When Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin promised to lead the nation with a "servant's heart," evangelical Christians immediately recognized her as one of their own.
Whether before an audience of ministry students or on a national stage at the Republican National Convention on Wednesday, the 44-year-old Palin speaks fluently about her faith, striking chords with phrases that evoke Christian virtue. Palin has called on people to pray for the cooperation necessary to build a natural gas pipeline across Alaska, labeled the U.S. mission in Iraq a "task that is from God" and argued that students should be taught the creation account from Genesis in public schools.
In a race where both presidential candidates, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain, have tried to court religious voting blocs, Palin's introduction to the Republican ticket adds another dimension.
Just as McCain's politics are largely shaped by his experience as a prisoner of war and Obama's by his embrace of his racial identity, Palin's approach has been shaped by her relationship with God. Palin sees her government work as paling in comparison to a greater mission.
"I can do my job there in developing our natural resources and doing things like getting the roads paved and making sure our troopers have their cop cars and their uniforms and their guns, and making sure our public schools are funded," she said in June to ministry students at her former church. "But really, all of that stuff doesn't do any good if the people of Alaska's heart isn't right with God."
Palin found palatableHistorically a key constituency for the GOP, conservative Christian voters had been uneasy about McCain, doubting his commitment to fighting abortion. For them, the choice of Palin as his running mate removes doubt, as they know Palin's position on the issue is sealed by her faith.
Palin was baptized as an infant in the Roman Catholic church, but she would spend nearly three decades in the Assemblies of God church, the nation's largest Pentecostal denomination and the church of former U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft.
She now eschews the denominational label, choosing to attend independent churches in Alaska and calling herself a generic Christian when asked. But she remains connected to the Assemblies of God, addressing pastors' conferences and ministry students.
Many of Palin's beliefs mirror those of evangelical Christians. But Pentecostals occupy a distinct subset of evangelical Christianity. They believe they can be "baptized in the Holy Spirit" just as Jesus Christ's apostles were in the New Testament's Book of Acts. Gifts of the spirit include speaking in tongues, prophesy and faith healing.
The churches she has attended also embrace dispensation, a theological system that emphasizes man's dominion over the earth and the end times—theology that could potentially shape a believer's environmental and foreign policies.
"When she talks about using up our non-renewable resources, drilling on the North Slope and building the pipeline, it's almost with glee because in a sense it doesn't matter," said Nancy Hardesty, a professor of religion at Clemson University in South Carolina. "All her brand of Christians may be gone before those things run out. It tends to lessen a long-term view."
Rev. Tim McGraw, Palin's pastor when she became mayor of Wasilla, said believers look to Israel for signs of the coming end times and where they are in God's plan. That would undoubtedly influence Palin's approach to foreign policy, McGraw said.
"I believe Sarah would not live in a fragmented world," he said. "The idea that Sarah would take this huge influence of the worldview that really only the Bible and the relationship with Jesus opens up ... and suddenly marginalize it and put it over on the shelf somewhere and live apart from it—that would be entirely inconsistent."
From Idaho to AlaskaPalin's spiritual narrative began in Idaho, where she was baptized. The family moved to Alaska when she was 2 months old, and several years later Palin's mother began taking her four children to Wasilla Assembly of God.
"They had a hunger for knowing the Lord and finding out more about him," church founder Rev. Paul Riley said this week.
According to a brief biography of Palin published in April, she began to feel as she matured that the messages from the pulpit were intended for her. When she prayed, she felt connected and fed by a power beyond herself.
"She couldn't remember a time when God wasn't real in her life," wrote Kaylene Johnson, author of "Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned Alaska's Political Establishment Upside Down."
At 12, Palin was baptized by immersion in water during a summer family camp, along with her mother and siblings. Riley said her public testimony and drive to encourage others to do God's will set her apart at a young age.
"That's where we noticed the first indication of leadership," said the pastor, who delivered the invocation at Palin's inauguration.
From that moment on, according to her biography, her faith grew. In high school, she led basketball and track teams in prayer and to church when they traveled. She signed yearbooks with Bible verses, taking her own motto from 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: "Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances."
Riley's successor, McGraw, said Palin gradually became more committed to church attendance once she started a family and entered politics. When she became mayor of Wasilla she scheduled regular appointments with the pastor, who counseled her through the transition and prayed with her privately.
"She was very conscientious about applying the worldview of what she was discovering in Christ to her day-to-day life," McGraw said. "But I think she did it with and does it with what the Bible calls wisdom—in other words practicality, not religious craziness."
As chief executive of Alaska, she signed a proclamation marking Christian Heritage Week as an occasion to remind Alaskans of the role Christianity has played in the state's history. Palin also argued that public school students should engage in a "healthy debate" between evolution and creationism.
Attending a pastors conference as governor, she told Riley and other Assemblies of God clergy that Alaska had been dedicated to the Lord—"and I know the Lord is not going to take it back."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun