information in the national media, Governor Palin was baptized into the Roman Catholic church as a child, but attended an Assemblies of God church in her teens and early adulthood. She is now, apparently, a member of an independent evangelical congregation. It has also been reported that Palin does not consider herself a practicing Pentecostal. Though dramatic, hers is not an atypical journey.

Though she apparently makes a habit of visiting different churches, she and her family began their current membership with the evangelical congregation about six years ago. There are scores of these independent churches all over the country. By definition, non-denominational churches do not really answer to any authoritative body or hierarchy, and thus can be difficult to categorize. Though we do not know much about this specific congregation yet, most of these churches are fairly conservative in terms of doctrine. They have a high view of Scripture and promote piety on the part of congregants.

V&V: Why are people referring to her as a Pentecostal? Does she consider herself a Pentecostal? What is Pentecostalism?

Jones: As far as I can tell, she has been referred to as a Pentecostal because of her background more than anything she has said or done since bursting onto the national stage as Senator McCain’s running mate. Pentecostalism is one branch of what some observers, myself included, have called the Renewal movement. It’s an umbrella term for all the waves of Pentecostal and Charismatic experience that has launched some of the fastest growing denominations in the country, as well as re-energizing declining churches all over the world. Though followers would argue that their history goes back significantly further, Pentecostalism itself began in the early 20th century, coming out of the revivalist movements of that era. It focuses on subjective experience more than particular doctrines, and is often associated with various forms of divine manifestations.

V&V: The left-wing blogs are filled with some really wild information on her and her faith. Help us to place her within the context of modern American Protestantism. Would we simply consider her a general, typical evangelical? It seems that the thrust of the discussions about her faith, at least those among left-wing critics, which seem to be rants more than discussions, is that she is somehow out of the mainstream of modern-day Protestantism.

Jones: First let me say that I am not a reader of blogs, so I cannot comment on specific accusations or errors of fact. Though, as I pointed out earlier, independent churches can be difficult to categorize, they are a large and growing section of American Protestantism. As denominational loyalty has receded in importance, more and more people have turned to these local, independent congregations.

V&V: Clarify for us: Sarah Palin is certainly not part of a fringe religious movement or anything unusual, right?

I can understand how people might think some of the religious practices associated with the Renewal movement, and more specifically with Pentecostalism, are unusual, but the idea that this makes her somehow unfit for public office is simply unfounded. “Fringe religious movements” brings to mind something far more naïve, or even sinister, than is warranted here.

V&V: I know you don’t want to speak for the critics, but how much of the antagonism toward her is, perhaps, driven by an unfortunate lack of understanding of contemporary Christianity by a secular (often hostile) political left? I know much of the antagonism is fueled by politics, plus a distinct lack of charity, but how much is simply ignorance of evangelicals and what they believe?

Jones: Personally, I think evangelicals have made it pretty clear what they believe over the past couple of decades. What’s most interesting to me here is the way this religious scrutiny was inevitable during this election cycle. From Mitt Romney’s Mormonism to Senator Obama’s connection to Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and now Governor Palin’s background, it seems as if religious affiliation and attitudes were bound to be important this year. No matter how hard we try to chase religion from the public sphere, it has a way of coming to the foreground whenever we talk about the character and future of our country.

About Steven L. Jones

Dr. Steven L. Jones is associate professor of sociology at Grove City College and a fellow for character & ethics with the Institute for Faith and Freedom.

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