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Sarah Palin’s waters of biblical immersion

April 29, 2014

“Well, if I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we’d baptize terrorists,” exclaimed Sarah Palin to rounds of applause this weekend.

You know this already, since there’s already been over reporting of this very statement in the news, as if it’s something new, as though it’s a surprise. But these are the waters of biblical immersion, the culture of Sarah Palin.

In her book, Going Rogue: An American Life, she describes her own baptism and those who influenced her along the way (i.e., her mother, whose best friend from Texas got the family going to church; Pascal; Sunday School & youth group; a pastor; and the Scriptures):

The website explains that she was 12 years old. And she herself describes the immersion and her new habit of reading and testing the Scriptures, which immediately followed:

Early on, she came to appreciate what was in her world “biblical” and “literary”:

Somewhere along the way, from her being a young person to her being baptised to her statement comparing waterboarding by her government with water immersion by her church, there was a legacy. In other words, Sarah Palin seeks to appeal to a culture of people that she seems rather immersed in. And this culture has a history.

Historian Charles W. Connell, in his essay “From Spiritual Necessity To Instrument Of Torture: Water In The Middle Ages,” gives more than a glimpse into the connections between water torture and water baptism. (The report is in the book The Nature and Function of Water, Baths, Bathing and Hygiene from Antiquity through the Renaissance, edited by Historian Cynthia Kosso with Medievalist Anne Scott). Here is a history that continues as the present and the future of Sarah Palin:

A decade ago, during the very public discussions and disputations about whether waterboarding is torture, the history of water torture was rehearsed rather thoroughly. There were not, if I recall correctly, many comparisons of waterboarding with baptism of the sort that Sarah Palin has made a few days ago.

And yet such a history exists. Historian Stephen F. Eisenman, in his essay “Water-boarding — A Torture both Intimate and Sacred,” makes the comparisons. (This is in the book Speaking about Torture, edited by English and Comparative Literature scholars, Elizabeth Weber and Julie A. Carlson). Here’s a clip from the Eisenman essay:


And the connection of the past with the present is made:

The comfortable cultural waters that Sarah Palin is immersed in would not see waterboarding as torture. It, rather, is akin to water baptism, which would be, by the same culture, biblical.

Hers is a culture where women are equal to men, when it comes to being tough, to owning firearms and using them. Sarah Palin is even tough enough to call herself a “feminist,” noting in her book that she must reject “the radical mantras of that early feminist era, but reasoned arguments for equal opportunity definitely resonated with me.” (This she does, much to the chagrin of blogger, Jessica Valenti, who is not part of Sarah Palin’s culture.)

And this culture with its history and Sarah Palin with her reading, and her reading of the Scripture, makes me wonder how she reads the seemingly unequal opportunities between men and women when it comes to the water ordeal mentioned in Numbers 5. This particular passage requires a culture to interpret it rightly. Especially when the Hebrew Bible is translated, say into Greek, it may involve wordplay that seems like an insider’s interpretation. Could this really be a feminist passage?

For Sarah Palin, these waters do seem to run together.








Go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant — they’re quite clear — that we would create law based on the God of the bible and the ten commandments. What in hell scares people about talking about America’s foundation of faith? It is that world view that involves some people being afraid of being able to discuss our foundation, being able to discuss God in the public square, that’s the only thing I can attribute it to.

Sarah Palin

5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 29, 2014 10:59 pm

    “Well, if I were in charge…” Thank God that she never will be! It is scary enough that she had the chance of being a heartbeat away.
    Would that she spent time actually reading Scripture.

  2. April 30, 2014 12:50 am

    You make some interesting points (much more dispassionately than I would have been able to) which I will have to ponder.

    But here is one point that strikes me: most of the examples you cite that conflate or juxtapose the symbolism of baptism with water-based torture are from the medieval era. Yet, my impression from various reading and conversation is that the ecclesial self-understandings of most Reformation or post-Reformation era churches, and their members, don’t own those actions: they ascribe them to the bad old corrupt Roman church which had abandoned the faith of the apostles. In many cases, the ecclesial narrative of these communities weaves their history smoothly from the apostolic or subapostolic or patristic generation directly to the Reformation generation.

    So I’m not sure that the case you have made here can properly be said to apply to such churches or their members.

    Either that, or they are simply unconscious of the irony that they are embracing the forced-conversion techniques of a historic church community that, in any other context, they would almost certainly refuse to identify with.

  3. April 30, 2014 6:58 am

    Would that she spent time actually reading Scripture.

    Michael, Isn’t is just fascinating what Sarah Palin writes about reading and what she says and writes about her reading and about how she reads the Bible?

    (much more dispassionately than I would have been able to)…. most of the examples … are from the medieval era. Yet, …. most Reformation or post-Reformation era churches, and their members…actions: they ascribe them to the bad old corrupt Roman church … So I’m not sure that the case you have made here can properly be said to apply to such churches or their members.Either that, or they are simply unconscious of ….

    Victoria, Great points, and important ones. My own background (and now living in Texas also the biblebelt foreground for me) are the Southern Baptist church (and also the Church of Christ), the leaders of which put a huge emphasis on the role of baptism, proper baptism, biblical baptism. As I blog, I have to exercise too much restraint in my own writerly voice. You are entirely right to recall the historical “narrative” of Protestants in general, who tend to use the Roman Church as their scapegoat for a multitude of hypocrisies. Please say more! The two short essays I excerpt all too briefly are not the only histories, of course. Even in the first quotation of Eisenman, nonetheless, there’s a bit of the focus on the Roman Catholic Church. Yes, more needs to be said about this historiographic slice, this narrative. Please say more, if you like. I really like Eisenman’s rhetorical question ending that second excerpt. He’s asking about “the media,” and yet the question pertains to Sarah Palin in the media, I think.As naive and as simplistic as Sarah Palin’s individual world view is, it connects with a well-grooved history of pumping up the importances of water baptism and playing down the significances of water tortures so that the two seem equally imperative and important. The power trip here is just amazing, the sexism, the imperialism, the racism, the ecclesiaism, the politicism.

    On a lighter note, did you see Jon Stewart last night comparing Sarah Palin’s speech to that of Donald Sterling’s? If not, here’s the clip (and the comparison comes 1 minute in) –

  4. April 30, 2014 4:06 pm

    She is not the only one in our government that spouts incredible bouts of real ignorance on the topic they claim knowledge of.


  1. Whose History? Catholics, Protestants, and waterboarding as baptism | BLT

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