RELIGION IN THE NEWS
Winter 2009, Vol. 11, No. 3

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Spiritual Politics blog

Articles in this issue:

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
How to Pray

The Mormon Proposition

No Saints Need Apply

Picturing Palin's Faith

Bishops at Bay

Downplaying Religion
in Mumbai

What is Lashkar?

The Beat Goes On

Riverside's Black-White Divide

Scandalous Days
in the OCA

Contributors/Staff

New books

Picturing Palin's Faith
by Melissa Proctor

The American news media tend to avoid making fun of religion, even when it comes to editorial cartoons. At the height of the Danish cartoon story, for example, only a handful of American newspapers—as opposed to European ones—actually published one or more of the Muhammad caricatures.

And by and large, American cartoonists stayed away from Sarah Palin’s religion, important as it was to her appeal to the Republican base, preferring to train their sights on her sex appeal, penchant for shopping, and role as John McCain’s more powerful helpmeet. But there were some notable exceptions.

On September 3, just after her selection as vice-presidential candidate, R.J. Matson of the New York Observer depicted Palin as a the pro-life bride marrying McCain in a shotgun wedding scripted by social conservatives. A couple of days later, the Houston Chronicle’s Nick Anderson represented Palin as a Roman empress, joining John McCain in throwing two lions—marked “liberals” and “media”—to a horde of angry Christians.

On this first take, Palin’s job was to play the culture wars card, supplying the religiously challenged John McCain with help in feeding red meat to GOP evangelicals.

That Palin was herself one of them became clear soon enough. But her own studious avoidance of specificity about her religious commitments—including her apparently false claim to Katie Couric that she didn’t have a church—left it up to journalists to canvass her affiliations and decide for themselves.

On September 15, freelancer Monte Wolverton depicted Palin on the road to Washington with “extreme religious baggage in tow” in the form of a rolling portfolio marked “Sarah’s Former Church of 26 years.” (That was the Wasilla Assemblies of God, the Pentecostal church in which she was baptized as a teenager and left in 2002 in favor of the non-denominational Wasilla Bible church.)

Plastered on the side of the portfolio are stickers from the spiritual places she’d been, including “Holy Laughter,” “Faith Healing,” “End-Times Worldview,” “Fundamentalist,” “Spiritual Warfare” (Demon-Hunting), and “Tongues Speaking.” There’s also “gay-intolerant,” “against sex education,” and “teaching creationism in schools.”

In mid-October, as more refined conservative commentators like George Will and David Brooks began questioning Palin’s fitness for high office, David Horsey of the Seattle-Post Intelligencer portrayed the GOP as an ill-matched couple out on a candle-lit dinner date. On one side of the table sits an effete man in a pin-striped suit and bow tie sipping a martini and complaining that Sarah Palin does not appear to be well-informed, while on the other, a woman with a Lonestar beer screams that if he’d been paying attention to Rush Limbaugh and James Dobson, he’d be informed that Palin “is God’s anointed champion…you wimp!”

God’s own perspective was the subject of the most outrageous of the Palin religion cartoons, by the venerable Pat Oliphant (now syndicated by the Washington Post). Posted on the Post’s website on September 9, it shows Palin at a pulpit holding a phone and speaking in tongues. Standing at her side is John McCain who says, “She’s a Pentecostal and speaks in tongues and only God can understand what she says, but it gives my campaign a direct line to the Almighty. On the right, an angry God points to the receiver in his hand while yelling over his shoulder, “Peter, what’s wrong with this phone? All I can hear is some dam’ right wing politician spouting gibberish.” 

Although Oliphant’s cartoon never appeared in print, the Post was inundated with 750 complaints, most upset at what they took as an attack on Pentecostalism.

Calling the cartoon “despicable,” George O. Wood, chief executive officer of the Assemblies of God, wrote, “Millions of Christians today follow the example of first century Christians who prayed in other tongues.  The Washington Post would not think of printing a cartoon that mocked members of the Muslim or Jewish faiths. It should be ashamed.” 

“To single out those of us who are Pentecostal and revere as well as practice the Scriptural experience of speaking in tongues in such a calculatedly offensive way is disgusting,” wrote Rev. Jerry Jones, general secretary of the United Pentecostal Church. “That it was published by a leading U.S. newspaper is beyond belief.”

In the Post’s online On Faith section, Church of the Nazarene pastor Gabriel Salguero wrote: “Regrettably, there still remains in parts of U.S. society a great deal of ignorance regarding Pentecostalism. It is never wise to feed this ignorance with comments that may caricature a segment of society that seeks the common good. To imply or even hint that good Christians who speak in tongues are naïve or not able to lead is truly a leap to judgment.”

Addressing the furor in her September 28 column, Post ombudsman Deborah Howell turned thumbs down: “I showed it to several Post editors. While it was clever is some ways, most editors—including me—would not have run it. The Post has a policy against defaming or perpetuating racial, religious, or ethnic stereotypes. That was why The Post did not run the Danish cartoons about the prophet Muhammad.” 

Jim Brady, the executive editor of the Post website, further distanced the paper from Oliphant's cartoon by making clear that syndicated cartoons “are not chosen at washingtonpost.com; they are posted through an automatic feed.”

Although Oliphant claims that “cartooning should challenge the status quo,” they mostly rely on status quo stereotypes to score their points. In this case, it was not the gifts of the Holy Spirit that Oliphant was attacking, but Palin’s political “gibberish.”

 

*Do not reproduce cartoons without permission*

   

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