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.