Martyred for her beliefs
NOW that the US election is over and we’re all enjoying the prospect of an Obama presidency, it’s worth reconsidering the cultural phenomenon of Sarah Palin, unsuccessful Republican candidate for the vicepresidency. Forget the politics. What of Palin’s cultural significance? One American analyst argued that she provoked such passionate responses because she so perfectly embodied one side of the culture wars.
Palin, famously, is the Governor of Alaska, and the mother of five. Her eldest son is serving with the US military in Iraq. Her youngest is a baby with Down syndrome. She received the Down syndrome diagnosis during the pregnancy but went ahead with the birth. She belongs to a Biblebased church, and previously attended a Pentecostal church. Her unmarried teenage daughter is pregnant and is going to have the baby.
Palin is a hunter and her office is adorned with the hide of a bear her father shot. Her husband is also a hunter and a snowboard racer, as well as an oil industry worker and sometime commercial fisherman.
I am still at something of a loss to know how Palin provoked such passion everywhere: passionate support among evangelical Christians and passionate denunciation among all bien pensant secularists across the world.
I was surprised myself at how many heated discussions about her I became involved in. Numerous friends thought John McCain might be a better president than Obama, but couldn’t stick Palin at any price.
I have come reluctantly to the view that it was not her policies or lack of experience that provoked such furious denunciation of Palin. It was, rather, the type of Christianity she embodies. It used to be that anti-Catholicism was the anti-Semitism of the intellectual class. But with the Catholic Church now so feeble in most Western societies, that prejudice seems to have shifted to evangelical Christians.
Thus Palin was considered a kind of freak, with, uniquely, no imaginative understanding extended to her life at all. When you distil the causes of the loathing Palin provoked you get three specifics.
First, creationism. Second, she has attended a Pentecostal church where people speak in tongues. And third, she is opposed to abortion, even in cases of rape and incest.
Creationism is unreasonable if you believe the world was created in one shot a few thousand years ago. Such a creed would contradict scientific evidence about the age of the Earth. But all remotely orthodox Christians surely believe in some sort of creationism, that is to say that the world was ultimately created by God.
The secularists are far too shrill and unreasonable about the assent we must apparently all give to evolutionary theory to avoid being considered nuts. To say you find the theory of evolution a bit implausible in its fullness, or not enough to explain the genius of humanity, is not the same as saying the only alternative is a literalist belief in unreasonable creationism.
When I was a kid at various Catholic schools,
AT a recent reunion my brothers and I said how amazed we were that we were even vaguely normal, given our bizarre childhood. Take Christmas, for example. Landlocked during the year, we took off each December for a place called Umkomaas, a shark-infested coastal resort in Natal. Having loaded the car with empty CocaCola bottles to bring back sea water for the servants, who would spray it on their beds to get rid of the tokoloshe , a particularly venal lurking bedroom spirit, my father would do three laps of the circular driveway, said staff, including the garden weeder, the laundry maid, the trophy polisher and the chef ( plus hat), lining up to wave us goodbye.
We never thought this odd. Neither did we question the fact that we were not allowed to talk for the eight hours it took to get there; our I was taught as an absolutely routine bit of Christian doctrine that a special act of creation is required by God for each new human soul. How can you believe that and not believe that the emergence of the first human soul required a special act of creation? In other words, something like Palin’s is pretty much the orthodox view of the world’s largest religion.
Then there is this business of speaking in tongues. Pentecostalists believe that when they worship in tongues the Holy Spirit speaks through them. Now I grant that any religious tradition looks a bit spooky to people outside the tradition, but this is much less spooky than it seems.
After all, more or less all Christians believe that whenever two or three are gathered in worship, God’s spirit is among them. The idea that the Holy Spirit speaks through worshippers reminds me of the line in that beautiful film Chariots of Fire . Eric Liddle, the Christian father needed to concentrate on the traffic. Once we got to the coast, he was a changed man. In fact he was something of a trendsetter. Car surfing and shooting, for example.
Every Christmas Eve he sat on the bonnet of the Chev in his Santa outfit, tossing coins and sweets to the local children.
One of the Christmas rituals was shooting sharks, but this wasn’t women’s business, so while my father and brothers headed off runner, tells his sister he understands his Christian duty to be a missionary in China. But God also made him fast, ‘‘ and when I run, I feel his pleasure’’.
I don’t think the Liddle character was being blasphemous, or claiming unique miraculous intervention by God in his life. But genuine Christian religious belief requires a sense of God’s omnipresence.
I must confess that many years ago I attended one Catholic Pentecostal prayer meeting. I was motivated partly by spiritual curiosity, and it may also be that I was mildly smitten by one my fellow attendees ( a perfectly good motivation for religious practice through the ages). The speaking in tongues business occupied just a few seconds at the start, and the sound of voices reminded me more than anything of an orchestra tuning up.
I don’t think anyone there had a magic-trick feeling that some strange, abnormal influence was at work. It was rather, as the prayer books say, people trying to open themselves to the presence of God. I fully accept that this is very much a minority pursuit in our culture, but it is not really a sign that the practitioner is a freak or a fruitcake.
Finally abortion. This is one of the great, vexed ethical issues of our day. Most people find it hard to accept that a human being, with all attendant human rights, exists the second a sperm fertilises an egg and the embryo consists of two cells. On the other hand, most are very uneasy about the idea that a fetus, five minutes before birth, has no rights at all and one minute after birth has full human rights.
Palin, like McCain, believes that a human being exists from the moment of conception. This is the orthodox Christian view. But McCain gives the secular culture the wink by saying that this human being can nonetheless be destroyed if he or she was conceived through rape or incest. This is surely inconsistent if you believe the fetus is a human being.
On all these things I’m not arguing that Palin is right. In office as Governor she has not pursued any of these matters but has focused on the normal day-to-day issues that concern voters. But I do think something very bad indeed is happening in our culture when the mere fact of holding orthodox Christian positions exposes a politician to savage ridicule and contempt. Given the debt our culture owes to Christianity, it is perhaps a suicidal impulse.
review@ theaustralian. com. au it that something always goes wrong. I apologise for being lazy about replying to emails; I get ruder the older I get.
There’s one exception to recipients of my seasonal bonhomie who have stayed in touch and that’s the reader who sent a particularly vile message after I complained about the risks of being mowed down by errant cyclists. I do not resile from my whining and I am saddened to hear there will be a huge increase in these pavement pests.
The sender of rude notes used my whining to accuse me of being a ‘‘ kaffir hater’’ for reasons best known to himself. So I hope he goes to hell in a handbasket and is surrounded by thousands of ululating impi brandishing spears. Cheers.
fraserj@ theaustralian. com. au
importantly with loaded guns, the girls would search the beach for shells to make dolls to disguise the toilet rolls back home. We all got burned to a cinder and my brothers had competitions to see who could eat the hottest curry. So, as you can tell, I had a typically classic upbringing.
Getting old is a bit like drowning; your life flashes before you, especially at this time of year, and contrary to the opinion of most of us heaving sweating turkeys from the kitchen, I love the heat the season brings, although I complain endlessly; give a thought to those English women pioneers who settled in the outback and cooked the traditional midday dinner under scorching skies.
Because this is the last Saturday before the big day, I would like to wish readers a happy time with their families, although tradition has