According to a top strategist in the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain, Sarah Palin believed that the decision to pick her as the Arizona Republican’s running mate was actually made by Almighty God.
Translated into the logic of an Associated Press report, this political theology sounded like this.
“In an interview with the CBS news magazine ‘60 Minutes,’ Steve Schmidt described Palin as ‘very calm -- nonplussed’ after McCain met with her at his Arizona ranch just before putting her on the Republican ticket. ... Schmidt said he asked Palin about her serenity in the face of becoming ‘one of the most famous people in the world.’ He quoted her as saying, ‘It’s God’s plan.’ “
The Washington Post headline proclaimed, “McCain aide: Palin believed candidacy ‘God’s plan.’”
After this latest Palin firestorm, it’s time to ask: Why can’t journalists learn to understand how ordinary evangelicals talk?
To make matters worse, readers have no chance to understand this private, secondhand quotation because it has been stripped of all context. There is no way to know whether this snippet is the entire Palin quote or merely what Schmidt has chosen to share as part of the ongoing fighting between factions inside McCain’s failed campaign.
The big question: Did Palin say her nomination was part of “God’s plan for her life” or did she, as implied, dare to claim that it was part of “God’s plan for America”? Most press reports have implied the latter, linking her faith-based confidence with speculation that she will run for president.
This has made her an easy target for critics -- again.
“Palin isn’t a minister or priest. She isn’t a bishop. She is a celebrity,” noted Andrew Sullivan, on his Atlantic Monthly Web site.
“When she says ‘it’s God’s will,’ she is saying, it seems to me, either that her destiny is foretold as a modern-day Esther ... or that it doesn’t matter what decisions she makes in office because God is in charge. So she is either filled with delusions of grandeur and prone to say things that believing Christians keep private out of humility; or she thinks she’s some kind of Messiah figure.”
However, anyone with a working knowledge of evangelical lingo will understand that what Palin probably said was that this stunning door onto the national stage was, win or lose, part of “God’s plan” for her life.
This is the approach that she consistently uses in her memoir, “Going Rogue,” when discussing the twists and turns in her life -- from an unexpected chance to climb the political ladder in Alaska to the challenge of an unexpected pregnancy, leading to the birth of a child with special needs.
In other words, Palin believes in a God who is mysteriously working through the choices and events -- painful and joyful -- that have shaped her life. This is a perfectly ordinary belief among millions of evangelical Protestants and, truth be told, many other believers, as well.
It may help to recall that, during the 2008 campaign, Charles Gibson of ABC News struggled to understand another piece of evangelical-speak drawn from Palin’s remarks about the Iraq War.
The governor told a church audience: “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 (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.”
However, in his interview with Palin, Gibson said: “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 responded: “You know, I don’t know if that was my exact quote.”
Gibson fired back: “Exact words.”
Not exactly. Palin was reminding the worshipers to pray that God had a plan in Iraq and that decisions made by America’s leaders would be consistent with that plan. She was not, as Gibson said, stating that this was a certainty.
Bottom line: It may be time to circulate a basic “How Evangelicals Talk” phrase book that can be used in elite newsrooms, much like the one that journalists needed when then-Gov. Jimmy “born again” Carter first emerged on the national scene.
(Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.tmatt.net.)