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The Bible in Palin's Speech--Skeel

I found myself listening for Biblical echoes in Sarah Palin's speech last night after hearing the familiar cadences of Ecclesiastes in its opening paragraphs, when she said that the voters rallied behind McCain in the primaries because he understands "there is a time for politics and a time for leadership ... a time to campaign and a time to put our country first." These lines are of course an allusion- a deft one, to my ear- to the book of Ecclesiastes ("For everything there is a season ... a time to be born, and a time to die." Eccles 3:1-8).

The only other distinctively Scriptural note came much later in the speech, when Palin said "we are expected to govern with integrity, good will, clear convictions, and ... a servant's heart."

The words "servant's heart" are evangelical code words, taken from Christ's model of servant leadership. Obviously aimed at us evangelical voters, this reference reminded me of George W. Bush's 2003 state of the union address extolling the "wonder working powers" of the American people, a reference to a famous Christian hymn. Bush was excoriated by some for misusing the Bible. In the hymn, the complaint went, God is the only one who has "wonder working powers," not ordinary people. I shared this discomfort. The speech seem to me to buy into a dangerous tendency for Christians to conflate God and our quite fallible country. (This same discomfort gives me some pause about the McCain slogan, "Country First.")

There's a long history of twisting Scripture in American political oratory (William Jennings Bryan's famous "Cross of Gold" speech is, in my view, a vivid example), as Bush did. But, despite the similarities to Bush's speech, I don't think Palin was misusing Scripture here. The Bible does indeed call leaders to be "servant leaders"- to put others first. My only complaint with her reference to servant leadership is that her definition of what this entailed (taking on "the old politics as usual in Juneau," standing up to "the special interests, the lobbyists, big old companies, and the good ol'boys network") sounded a lot more like Jesus driving the money changers from the temple to me, than like servant leadership.


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Comments ( 11 )

"...more like Jesus driving the money changers from the temple to me, than like servant leadership...."

Those've got to be consistent, though, if Jesus is our model of a servant (see, e.g., Mark 10:45).

I'm with Chris on this -- driving out corruption can be exactly what Christlike servant leadership requires, as our Lord's example shows. No problem there.

As to "Country First," it's a slogan. The fact that slogans can't nuance their way out of every possible abuse doesn't abolish their use.

Reading it with a scintilla of charity, it means "As between myself and country, Country First. As between my party and country, Country First."

The "Country First" slogan bothers me as well, in part because it is fraught with such ambiguity and can so easily play into the self-congratulatory nationalism that characterizes some McCain supporters.

If it's supposed to mean placing the public, common good of all ahead of the private, individual good of some, then I'm all for it. But in that case, it seems to me like very poor communication.

Are you opting for the idea that meekness = weakness?

Noticed the same thing -- but was bothered by the implication that the campaign should be contrasted with putting the country first. After all, isn't the point of the campaign to get the best leadership we can in place?

As I think about it, I guess the point is that a campaign is necessarily partisan, and it's okay to promote the party at this point in the process.

In response to Tom and this line of comments: no, I don't mean to suggest that meekness is the same thing as weakness. But I do think that servant leadership and clearing the Temple are different modes. To give examples from McCain's career, I think battles with interest groups (on, say, campaign finance) may be clearing the Temple but aren't servant leadership. What he did as a POW in Viet Nam was, in my view, true servant leadership.

David, its arguable (hey we study the structure of texts all the time) that she first addresses the integrity and convictions stuff when she talks about taking on entrenched pols. The servant's heart stuff comes in, in order, afterwards

"That luxury jet was over the top. I put it on eBay.

I also drive myself to work.

And I thought we could muddle through without the governor's personal chef - although I've got to admit that sometimes my kids sure miss her. I came to office promising to control spending - by request if possible and by veto if necessary."

Now its not like POW service, but it does seem very fitting for a true "public servant" image.

I wonder if some of the difference with Palin is that she has Matt Scully, instead of Gerson, writing (or helping her write, however you'd like to put it) her speeches? Just pure speculation...

As to the "Country First," I found myself entirely un-bothered by it, perhaps because (as others have already noted) I saw it in the context of partisan v. public as opposed to country v. everything else. It is of a piece with McCain's scant mention in his speech that he's even in the GOP and with his charge that Obama is willing to put his own electoral prospects above the national interest (evidenced by his now-seemingly abandoned immediate withdrawal from Iraq promise). It's a good strategy on McCain's part, as it helps dissociate him just a bit from the tarnished GOP brand, throws a kind of sidelight on Obama's "nuanced" patriotism and plays to people's ordinary patriotism. I suspect that your (quite reasonable) discomfort with the phrase on its own isn't a discomfort shared by many, many voters.

I suspect you're right about the importance of the difference in speechwriters. Matt Scully does seem to use much less Biblical language than Michael Gerson. On the Country First slogan, I bet you're right that it didn't bother many people (and many of the people it might borrow aren't likely to be voting for McCain, anyway). I'm of mixed minds as to whether the slogan distances McCain from Bush. It's easy to imagine Bush using a similar slogan, but Country First does make one think not of Bush or the Republican party but of McCain's distinctive biography.

These are all great examples from Palin! I do wish someone had noted the obvious Biblical echo in Obama's acceptance speech in Denver, though.

Barack Obama: "

"That's the promise of America the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation; The fundamental belief that I am my brother's keeper; I am my sister's keeper. That's the promise we need to keep."

Genesis 4:9-13

"And the LORD said unto McCain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper?

And He said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground.

And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother's blood from thy hand;

When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.

And McCain said unto the LORD, My punishment is greater than I can bear."

I find the mixing of religion and politics a danger line that conservatives are all to ready to cross. Our worldview should most earnestly influence our life, but I do not wish to have my religious views tossed back at me in political speeches