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Palin's faith public, but not official, those who know her say

As a little girl, Sarah Palin was a Missionette, the Christian equivalent of Girl Scouts in her Pentecostal church. She led her high school basketball team in pregame prayer. And as governor of Alaska, she sent an e-mail to family and friends describing the baby with Down's syndrome in her womb as a "gift from God."

When John McCain introduced Palin as his running mate, her strong Christian faith was among her most-touted attributes. It quickly excited the Republican base and made up for evangelicals' only lukewarm support for McCain.

But while some of Palin's religious statements have drawn lots of coverage, other aspects of her faith and how it affects her public duties are less known.

The McCain campaign isn't answering questions about Palin's religion. But interviews with former family pastors and friends paint a picture of a woman with a deep faith that she integrates into her personal decisions but that is less overt in her public policy.

Kaylene Johnson wrote Palin's official biography, published in April. Palin was criticized for injecting social issues into her 1996 mayoral campaign, but religion was largely absent from her 2006 bid for governor, Johnson said.

"She steers and guides her life by her faith," said Johnson, a Lutheran who didn't know Palin before the book. "But my feeling was that she steers and guides her leadership as governor by the Constitution."

But Johnson did note that Palin wants people to remember her administration for two things: putting Alaskans first and seeking God's will for the state.

Some who know Palin personally say her faith doesn't dominate her political decisions.

"She doesn't run the state off of God's word or out of her own religion," said Kim Ketchum, who played high school basketball with Palin and does not consider herself religious. "She's a Christian, but she follows the law and upholds the Constitution."

Palin's supporters say those who seek to poke holes in the governor's spirituality, like cartoonist Pat Oliphant who drew her speaking in tongues, will likely inflame evangelicals.

"It's a point to rally around," said Tom Minnery, senior vice president for government and public policy at Focus on the Family.

"She's absolutely unashamed of her faith," Minnery said. "And she is from the heart of evangelicalism, a Bible church. There are just millions of evangelicals who know how to place her because of that church connection."

Palin was baptized Roman Catholic. When her family settled in Wasilla, Alaska, in the 1970s, they found only a handful of churches.

Palin was baptized into the Wasilla Assembly of God church at age 12. A Pentecostal denomination, Assemblies of God share most basic Protestant beliefs. Some are also known for speaking in tongues, faith healing and prophecy.

Palin governs a state where 60 percent of the population is not religious, according to a 2000 study by the North American Religion Atlas. Some experts said the grandeur of the surroundings in a frontier like Alaska can lead some to feel spiritually fulfilled without organized religion.

"People are more driven by economic aspirations than they are by religious commitment," said Patricia O'Connell Killen, director of the Center for Religion, Cultures and Society in the Western United States in Tacoma, Wash. "You have fewer people involved with religious institutions out there, but the ones who are involved tend to be pretty highly committed."

Interest in Palin's faith has brought a deluge of attention to churches she has attended, some of which have responded by closing ranks.

Leaders at Wasilla Assembly of God, where Palin attended until 2002, have declined interviews, and comments Palin made at the church this year have come under scrutiny. Palin asked that graduates of a ministry program pray that troops in Iraq are being sent on a "task that is from God."

"That's what we have to make sure that we're praying for," she said. "That there is a plan, and that plan is God's plan."

Some reports quoted Palin saying the war was "God's plan." But religion experts said those comments have been misunderstood.

"That is shorthand for saying 'Pray that our choices are aligned with God's larger purposes for the welfare of creation,' " Killen said. "It is used by many, many, many Christians in the United States as code language for saying 'I could be wrong, we could be wrong.' "

The Palins split their time between Juneau and Wasilla and attend several churches in Alaska. At home, they go to the nondenominational Wasilla Bible Church, which teaches that the Bible is inerrant, meaning that it is inspired by God and that all of its teachings and stories are literally true.

On a typical Sunday, Wasilla Bible draws 1,000 people. The pastor, the Rev. Larry Kroon, places great emphasis on Scripture and recently read the entire Gospel of Mark aloud to the congregation.

Theirs is not a political church, Kroon said.

"We take a position that you leave your campaign pins and everything else at the door," he said.

But make no mistake, many members of the faith community near Wasilla are pulling for her. The Rev. Paul Riley, Palin's childhood pastor, gets excited to see the little girl from his church on a national stage. Now retired, he and his wife attend a community church closer to where they live, which keeps Palin close at heart.

"They had a special prayer for her that first Sunday," Riley said. "The church is continually encouraging people to pray for her."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Sherri Day can be reached at sday@sptimes.com or (813)226-3405.

Palin's faith public, but not official, those who know her say 09/22/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 25, 2008 3:07pm]
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