Why you shouldn't write Sarah Palin off

The rise of Rick Warren and the mega-church Bible Belt has boosted Palin's presidential ambitions.

"Everybody sing ee-oo," declaims the clean-cut thirtysomething at the front of the vast auditorium. Ten thousand Californian voices respond. Over a backing of soaring power chords, the soloist launches into an ecstatic, 1980s-style anthem: "If you're alive and you've been redeemed,/Rise and sing, rise and sing."

Pastor Rick Warren, America's most im­portant religious leader since Billy Graham, emerges from the wings, wearing jeans and a short-sleeved shirt, a trimmed CEO beard and a little more weight than his doctor might recommend. When he speaks, his words are as warm as the Orange County sunshine: the homily is a practical one, advising fathers to pay their children more attention. On gigantic television screens, Jesus on the cross tells John to look after His mother when he dies.

This talent for presenting simple biblical lessons for a suburban age is behind The Purpose-Driven Life, Warren's book detailing his 40-day plan for "Christian living in the 21st century", which is on the shelf of almost every evange­lical household in the US. It has become one of the bestselling non-fiction hardbacks in American history, turning the pastor into a sort of spiritual Oprah, with trademarked books and podcasts and appearances at Wal-Mart. Warren's face has been on the cover of Time; and he was chosen to offer the prayers at Barack Obama's inauguration.

Warren set up Saddleback Church in 1980, selecting the location - Lake Forest, a suburb of McMansions and shopping malls - for its transient but growing population. That first Easter Sunday, 200 attended; Saddleback has since grown into a sprawling, 120-acre campus with an average weekend attendance of 22,000. Once, the stereotype of evangelicals as Southern, rural and poor might have been true. Now, they are far more likely to be college-educated, upwardly mobile professionals.

Sixty miles south of Los Angeles, Saddle-back is one of the mega-churches (those with at least 2,000 congregants) that make up the stretch between LA and San Diego known as the "southern Californian Bible Belt". In its grounds, information booths carry maps directing visitors to several white marquees that offer different styles of worship; there are burbling crystal fountains and a baptismal pool that looks like it belongs in an upmarket spa. The teenagers' area, meanwhile, is deliberately scuffed-looking. It contains a big wall display on Aids in Africa - the issue over which Warren has had his greatest impact on evangelicals.

Aids has largely either been ignored by American evangelical churches or treated as a punishment from God. Warren's views are closely aligned with those of the conventional religious right in many areas - in 2004, he said that stem-cell research was "non-negotiable" and compared abortion to a "holocaust".

Yet, a year earlier, he had attended a church conference in South Africa with his wife, Kay. She was recovering from cancer and was keen to adopt a big cause. "So we went out to this little village and found this tent church," he has said. "It had 50 adults and 25 kids orphaned by Aids." He has since joined the Bono/Bill Gates philanthropy club, despatching 7,500 volunteers from Saddleback to developing countries. "I'll work with anyone to stop Aids - Christian, Muslim, Jew, atheist," he says. "That really makes the fundamentalists mad."

Fresh blood

When I visit his office at Saddleback, David Chrzan, Warren's chief of staff, says that the media are looking to appoint Warren as the fundamentalist-in-chief. "But Rick would say outright that he's not the leader of the religious right. He doesn't want to be," Chrzan says. "The bottom line is that everyone needs a saviour - Republican, Democrat or Tea Partier.

“Over the past two or three decades, the church became so associated with the Republicans. Now, people are saying: 'Hey, we are for the church - we are not just two-issue people interested in homosexuality and abortion.'" In a 2005 survey of evangelical pastors, 51 per cent said that their congregation was predominantly conservative. By 2008, depressed by Bush's unpopularity in his final years, that figure had fallen to 33 per cent.

There is little evidence that evangelicals are any less agitated about abortion, stem-cell research or gay marriage. But since the recession, moral issues have dropped down the priority list. At Saddleback, too much government, not too little, is blamed for California's disastrous financial state. "Government got greedy," a pas­tor in Ray-Bans and a leather jacket tells me, "and started taxing business too much."

Most members seem to whistle the old tunes of the right even as they display new-found concern for Africa's dispossessed. Like the Tea Partiers, they are as dismissive of many long-serving Republicans as they are of Democrats and echo the call for "fresh blood" in Washington. "If Palin becomes a viable candidate, they might see her as one of their own - an evangelical person who might get to the White House," warns Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

So progressives who predict the defanging of the Christian right should remember that we have been here before. Ten years ago, a former heavy drinker who had found Jesus ran for the presidency, promising a compassionate and consensual brand of evangelical politics.

We all know what happened next.

This article first appeared in the 26 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: leader of the Labour party

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
Show Hide image

Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496