Governor Sarah Palin is, by news accounts, an evangelical Christian. To many in the media, this makes here somewhat akin to a martian in cultural understanding. Many in the media look at her religious views with suspicion and misunderstanding. It as if they cannot rise above their cultural prejudices to look fairly at what -- in their view -- is an exotic oddity of a throwback belief system.
Exhibit A the first interview of Gov. Palin since she became the VP Nominee for the Republican Party. The interview was taken by Charlie Gibson of ABC News. Various left wing blogs have been posting pieces claiming that Gov. Palin believes we are in a Holy War against Islam and that she said in church that sending troops to Iraq is part of God's plan. This is not a matter of small consequence to the Governor personally, as her son deployed to Iraq last week. I think this is obvious fair game for an interview and Gibson asked her about it:
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.
That's what that comment was all about, Charlie. And I do believe, though, that this war against extreme Islamic terrorists is the right thing. It's an unfortunate thing, because war is hell and I hate war, and, Charlie, today is the day that I send my first born, my son, my teenage son overseas with his Stryker brigade, 4,000 other wonderful American men and women, to fight for our country, for democracy, for our freedoms.
Charlie, those are freedoms that too many of us just take for granted. I hate war and I want to see war ended. We end war when we see victory, and we do see victory in sight in Iraq.
GIBSON: I take your point about Lincoln's words, but you went on and said, "There is a plan and it is God's plan."
PALIN: I believe that there is a plan for this world and that plan for this world is for good. I believe that there is great hope and great potential for every country to be able to live and be protected with inalienable rights that I believe are God-given, Charlie, and I believe that those are the rights to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
That, in my world view, is a grand -- the grand plan.
GIBSON: But then are you sending your son on a task that is from God?
PALIN: I don't know if the task is from God, Charlie. What I know is that my son has made a decision. I am so proud of his independent and strong decision he has made, what he decided to do and serving for the right reasons and serving something greater than himself and not choosing a real easy path where he could be more comfortable and certainly safer.
Gibson casts Gov. Palin's comments in terms that conjure up the Crusades, with a Holy War against Muslims by a predominantly Christian nation. Gov. Palin's response is reasonable and one I think most Christians can relate to: We are not sure what God's plan is, but we sure hope what we do fits into it. The problem is, as Gibson quotes the Governor -- insisting these are her "Exact words" -- Palin did not seem to qualify her comment in that way when she spoke to her church. So is she clarifying or altering her position in the interview? Neither. As it turns out, Gov. Palin was correct and Gibson had in fact failed to quote her accurately.
Here is what Gov. Palin really said to her church:
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,” she exhorted the congregants. “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."
Gov. Palin is asking the congregation to "pray" that "out national leaders, are sending [U.S. soldiers] out on a task that is from God." This fits exactly with her comments in the interview. She is not baldy asserting that this is God's plan, but that we should pray that we are on the right side here. She reiterates this in the last sentence, saying the congregation should "make sure" that they are praying that the plan to send troops is part of God's plan.
In other words, Gov. Palin's comments reveal a great deal of humility. She thinks this is right. She thinks we should be doing this. She is proud that her son has enlisted. But even so, she is not willing to claim this is God's plan. In fact, this is our nation's plan. She hopes it is part of God's plan. She hopes it fits into His will, but she does not know whether it does or not.
Gov. Palin is also correct in her allusion to a comment by Abraham Lincoln: “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”
I like Charlie Gibson and do not think he meant to misrepresent Gov. Palin's real words. (Other commentators disagree). But it is telling, if I am correct about his intentions, that Gibson could read the same text I read and miss the distinction between declaring that what one does is God's will and praying that what one does is God's will. If you are a Christian, then there is such a thing as God's will and that is something we should all strive to enact. I actually believe God gives us choices and that not every choice is one that may or may not reflect "God's will," but that is a more intricate theological question. The fact remains that we all believe God does want to accomplish certain things among the nations and in our own lives.
However, to claim that one is certain about God's will for the nations is a far cry from praying that what a nation does is God's will. The latter reflects a far greater humility about being able to determine what God's will is in a given set of circumstances. But as Christians we have a responsibility try to be in accord with God's will. So where does that leave us?
I think Gov. Palin threads the needle nicely on this one (though this does not mean, of course, that she is right policy wise). Christians cannot act as if God has no will or no plan, but they should not claim to know all of its specifics. As an atheist commentator put it, "I'm an atheist, but I'm not so old or out of touch that I don't know that Palin was doing what Christians often do: praying that what the country was doing was God's will. It's not strange for a Christian to hope that what you want to do or think is right is indeed God's will. . . ."
Christians of good will can come down on different sides of such questions, but if they do so with some humility -- as Gov. Palin has -- then we can retain a measure of unity and respect towards one another.