WASILLA, Alaska — Shortly after taking office as governor in 2006, Sarah Palin sent an e-mail message to Paul E. Riley, her former pastor in the Assembly of God Church, which her family began attending when she was a youth. She needed spiritual advice in how to do her new job, said Mr. Riley, who is 78 and retired from the church.
“She asked for a biblical example of people who were great leaders and what was the secret of their leadership,” Mr. Riley said.
He wrote back that she should read again from the Old Testament the story of Esther, a beauty queen who became a real one, gaining the king’s ear to avert the slaughter of the Jews and vanquish their enemies. When Esther is called to serve, God grants her a strength she never knew she had.
Mr. Riley said he thought Ms. Palin had lived out the advice as governor, and would now do so again as the Republican Party’s vice-presidential nominee.
“God has given her the opportunity to serve,” he said. “And God has given her the strength to carry out her goals.”
Ms. Palin’s religious life — what she believes and how her beliefs intersect or not with her life in public office in Alaska — has become a topic of intense interest and scrutiny across the political spectrum as she has risen from relative obscurity to become Senator John McCain’s running mate.
Interviews with the two pastors she has been most closely associated with here in her hometown — she now attends the Wasilla Bible Church, though she keeps in touch with Mr. Riley and recently spoke at an event at his former church — and with friends and acquaintances who have worshipped with her point to a firm conclusion: her foundation and source of guidance is the Bible, and with it has come a conviction to be God’s servant.
“Just be amazed at the umbrella of this church here, where God is going to send you from this church,” Ms. Palin told the gathering in June of young graduates of a ministry program at the Assembly of God Church, a video of which has been posted on YouTube.
“Believe me,” she said, “I know what I am saying — where God has sent me, from underneath the umbrella of this church, throughout the state.”
Janet Kincaid, who has known Ms. Palin for about 15 years and worked with her on some Wasilla town boards and commissions when Ms. Palin was mayor here, said Ms. Palin’s spiritual path, from the Assembly of God to Wasilla Bible, has had a consistent theme.
“The churches that Sarah has attended all believe in a literal translation of the Bible,” Ms. Kincaid said. “Her principal ethical and moral beliefs stem from this.”
Prayer, and belief in its power, is another constant theme, Ms. Kincaid said, in what she has witnessed in Ms. Palin. “Her beliefs are firm in the power of prayer — let’s put it that way,” she said.
Maria Comella, a spokeswoman for the McCain-Palin campaign, said Ms. Palin had been baptized Roman Catholic as an infant, but declined to comment further.
“We’re not going to get into discussing her religion,” she said.
In the address at the Assembly of God Church here, Ms. Palin’s ease in talking about the intersection of faith and public life was clear. Among other things, she encouraged the group of young church leaders to pray that “God’s will” be done in bringing about the construction of a big pipeline in the state, and suggested her work as governor would be hampered “if the people of Alaska’s heart isn’t right with God.”
She also told the group that her eldest child, Track, would soon be deployed by the Army to Iraq, and that they should pray “that our national leaders are sending them out on a task that is from God, that’s what we have to make sure we are praying for, that there is a plan, and that plan is God’s plan.”
Larry Kroon, who has been the presiding pastor at Wasilla Bible for the last 30 years, declined to describe Ms. Palin’s beliefs or the role she plays in the church, but suggested that she is more of a back-bencher than a leading light.
“Todd and Sarah come in as Todd and Sarah — they’re very discreet about it,” he said, referring to Ms. Palin’s husband.
One of the musical directors at the church, Adele Morgan, who has known Ms. Palin since the third grade, said the Palins moved to the nondenominational Wasilla Bible Church in 2002, in part because its ministry is less “extreme” than Pentecostal churches like the Assemblies of God, which practice speaking in tongues and miraculous healings.
“A lot of churches are about music and media and having a big profile,” Ms. Morgan said. “We are against that. That is why it is so attractive to politicians because they can just sit there and be safe.”
“We’ve gotten a lot of their people when the other churches get too extreme,” Ms. Morgan continued. However, she added, “If you lift your hands when we’re singing, we’re not going to shoot you down.”
Mr. Kroon (pronounced krone), a soft-spoken, bearded Alaska native, said he was convinced that the Bible is the Word of God, and that the task of believers is to ponder and analyze the book for meaning — including scrutiny, he said, for errors and mistranslations over the centuries that may have obscured the original intent.
It is that analysis, he believes, not anything he preaches, that makes most people in his church socially conservative, he said.
“I trust my people can go out with that and they can deal with an issue such as abortion — any issue out there — whether it’s in the public arena, or in the hospital room with their relative dying of cancer, because they will be equipped with a biblical perspective that will enable them to react in that situation,” said Mr. Kroon, who described himself as “pro-life.”
“Our congregation would tend to be conservative, and it’s not because I’ve told them to be,” he said.
Some Jewish groups have raised concerns since the announcement of Ms. Palin’s selection to the Republican ticket that discussions in the Wasilla Bible Church might go beyond conservatism. Last month, a leader in the group Jews for Jesus, which advocates converting Jews to Christianity — but which has been accused by some Jews of anti-Semitism — spoke at the church. The speaker, David Brickner, spoke enthusiastically about the “miracle” of conversions in Israel by the group’s missionaries.
The church has also come under fire among some gay advocacy groups for promoting an upcoming Focus on the Family conference in Anchorage dealing with the so-called curing of homosexuality.
The Wasilla Bible Church, which draws 800 to 1,000 people for Sunday service, itself is discreet to the point of self-effacement. Only a single small sign on the gravel road leading up to the property declares the name. On the three-year-old building itself, which looks more like a warehouse than a cathedral, a large cross over the rear entrance is the only declaration of purpose.
People who know the church and its parishioners say that the mix of simplicity and quirkiness is common in Alaska, where many people have moved over the years and left their pasts and old church lives behind.
Homegrown churches like Wasilla — started in the early 1970s by a handful of families, including Ms. Morgan’s, during the construction boom in building the Trans-Alaska pipeline — have become singularly Alaskan. Mr. Kroon still remembers the days of a single room with a wood-burning stove that he would have to fire up before services.
Mr. Kroon said the Alaskan spirit of go-it-alone individuality gives the church a mix of joiners and resolute nonjoiners. The church offers full-immersion water baptism, which some people want and others do not.
“I have people who’ve been here since I got here, and they still say, ‘Don’t put me on the membership roll,’ ” he said. “There’s definitely a cultural element.”
ANCHORAGE – In June, long before she was selected as the Republican nominee for vice president, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin attended a religious gathering at the Wasilla Assembly of God, her former church.
Standing there on stage and speaking to the college-aged graduates of the church’s Master’s Commission ministry, the governor reminisced about growing up in the fellowship – “getting saved here, getting baptized by Pastor Reilly in Little Beaver Lake Camp” – and urged the new disciples to help fulfill the church’s mission, as well as certain destinies for America and Alaska.
Pray for the construction of the $30 billion natural gas pipeline, Palin told them. Pray for the military men and women overseas, “that our leaders, our national leaders, are sending (U.S. soldiers) out on a task that is from God. That’s what we have to make sure that we’re praying for – that there is a plan and that that plan is God’s plan.”All four fellowships the family has attended appear to have one trait in common: They all insist on the inerrancy of the Bible. Their pastors preach that scripture is literally God’s spoken word.
Later, senior pastor Ed Kalnin – with Palin standing at his side – spoke about tapping into Alaska’s natural resource wealth in order to fulfill the state’s destiny of serving as a shelter for Christians at the end of the world.
“I believe that Alaska is one of the ‘refuge states’ – come on, you guys – in the Last Days,” Kalnin said, raising his arm to underscore his point. “And hundreds of thousands of people are going to come to this state to seek refuge. And the church has to be ready to minister to them.”
Now that she’s been selected as Republican presidential candidate John McCain’s running mate, such comments raise questions. What are Sarah Palin’s religious beliefs? How have her beliefs played out in her public life in Alaska? And what do they portend for a possible vice president?
McCain-Palin spokeswoman Maria Comella told the Anchorage Daily News on Friday that the candidate wasn’t available for an interview. E-mailed questions on religious subjects weren’t returned. The New York Times reported Friday that Comella had refused to discuss Palin’s religion.
So what’s on the record?
Palin considers herself a born-again conservative Christian. She supports teaching creationism in the public schools, outlawing nearly all abortions – including in cases of rape or incest – and prohibiting same-sex marriage.
On the other hand, after becoming governor 20 months ago, Palin didn’t balk at implementing an Alaska Supreme Court ruling that ordered the state to provide the same benefits to same-sex partners it provides to married couples.
By all accounts, Palin has been an observant evangelical Christian for decades. But the church the Palin family attends these days varies.
In 2002, Palin and her family shifted their allegiance from the Wasilla Assembly of God to the nondenominational Wasilla Bible Church, a move that coincided with Palin’s run for lieutenant governor, her first bid for a statewide office.
“We’re just a community church,” said senior pastor Larry Kroon, a West Anchorage High graduate who later earned a degree in religious studies at Seattle Pacific University. “We weren’t trying to follow some trend. We’re not trying to lead a parade.”
The same sentiment isn’t always apparent at the Palins’ former church, the Wasilla Assembly of God – where its current pastor, Kalnin, has publicly inveighed against Democrats while offering thinly veiled support for President Bush. In a sermon recorded in 2004, Kalnin doubted the chances that John Kerry supporters would ever get into heaven.
“I’m not going to tell you who to vote for,” he said. “But if you vote for this particular person, I question your salvation – I’m sorry.”
The Wasilla Bible Church has made waves as well. Two weeks ago, a guest speaker, David Brickner – a conservative Christian who condemns the Jewish faith and tries to convert its adherents through his Jews for Jesus ministry – suggested that terrorism in Israel is God’s judgment against Jews.
The McCain campaign has acknowledged that Palin was in the audience. But in a press statement, campaign spokesman Michael Goldfarb said the governor did not know Brickner would be speaking, and Palin does not share the views he expressed.
“She and her family would not have been sitting in the pews of the church if those remarks were remotely typical,” Goldfarb said.
Since winning her race for governor in 2006, Palin has also attended a large Pentecostal church in Juneau – the Juneau Christian Center. She’s also worshipped at the Church on the Rock, a sprawling megachurch in Wasilla.
The video of Sarah Palin speaking in church has garnered 283,233 views since it was posted on 9/2/08. Happy Sunday.