How Sarah Palin Tortures the Bible

With her usual vacuous brio, Sarah Palin has seized another news cycle, using an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network to attack the Obama administration for failing to do, well, something she’d vaguely like to be done about the political crisis in Egypt. The half-term former Alaska governor assailed White House diplomacy hands for withholding reliable information about the nature of the protests and for their inability to clearly telegraph the next moves the United States will pursue in the suddenly unstable Middle East. The potential risks, she warned, are dire indeed. Washington urgently needs to determine just “who it will be that fills now the void in the government” in Egypt, she explained: “Is it going to be the Muslim Brotherhood? We should not stand for that, or with that or by that. Any radical Islamists, no, that is not who we should be supporting and standing by, so we need to find out who was behind all of the turmoil and the revolt and the protests.”

Never mind, for starters, that the protests — and the Mubarak regime’s ineffectual crackdowns on the mass dissident movement — aren’t yielding a great deal of reliable information to anyone, inside or outside Egypt. Never mind, as well, that Republican presidents going back to Eisenhower were very much devoted to standing by, with, for, around and about the Muslim Brotherhood. And never mind that even the great GOP power savant Dick Cheney, speaking at the same Young Americans for Freedom lovefest marking the centenary of Ronald Reagan’s birth, insisted that this is far from a ripe moment for public disclosure of U.S. objectives.

“There’s a reason why a lot of diplomacy is conducted in secret,” the former vice president said, before reminding the Gipper faithful, in an uncharacteristic note of realism and restraint, that the “the bottom line is, in the end, whatever comes next in Egypt is going to be determined by the people of Egypt.” Asked what he thought was going to happen in Egypt, the onetime architect of a U.S.-engineered new order in the Middle East replied simply, “I don’t know.”

But such empirical cautions are impermeable to Palin, for the simple reason that any political pronouncement by Sarah Palin is first and foremost a pronouncement about Sarah Palin. This became quite apparent when the interview with CBN reporter David Brody turned to matters of faith proper — a turn that Palin herself introduced, tellingly, when Brody asked her how she handled criticism from the mainstream press. “You know,” she replied…

I’m reminded so often of 2 Timothy 1:7 knowing that God does not give us a spirit of timidity or of fear, but he gives us a spirit of power and love and a sound mind. A sound mind so that we can keep things in perspective. We can stay grounded, we can know what is real, we can know truth, so just calling on that verse, reminding myself over and over again what’s God promises, that gets me through the tough times.

OK, then. First off, replying to putative detractors in the American media by citing the authority of the imprisoned Apostle Paul, in the last epistle he penned from jail in Rome prior to his death, is by itself far from compelling evidence of the ability to “keep things in perspective.”

More to the point, sophronismos, the Greek phrase Paul uses here to characterize the mental outlook of the convicted Christian, and rendered as “sound mind,” more accurately translates as “discipline” or “self-control.” Its intended meaning is conveyed more sharply by its opposite term, akrasia, or self-indulgence. This, in other words, would be strike two in Palin’s gloss on Paul, since by the account of Vanity Fair’s Michael Joseph Gross, one of her most common rebukes to staffers is “I have the power to ruin you.”

As for the finding of truth, well, Palin pretty much has the inductive logic of Paul’s directive backwards here. He’s exhorting the believer — in this case Timothy, the young bishop of the Ephesians — to trust in the pre-existing truth of God, imprinted upon the faithful by the fact of their conversion. The idea here is not so much to employ divine grace to seek out truth as to draw upon the inward character of God’s truth as a repository of strength amid the early Church’s many afflictions and institutional quandaries. Nor does this point involve any recondite with biblical Greek; it’s right there in the preceding verse, 2 Timothy, 1:6 (KJV): “Wherefore I put thee in remembrance that thou stir up the gift of God, which is in thee by the putting on of my hands.”

But, as is quite oddly plain in Palin’s later description of her devotional routine to Brody, she’s not in the habit of relying on divinely sanctioned truth to curb the deceptive dictates of the human ego. Rather, the disciplinary strictures of scripture seem chiefly to serve in Palin’s world as an ever-encouraging set of offstage prompts, goading the persecuted media victim into ever-greater acts of self-assertion. Indeed, as is the case with her critique of the media, reading the Bible’s word is pretty much a given, something she can airily stipulate as fait accompli — or as she curiously puts it here, something she intends to start doing, in that same vague future in which her remarks on Egypt policy might also make sense:

]Time is our most precious resource. How we choose to spend time I think is a reflection on what’s most important to us. I am going to read my Bible every day. I am going to dig in there and seek God’s wisdom and direction in every step that I take so I prioritize time to make sure that that daily devotion is available. And I will participate in that. But it’s not just carving some time out of the day to read the Word and to journal what you know, I believe I am gaining from the Word, but it is ongoing minute by minute asking God for the strength, for the direction for, He says we can ask for favor, I ask for favor in situations so that I can continue down the path. And it’s the most important thing in my life, my faith, so I prioritize to make sure that I’m spending the time that I need to stay all geared up.

This, to put things mildly, is a weirdly cursory approach to “the most important thing in my life.” Note, first of all, the persistent recourse to the future tense in her reply : “I am going to read my Bible…”; “I am going to dig in there….”; “I will participate….”

Then, more crucially, there’s the appeal to a divine authority beyond the word — the notion of an experiential awareness of God’s “favor” more commonly associated with prophecy than with the routines of daily observance and fellowship. The rhetoric of prophecy is indeed where the action is — at least for any leader of Palin’s national ambition who also needs to galvanize a base of evangelical supporters. It is, first of all, a kind of faith that the exponent can define largely as she sees fit — hewn in a deeply personalized vision of God’s favor, long on individuality (“ongoing minute by minute asking God”), and short on public accountability. Prophets are also, far from incidentally, among the most persecuted and misunderstood emissaries of God’s will, in both the Old Testament and the New. So the mantle of prophecy permits Palin to continue pursuing her own lusty brand of culture warfare on her own preferred Sarah-centric terms. This, remember, is the person who thought the appropriation of the term “blood libel” was an appropriate and measured response to the charge that she had infected American political discourse with violent imagery.

Oddly enough, later in 2 Timothy, Paul advises his young charge to guard against “profane and vain babbling” (2:16) as both Paul’s own captivity winds down and the last judgment approaches. The trick, Paul writes, is to “continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of …. And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Jesus Christ.” (3:14–15) What’s more, he intimates that the distinction that Palin seeks to draw between the written Word and God’s personal favor is largely illusory: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” (3: 16–17) We can only hope that, someday, Sarah Palin may find time in her busy schedule to get around to journaling that.

Chris Lehmann is our religion columnist.