Tongue Tied on Religion

CNN takes on Pentecostalism

Reporting on religion is a difficult task, even moreso when a political candidate is involved. Voters care about candidates’ religious affiliations. But if reporters are going to take up the task of explaining beliefs to their readers and viewers, they should do it with care. CNN’s Monday evening attempt to plumb Sarah Palin’s religious beliefs fell far short of that mandate.

CNN sent reporter Randi Kaye to Anchorage for the goods on Palin’s Pentecostal church. Here’s how the report starts:

Sarah Palin calls herself a Bible believing Christian. period. What she doesn’t mention is this — Palin spent most of her life attending a Pentecostal church that may have shaped her beliefs if not politics.

Reading between the lines: Palin has kept her Pentecostal church a secret, because it’s something to hide. Here’s why:

The Wasilla Assembly of God Pentecoastal Church where congregants say they speak in tongues.

Oh! That’s what she’s hiding, even though Tim McGraw, Palin’s former pastor, “says he never saw Palin speak in tongues.” It’s a good thing they asked.

What’s more, members of the church also have other strange beliefs: “ He says members also practice faith healing and believe in the end times, a violent upheaval in the world that will bring the second coming of Jesus.” Hmmm, don’t most Christians believe that? Isn’t that the Book of Revelations?

The CNN piece also makes a point of excerpting out of context an advertising video for a youth group called the Master’s Commission of Wasilla, Alaska, after referring that one of the church’s pastors had preached some “unusual sermons.” The portion of the video shown on CNN shows fire engulfing a map of the United States; the context makes it seem like the video is arguing that the world will soon end. In fact, the video—self-consciously styled as an over-the-top movie trailer—is a promotional tool for a youth group; the fiery map is a visual metaphor for how Christ’s message will soon spread across the country. Flashy production values aside, this is pretty standard stuff for Christian youth groups.

The reporters, producers, and editors behind these pieces fail to understand that Pentecostalism is not a bizarro sect, but a relatively common Protestant denomination, with about 30 million American adherents. CNN treats Pentecostalism as an exotic religion, whose focal point is speaking in tongues. I’m not an expert on the group, but I imagine that its core beliefs also have something to do with Christianity and good works and all that, and not just an easily ridiculed spiritual experience. By treating the topic with condescension, they alienate viewers and play into the hands of those who rail against the media’s purported liberal bias.

There’s a lot that Americans need to know about Sarah Palin’s fitness for the vice-presidency, and the media ought to ask tough questions about her background and her stance on various issues. But the objective is to analyze her qualifications, not to examine whether Pentecostalism seems weird to people who know nothing about the faith.

The message seems to be that CNN wants its politicians to appear religious, but not, Heaven forbid, engage in any type of heartfelt religious practice that might seem too kooky. And that’s a line that’s hard to toe.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.