Perhaps it’s inappropriate to read a whole lot into the brouhaha surrounding Sarah Palin’s cruel tribute to waterboarding as “how we baptize terrorists.” But certainly a fair number of conservative Christians though otherwise, and the inimitable Sarah Posner helps explain why:
Like many from a similar Christian tradition, Palin sees herself as a warrior for God, engaged in spiritual warfare to save America from evil and to keep America Christian. But in joking that torture was like a baptism, Palin revealed her view of evangelization as an act of force, not love, and her view of salvation as something one imposes on irredeemable enemies, who further prove their lesser worth by protesting and resisting it. Get it? It just shows how the Muslims can’t even see how something “so cool” is actually good for them.
No wonder many conservative Christians are aghast. But even setting aside the underlying meaning of Palin’s torture “joke,” her speech, once again, exposes a rift between traditional or orthodox (and politically active) Christian conservatives and the charismatic and Pentecostal movement of which Palin is a part. (I hesitate to say that Palin “represents” it because she more represents a Palin brand, although by virtue of her public profile she does in a way represent it.) In Palin’s mind, she’s engaged in spiritual warfare with spiritual enemies. She believes herself to be acting out God’s will. She believes her prayer warriors will protect her. She believes in the spiritual gifts of revelation and prophecy, which for many charismatic and Pentecostal believers are real phenomena, but are easily manipulated by religious charlatans, and when translated to the political stage are dangerously inflammatory.
The treatment of baptism as “an act of force” may be characteristic of a particular strain of contemporary conservative Protestantism in its culture-war armor. But without question, it’s a throwback to the Christian militancy of earlier centuries (including the last one in places like Spain), in which non-Christians were treated as sub-human, heretics were racked and burned “for their own good,” and tolerance of unbelief or variable belief was considered a betrayal of the manifest Truth. (When the unitarian Michael Servetus was condemned to death in Calvin’s Geneva, the great Reformer blamed his victim for the stupidity of thinking “I could suffer him to leave here alive”).
And lest we dismiss Palin’s outburst as simply the ignorant repetition of a line penned by some Breitbartian speechwriter, we should pause to consider its impact on those within earshot of jihadists who claim Americans are just beneath the surface the same “Crusaders” who put Muslims to the sword if they refused to convert and be baptized. That ludicrous libel begins to sound credible in the dark shadow of Palin’s taunt.