I have a new essay up on CNN today reacting to Sarah Palin’s “forced baptism” remarks. In it, I link her most recent comment and her use of “blood libel” back in 2011 (after the Giffords shooting) to the history such words invoke (or evoke, depending on intention).
One thing that startles me is that so many people respond to Palin’s line using the word “joke.” She’s not laughing. The crowd doesn’t laugh. They cheer their appreciation. I see no evidence that this is a joke; rather, it’s a tell, a reveal of her worldview.
Lots of people (there are links in the piece) are worried about the blasphemy here. I’m not. For me, this is about militant Christianity and its perils.
I’m an historian. While people of faith such as the National Religious Campaign against Torture are concerned about blasphemy, I worry about history. When powerful Christians such as Palin start speaking about forced baptism to a cheering throng, they evoke, intentionally or not, some of the worst episodes in Christian history. Here’s one.
On Valentine’s Day 1349, the citizens of Strasbourg, Germany, rose up against the Jewish population of their city. The Chronicle of Mathias of Neuenburg describes it as follows:
“And so, on the following Saturday (February 14), the Jews were conducted to the cemetery to be burnt in a specifically prepared house. And 200 of them were completely stripped of their clothes by the mob, who found a lot of money in them. But the few who chose baptism were spared, and many beautiful women were persuaded to accept baptism, and many children were baptized after they were snatched from mothers who refused this invitation. All the rest were burnt, and many were killed as they leaped out of the fire.”
This is just one of the many examples of forced baptism of Jews and Muslims under threat of massacre. Notice the specifics. The Jews were forced into a building, stripped, robbed and burned alive. Their only pathway out was through baptism and rape. As parents died, babies were taken from their mothers to be baptized.
So there’s the brutal history that her rhetoric evokes. It doesn’t matter to me whether she knows it, though I know she comes from an apocalyptic religious tradition that believes we are in the last days, whatever her personal belief.
Writing this piece was a little scary. I try to write with empathy for my subjects, even Jenny McCarthy and those who believe her. I try to explain the world from inside my subject’s world view, to point out problems, but never to directly call out.
This, however, is the best call out I can muster, based in history, written in anger, published with some fear for the personal consequences (I really don’t want thousands of pro-Palin hate emails), and more fear for the divisions of my country.
And if you think it would be best just to ignore her, I agree. But look at the tens of thousands of cheering fans, sure they are on her side in the us-v-them existential binary that she creates with her work. They aren’t ignoring her.
We can’t either.
More to come on this as needed in the next few days, especially on American apocalypticism from the right wing.