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The real problem with Sarah Palin's 'baptism' remark
A silly reference to "baptism" is one thing. Misappropriating Christianity for political gain is something else entirely.
 
Palin's latest gaffe hit closer to her constituency.
Palin's latest gaffe hit closer to her constituency. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

On a strictly human level, it's hard not to feel a little sorry for Sarah Palin.

Like most women in the media, she seems oftentimes to be at pains to perform a particular character to keep her career afloat. This is not to say that she isn't really conservative — she seems sincere in her beliefs — but the rhetoric and issues she has confined herself to seem to be the preference of the audience that first imagined her as the mascot of a kind of fantasy about a recent conservative American past, beehive hairdo and all. The impetus to galvanize continued support seems especially desperate now that her star appears to be waning, as Robert Costa notes in The Washington Post:

…Palin is today a diminished figure in the Republican Party…her influence in these midterm elections has been eclipsed by a new class of stars and her circle has narrowed, with a handful of aides guiding her and few allies in Washington beyond a group of backbench troublemakers in Congress. [The Washington Post]

Absurdity was always a defining part of Palin's shtick, so it is not surprising to find it cropping up now that that shtick seems to be declining in returns. Her latest gaffe came at the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association, where she gave a rambling speech interweaving:

- the Indy 500;

- conspiratorial suggestions that "they" ("You know who they are," Palin remarks cryptically) are trying to "control the people" through gun laws;

- the perils of "tolerance and free speech" (yes: Palin maligns the First Amendment while defending the Second);

- and finally, terrorism ("those who have plans to carry out jihad…oh, but you can't offend them, can't make them feel uncomfortable…well, if I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists").

That latter metaphor is the one Palin has come under scrutiny for, and rightfully so. At The Federalist, longtime Palin defender Mollie Hemingway rebuked the onetime governor on the grounds that her comment was sacrilegious and riddled with theological falsehood, misrepresenting the nature and power of baptism. And while this is true, it supposes Palin's understanding of Christian doctrine is what needs correcting. I think it's actually the reverse: The problem is not that Palin accidentally politicized an overwhelmingly Christian framework, but rather that she sprinkled a little Christianity on top of a political framework as part of a performance. That is the problem.

I sincerely doubt Palin was attempting to make any kind of sincere comment about Christian doctrine or baptism itself; she appeared to be using the term in a colloquial, joking manner. But in doing so she inadvertently used it in a sense Christian writers often do when they mean to suggest a thing has been purified or sanctified, e.g. "the church's support may baptize a goal or project." What Palin was really baptizing here was her own image, a character she plays that is little more than a pastiche of images and bits of rhetoric that, taken together, comprise an appealing mascot for the type of crowd she plays to.

The Christian flair thrown into the speech, therefore, did nothing more than the other inexplicably tossed-in subjects did. After all, what relationship does the Indy 500 have to do with the NRA, save that people who like one probably have some kind of affinity for the other? What connection really exists between America's approach to terrorism and its approach to gun ownership? Does the NRA seriously have a policy on whether or not children are allowed to "cuss" in school — and if so, why on earth? That's tantamount to PETA taking up a hardline position on student debt.

These incongruous allusions tells us a couple of things about Palin's use of Christianity: Firstly, that the NRA is not so much about gun rights as it is about a tribal cultural preference that imagines itself harking back to a colonial past in which guns were necessary to fight foreign tyranny and Christianity was simply the only publicly tolerated religious affiliation. Secondly, that the policies Palin promotes use Christianity as a kind of window dressing to fit into an ambiently pro-Christian culture rather than as a firm ethical basis from which policymaking proceeds.

In my view, the domestication of Christianity into a symbol related to a whole host of cultural preferences — many of them potentially anti-Christian — is a more serious danger than a silly reference to baptism. It suggests a drift into Christianist politics, in which the appearance of Christianity is more strictly sought than adherence to the faith itself. In other words, it threatens to substitute the aesthetics of Christianity — its telltale words and images — for genuine Christian ethical thinking. If Palin should be criticized for anything here, it's for participating in that very tendency to casually allude to Christianity rather than to seriously adhere to it.

 
Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig writes about Christianity, ethics, and policy for Salon, The Atlantic, and The Week. She is a graduate of Brandeis University and received her MPhil in Christian theology from the University of Cambridge as a Marshall Scholar. She is currently working towards her PhD at Brown University. In her spare time, Elizabeth enjoys working in the garden.

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