Sarah Palin gave a speech to members of the National Rifle Association, gathered in Indianapolis this weekend. She said something that struck me as sacrilegious. I’ve long defended Palin against the offensive treatment she’s received at the hands of a blatantly biased media, a media that collectively lost its mind the moment she entered the national stage. But that hardly means she must be defended at all times.
What did she say? Here’s how The Hill reports it:
“They obviously have information on plots to carry out Jihad,” she said at the National Rifle Association (NRA) annual meeting on Saturday evening, referring to prisoners. “Oh, but you can’t offend them, can’t make them feel uncomfortable, not even a smidgen. Well, if I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.”
Emphasis mine. When my husband (who was baptized 10 years ago today, as it happens) told me about this, I had a hard time believing that she actually said it. Not just because baptism couldn’t be taken more seriously in traditional Christianity but because the media routinely misquote or fail to provide context for quotes. But the video makes the statement seem even worse.
So why did the crowd cheer when she said it? And why did some folks defend or downplay the statement on Twitter? I couldn’t begin to say, but they shouldn’t have done so.
The Lutheran catechism, which I have here on my shelf, is a collection of teachings for the church. A teaching aid for family use, it goes through the commandments and creed and sacraments and what not. The section on the sacrament of baptism explains what baptism is — the water connected to God’s word; what that word of God is — the Gospel of Jesus, and what baptism gives us:
It works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.
Is waterboarding how we baptize terrorists? However powerful waterboarding might be (and whether or not it is defensible, a good idea or achieves the goals of those who advocate its use), it doesn’t hold a candle to the power of the Christian baptism, as historically understood. Does it deliver those who are subjected to it from the devil, as Christian baptism does? Does it give them eternal life, as Christian baptism does? Is it voluntary, as Christian baptism is? It is none of these things.
Joking about baptism in the context of this aggressive action suggests that we don’t think baptism is as life-giving or important as it is.
Now, it’s also true that Palin, from what we know of her congregational affiliations, is influenced by subsets of Christianity that take a different and far lower view of what baptism accomplishes. They say that it’s mere symbolism rather than means of God’s grace. In fact, that’s exactly what the web site of Wasilla Bible Church says. But I would hope that even these traditions wouldn’t take it so lightly as to joke about it in the context of waterboarding. Or even if it is considered OK to joke about waterboarding being baptism by these folks, I’d hope they recognize how blasphemous it sounds to the ears of Christians who retain the historic and high view of the sacrament.
There’s another problem with what Palin said.
Mary Moerbe, a diaconal writer at the Cranach Institute, notes, “Sarah Palin’s brash words portray herself to be a great and powerful baptizer, not bringing faith or the forgiveness of Jesus—or even the sympathy implicit in secular uses of ‘baptism by fire’—but crossing the line into government aggression, specifically against those already subdued and captive. She merged government with religion in one of the worst possible ways: by making herself judge and arbiter.”
Exactly. This is a perfect example not just of civil religion but also how civil religion harms the church. Civil religion is that folk religion that serves to further advance the cause of the state. Civil religion can include invocations of a generic God at inaugurations and other key events (lately these invocations also acknowledge, showing the power of civil religion, the absence of trust in God as well), oblique or overt religious references by political leaders, exaggerated stories about great leaders, interfaith worship events at times of national crisis (e.g., when Oprah Winfrey led a massive interfaith worship service at Yankee Stadium in the aftermath of 9/11), and so on and so forth.
Civil religion can be a unifying force for political power but it manages to unify, typically, at the expense of orthodox belief.
So it must be noted that, again apart from the debate over such interrogation techniques, waterboarding is the opposite of traditional Christian baptism. It does not work forgiveness of sins. It does not give eternal life in Christ. It is not voluntary. And even as important as fighting murderous Islamist terrorists who want to destroy America is — and it is — making that fight not just more important than the means by which many of us have become Christians but losing the particulars of that faith in Jesus Christ in the name of that fight is an intolerably high price to pay.
Still, this joke, or whatever it was (a friend notes it’s a botched retelling of a less offensive gun advocate meme from a few years back) is not the end of the world. Everyone runs their mouth and says things that are unwise. It’s part of being human and, as it turns out, just a good example of how we sin even when we don’t intend to. Baptism — the real kind — turns out to be a wonderful thing to point to at these times. A Christian is traditionally understood as someone who has been baptized. In my church we encourage everyone to daily repent of our sins and remember that in our baptism we receive the forgiveness of sins. As St. Paul says in Titus, chapter three:
By the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost, which He shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ, our Savior, that, being justified by His grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a faithful saying.
And St. Paul in Romans, chapter 6, says:
We are buried with Christ by Baptism into death, that, like as He was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
And that’s good news indeed.