On July 11, 2008, Peggy Noonan penned an Op-Ed piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled "A Farewell to Harms" (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124716984620819351.html) and within it she proceeds to detail what she terms the "horrific" train wreck that has been Sarah Palin in the national spotlight. My thoughts are not about Gov. Palin or her political career, but rather Noonan's discourse on who Palin is how she has chosen to portray herself (not how she has been portrayed mind you, but how Palin has chosen to embrace as her character on the national stage).
I respect Noonan's point of view because she is not a hostile commentator. Noonan is most well known as the former speechwriter for the Great Communicator, President Ronald Reagan. She is a passionate Conservative and a keen political mind. This is not a member of the "liberal" media yet again taking pot shots at the soon to be former Governor or her approach to politics. This is a well-respected and revered member of Palin's own team.
My thoughts are also not about Palin's political career or her political beliefs. Rather, my thoughts are about another aspect of how Palin has framed herself as an Evangelical and the impact that Noonan's words (although not intended) on that role and how I view it.
Let me summarize Noonan's thoughts first. Noonan claims that Palin was limited in her ability to explain and defend her positions or in some cases even to know what her positions on some issues was or is. Noonan accuses Palin of using her lack of depth and knowledge as a badge of honor or what she calls, "Evidence of Authenticity." Governor Palin appears to be almost proud of what she lacks as though that aspect makes her more real.
Noonan's harshest and most sustained attacks are on the thoughtfulness of Palin and her approach to leadership and politics. Noonan charges that Palin was simply not thoughtful. She never learned how others think or why. This was not of interest to her in any capacity and in that lack of insight, she could be right without knowing why or how the other side was in turn wrong. Noonan goes so far as to state that Palin wasn't thoughtful enough to know she wasn't thoughtful enough.
A "ponder-free" zone is the charge from Peggy Noonan. And perhaps this lack of thoughtfulness and an unwillingness to dig deep and be both self-critical as well as a critical thinker about the greater issues is somehow a sign of her working class status and her being "just one of us." In addition to debunking the notion that Palin is or has ever been working class, Noonan decries that notion that the working class is who lacks these qualities.
While Noonan clearly is speaking to Palin's political and leadership qualities I was struck by something all together different although one might very well inform the other. As someone who studies the rhetoric of Evangelicals and someone who identifies herself as belonging to a community of believers who identify with the Evangelical community, I think Noonan hit the nail on the head of how too many Evangelicals approach our roles and ideals in the world.
As Evangelicals we have a strong history of anti-intellectualism and an unwillingness to thoughtfully engage in both self-criticism, but also an unwillingness to think critically about the things that we supposedly oppose. We are unwilling to learn why others believe as they do or do not or why people believe or do not at all. We have waged an "us versus them" campaign as a means of persuading people that ours is the side of right and anyone who disagrees is opposed to us. We have not been thoughtful enough to know we are not thoughtful enough.
We have attempted to be the "common man" religious group amongst a field of "elitist" mainline organizations that we perceive has lost spiritual power and so we are the answer to that dry and dull religion by being everything that mainline religion is not. We wear this as a banner of authenticity.
Yet, there is some truth to our heritage. The Pentecostal movement to which I belong as a fourth-generation member of the Assemblies of God had beginnings about as humble as that of Christ himself. Jesus was born in a stable (cave) and placed in a feed trough for animals. The Pentecostal movement was birthed in an abandoned livery stable with the son of slaves with little or no education as its leader. However, I would also argue that over time as the movement grew and developed it took on a more middle-class existence but remained more than willing to remain at a place where we lacked education or a willingness to engage in intellectual thought and contemplation in order that we might wear our lack of engagement as a badge of honor.
I find this a dangerous approach to our faith and our influence. We are living in a time when the up-coming generations of young people are greater questioners and are seeking more insight in to what we claim we believe and here is the big one...why. How do we arrive at our positions and why do we believe what we believe. We must be prepared to give them an answer. In order to engage them, we have to step out of a limited ability to explain and defend our positions and we must know our positions. We have to know how people outside of our community think and why in order that we might engage them appropriately and be able to discourse with them and in turn be persuasive in our engagement.
Thoughtfulness cannot only be about "winning" people over to our side. We must also engage thought and to abandon our "ponder-free" zones in order that we can critically analyze ourselves and our approach to our faith. We must be willing to acknowledge where we have erred and caused harm to the cause of Christ and then move forward to not engage in those errors again. To simply pretend the we have not failed or made a mockery of our Lord in our history through our human action is not only naive it is dangerous. The greatest danger in all of this is the very real possibility that we will repeat those errors either intentionally because we have not learned from them or unintentionally because we have not taken the time to give critical thought to them.
Sarah Palin represents what is the worst that I see not only in politics, but that which I see in another community she aligns herself with: the evangelical community. Her lack of thoughtfulness is not a Conservative political trope, but it is a hallmark of evangelicalism and that is more convicting to me than anything she might do or say politically. While we may have come from humble beginnings it is time to put away childish things and to more fully engage in thoughtful and sustained critique of ourselves, our faith, and our approach to religious engagement. While Peggy Noonan might call this a "time for Conservative leaders who know how to think" from a political and governance perspective, I believe this is a crucial time for believers and evangelical leaders who know how to think and are willing to step out from our anti-intellectual past and to become the thoughtful leaders of a future generation of Christ followers.