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.
8 Replies to “Forced Baptism. Blood Libel. Sarah Palin’s Militant Christianity.”
Hi Chris! If you want to try again without all the ad hominem stuff, I'd be delighted to talk to you. But see the comment policy. Personal insults get deleted.
Hi David. I recently read your article posted on CNN. Freedom of speech is nice when not interpreted wrongly. Her speech was aimed at the terrorists, and then you take it and make it against Christians and their history because she through the word "baptism" in there. This seems to happen anytime a high profile individual or group says something, someone finds a reason to relate it to religion, race, or sexism. Yet if those terrorists were standing infront of you, they would shoot you without a reason. They dont care about what your beleifs are. Do you think they care about the past history of Christians on valentines day? No. They have their own version of the past. That is what is wrong with society today. Someone makes a comment like Sarah Palin did and "look out!!" she is blasting the Christians and baptism. It is a figure of speech, not a reference to an action. We as people have to stop taking everything personally. We also have to stop attacking people for their comments. That is going against freedom of speech and personal opinion. I am not saying I am pro-Palin either. I just think everytime someone says something it shouldnt be taken as an attack or a direct reference.
I am not wanting to offend anyone or make anyone mad. Just stating what I see and how I feel.
Eric – Thanks for commenting. It's a pleasure to read a critical comment that doesn't spend a lot of time insulting me personally. Here are some thoughts.
1. Freedom of speech means that the government can't arrest or penalize you for your speech. That's all it means. It doesn't mean freedom from social consequences for your speech.
2. I'd like to think we're better than the terrorists. I'm not sure why people think fighting crazy people requires us to sacrifice everything that is good about our country. I'm a patriot and I believe we can be the shining beacon on the hill. Doing that requires being better, not worse.
3. In that context, it doesn't matter what the terrorists think about 1349. I know how easily militant Christianity can lead to violence. It's happened repeatedly throughout history. I don't want to see it happen again.
Again, while we disagree, I appreciate your comment very much
But those social consequences always have to revert back to race, sex, or religion. That is the problem. That is because that is the way people want to see them. They just jump at the chance to accuse.
Yes we are better than terrorist. But just cause that is the way someone feels does not mean that is how they would act. And using words as a figure of speech is not a good reason to accuse. Im sure alot of high profile individuals think like that. Some just like to vent a little. And when they do every Tom, Dick and Harry accuses them of something. That entire problem lies within the media. They exploit every comment made and want to run with it. Then it gets activists and group all riled up.
Yes it doesnt matter what the terrorists think. I agree. But what happened in the past does not depict how we act in the future. Yes it might lead to violence, but the system we have today is not even comparable to the past. Yes there are issues with the system, but we have to stop assuming that everytime someone makes a statement like that, that they are going to act on it. If we did that there would alot more arrests, violence, deaths, etc. There are alot of things that can lead to violence. Look at college's when they win a champion ship or loose one also. Winning is a good thing but violence comes of it. Not much we can do other than taking things with a grain of salt.
Eric – Words matter. People say things. People hear them and react. The media is not blameless, but the media didn't make those tens of thousands (100,000? I dunno. It's a big stadium) cheer when Palin advocated torture. If allegedly Christians cheering for torture doesn't bother you, I don't really know what will.
History is full of ridiculous demagogues like Palin who got power or a mob on her side and did terrible things. We ignore them at our peril.
Eric – I doubt very much that Mrs. Palin used the word 'baptism' thoughtlessly. I suspect her words are crafted very, very carefully, each and every time she speaks in public. Much like George W. Bush, she has cultivated a hyper-stereotypical 'redneck' persona. This allows her base to relate to her, seeing her as down-to-earth, godly and simple; while protecting her from any real consequences for her words or actions. As evidenced by the comments on Mr. Perry's CNN piece, many people on the left mock her for being 'dumb', unintelligent or an idiot and then dismiss her, seeing her as no real threat. And while I agree she is no political threat to any liberal, she is still very dangerous. Her words incite, they allow people who hate in secret to feel free and justified to give public voice to their own hate. This is her real objective. Just my 2 cents.
I agree with David. Words are powerful tools. Whether she was referring to "terrorists" or not, why did she pick this particular reference? Zananne is right, she knew exactly what she was doing and that was to invoke hatred!
Hi recent comment poster! I deleted your comment because you were rude. If you try to make the comment again without being rude, I won't delete it. Make arguments, not insults.