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What The Palin Pick Means For Evangelicals

Alan Wolfe is a TNR contributing editor and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.

With John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin, none of the major candidates for national office in 2008 will be from the South. Of course one of them, Palin, is an evangelical. But she is not a Southern evangelical, and therein lies a tale.

Commentators who once knew little or nothing about religion now know that there are such things as evangelicals and that there are a lot of them in this country. But they have yet to grasp that, because there are many, there are also many different kinds. When Rick Warren invited Obama and McCain to speak at his church, much was made of how each of them did or did not appeal to evangelicals--without realizing that Obama's language resonated with younger ones and McCain's with older ones; with the exception of abortion, younger evangelicals are more committed to social and environmental justice and less attracted to condemnations of homosexuality than their parents.

A similar divide exists between evangelicals in the South and those in the West. I once asked a prominent evangelical leader from California if he would help explain Southern Baptists to me. "I can't make heads or tails of them," was his response. But there is one difference between the evangelicals of Alabama and those of Alaska that neither he nor I can ignore: The former tend to be censorious, the latter libertarian. Both cultural styles have roots in the history of American Protestantism.

Historically, evangelicalism, while Calvinistic in its censoriousness, has at the same time been Lockean in its individualism. You must come to Jesus of your own free will. Government should not coerce matters of belief. Religious freedom is a good thing because freedom is a good thing. In religion, as in politics, it is every person for himself.

Southerners were once fierce defenders of such an individualistic culture; it is, after all, the region that produced Andrew Jackson. But throughout the twentieth century, Southern Baptists became preoccupied with the omnipresence of sin: The devil is at work at all times and his wiles defeat our best intentions, and thus we need God so that we will not do what we might at first want to do. Southern evangelicalism came to place a greater emphasis on the regulation of such personal behaviors as drinking and gambling. This was the religion that skeptics such as H. L. Mencken so detested.

As all this was happening, the American West experienced a demographic and economic boom, much of it fueled by migrants from the South and Midwest. In this new environment, evangelicalism took on a decidedly libertarian cast. Its churches would be independent of confining denominational ties. Its members would shop around for an appealing preacher. Divorce, gambling, drinking--all could be forgiven, and with little emphasis on punishment, if you began your life anew.

Sarah Palin named two of her children after witches, once took drugs, and refused to sign a bill forbidding domestic benefits for gay couples. Any one of these--especially the first--would raise suspicion in the eyes of a traditional Southern Baptist. But for the governor of a Western state, these are not only the kinds of things a conservative can do, they are also the kinds of things an evangelical can do. Palin, the gun-toting mom, has a libertarian streak in politics and a libertarian streak in religion. In neither case are they fully consistent; she seems to have a soft spot for creationism, for example, and no doubt she will profess support for the highly punitive Republican Party platform. But it is already clear that her style of evangelicalism is one shaped by the region of the country in which she lives.

Will any of this prevent Southern Baptists from voting for her? My guess is probably not, so long as she panders to them. But while Palin may be quickly endorsed by men speaking in Southern accents, she is neither a Billy Graham nor a Jimmy Carter. American evangelicalism, like John McCain, has many mansions. Sarah Palin inhabits only one of them.

--Alan Wolfe