Inside Sarah's Church

In an excerpt from his new book Republican Gomorrah, Max Blumenthal examines the radical beliefs about witchcraft and the “serpent seed” that propelled Sarah Palin into politics.

Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Prior to her nomination for vice president, Gov. Sarah Palin listed her home phone number in Alaska’s Yellow Pages. She was known to spend hours in her local Wal-mart chatting with constituents. When I traveled to Alaska’s Mat-Su Valley, nearly every politically active resident I spoke to had met the governor on at least one occasion. But many of Palin’s acquaintances, admirers and critics alike, described her in a dramatically different light from that in which she presented herself to the American public.

“Oh father, use her to turn this nation around,” Bishop Muthee shouted, his left palm on Sarah Palin’s head, “so that the curse can be broken.”

To those who knew Palin, she was no ordinary hockey mom, but rather an evangelical foot soldier who spearheaded the [conservative Christian] movement’s takeover of local government. Her power base was the Wasilla Assembly of God, a Pentecostal mega-church where she was baptized and spent over 20 years as a member.

Most Pentecostal congregations are socially conservative, particularly those that are predominantly white, but Wasilla Assembly of God was in thrall to a radical Pentecostal trend once denounced by church authorities as heresy. Called the Third Wave, it was rooted in an explicitly anti-intellectual creation myth. According to the Third Wave’s founding father, William Branham, a rural Canadian preacher, Satan had sex with Eve and gave birth to Cain—the so-called “Serpent Seed.” “Through Cain came all the smart, educated people down to the antediluvian flood—the intellectuals, bible colleges,” Branham wrote. “They know all their creeds but know nothing about God.”

Despite opposition from inside the Assembly of God’s hierarchy, Third Wave congregations won droves of adherents by emphasizing charismatic displays of ecstatic release, including practices such as holy laughter (hysterical giggling that supposedly represents the spirit of God flowing through the bodies of believers) and drunkenness in the spirit, where worshippers emulate the experience of intoxication so melodramatically that Charles Bukowski would reel in embarrassment. Faith healing is also central to Third Wave theology; Todd Bentley, an influential Florida-based Third Wave pastor known for his tattoos, body piercings, and pseudo-punk attitude, once attempted to “explode” a man’s tumors by drop-kicking him in the chest. He also kicked an old woman in the face because, he said, “The Holy Spirit spoke to me.” One of Bentley’s mottoes is “Some people snort cocaine, others snort religion.”

Behind the Third Wave’s histrionics lies an aggressive brand of Dominionism focused on purging “demon influence” from entire geographic areas through prayer or more forceful means if necessary. Becky Fischer, a Third Wave youth pastor who gained fame as the anti-hero of the award-winning 2006 documentary Jesus Camp, urged pastors to indoctrinate an army of spiritual suicide bombers to seize control of the country. “I wanna see young people who are as committed to the cause of Jesus Christ as the young people are to the cause of Islam,” Fischer said in the documentary during an unguarded moment. “I wanna see them as radically laying down their lives for the Gospel as they are over in Pakistan and Israel and Palestine and all those different places.”

The Third Wave arrived in Alaska through a “spiritual warfare network” founded by an Anchorage-based Haida Indian named Mary Glazier, who claimed to have converted 60 members of her family, including her formerly alcohol-abusing parents. Seeking a “battle strategy” against the rising tide of sin that consumed her son, who committed suicide in 1990, Glazier tried to gain access to the state’s prison system, a pit of desperation. A young female prison chaplain opposed Glazier’s evangelizing intentions. Glazier responded by branding the woman a witch and began to utter imprecatory prayers. “As we continued to pray against the spirit of witchcraft,” Glazier recalled with glee, “her incense altar caught on fire, her car engine blew up, she went blind in her left eye, and she was diagnosed with cancer.”

Sarah Palin was one of the first members of Glazier’s spiritual warfare prayer circle in Wasilla. According to Glazier, while Palin prayed with her during the early 1990s, “God began to speak to [her] about entering politics.” With Glazier’s encouragement, Palin joined other members of the Wasilla Assembly of God in a takeover of Wasilla’s government. In 1994, Palin won election to the Wasilla City Council and the local hospital board, a victory that resulted in the ousting of her mother-in-law, Faye Palin. During the first meeting of the new Dominionist-dominated hospital board, Palin and her allies passed a resolution (later overturned by the state Supreme Court) banning abortion in all circumstances, including when the life of the mother was in mortal danger.

While Palin served on the Wasilla City Council, a Democrat named Nick Carney befriended her and showed her the ropes. However, when Palin announced her 1996 bid for mayor against Carney, she launched a vicious campaign against her former friend, spewing character attacks utterly foreign to the Mayberry Junction-like atmosphere of Wasilla. “I watched that campaign unfold, bringing a level of slime our community hadn’t seen until then,” recalled Phil Munger, a local music teacher.

In 2000, while serving as mayor, Palin asked her pastor at Wasilla Assembly of God for a copy of a video circulating among members called “Transformation,” produced by George Otis, an evangelical author who once raised money for former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver after the latter’s conversion to fundamentalist Christianity. (Cleaver went on to found the syncretic pseudo-religion of “Christlam” and to design men’s jeans with special codpieces—“Cleaver sleeves,” he called them—that prominently displayed the wearer’s genitals.) In the video, Otis documented the heroism of Pentecostal pastor Bishop Thomas Muthee, who supposedly saved the city of Kiambu, Kenya, from an evil witch named Mama Jane, who reportedly used her otherworldly powers to manipulate top government officials and ordered one death per month by car crash in front of her “divination house.”

According to the film, Muthee organized several weeks of imprecatory prayer against Mama Jane. He led his followers in “spiritual mapping,” a technique popularized at Rev. Ted Haggard’s World Prayer Center that consists of praying around buildings and city blocks occupied by demonic spirits. While cries for Mama Jane’s stoning intensified, the local police arrested the evil witch and ordered her never to return to Kiambu. Almost overnight, a golden era of Christian morality descended on the town, churches sprouted in suddenly vacant bars, and criminal activity evaporated like magic. Or so the story goes.

When a reporter from Women’s eNews traveled to Kiambu to investigate the story, she discovered that Muthee was a fraud. The reporter found Mama Jane still living in the compound from which Muthee claimed to have had her ousted. A 46-year-old woman whose real name was Jane Njenga, Mama Jane is revered by locals for adopting 40 abandoned children, including the mechanic who fixed Muthee’s car. According to Mama Jane, Muthee paraded around town demanding through a megaphone that locals pray for her death, but nothing happened to her. She concluded that Muthee was a con man. “If I am bad, why haven’t people attacked me?” Mama Jane said. “Why haven’t they burnt this building down? That is what people here do to witches.”

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Partly inspired by Muthee’s tall tales, Palin initiated her own spiritual battle in Wasilla. Her target was the Rev. Howard Bess, a local Baptist pastor who had opened the doors of his church to openly gay Christians. Bess, an affable 80-year-old born-again evangelical, had sought refuge in the Mat-Su Valley after infuriating church officials in Anchorage and Santa Barbara, California, with his advocacy for gay rights, which culminated with the publication of his 1995 book, Pastor, I Am Gay. Palin’s allies from Wasilla Assembly of God crusaded to ban the book throughout the valley, ensuring that no bookstore—including the national chain Waldenbooks—dared carry it. Palin personally visited the Wasilla public library twice to request that the librarian remove Bess’s book from her shelves.

“Sarah Palin is a true believer,” Bess told me over coffee at Vagabond Blues, a café 20 miles from Wasilla in the town of Palmer. “She has a dualistic worldview that divides the world into black and white. She sees it as her mission to destroy evil, whether it is gay people, a foreign government she perceives as an enemy, or a political opponent like Obama.”

In 2005, with Palin gearing up for a tough campaign for governor against former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles, Bishop Thomas Muthee paid a special visit to Wasilla Assembly of God to confer his blessing on her candidacy. With Palin seated in the front row, Muthee suggested that Christians like Palin should “invade” government in order to seize the reins of the world’s economy from the “Israelites.” “It’s high time that we have top Christian businessmen, businesswomen, bankers, you know, who are men and women of integrity running the economics of our nations,” Muthee said. “That’s what we are waiting for. That’s part and parcel of transformation. If you look at the—you know—if you look at the Israelites, that’s how they work. And that’s how they are, even today.”

With that, Muthee summoned Palin to the altar for an anointing. Flanked by Ed Kalnins, the new pastor of Wasilla Assembly of God, and another local Third Wave preacher, Phil Markwardt, Palin bowed her head and closed her eyes. “We are asking you in the name of this Valley, make a way for Sah-rah, even in the political arena!” Muthee exclaimed in his raspy, thickly accented voice. While Kalnins and Markwardt gripped Palin’s shoulders, tongue-talking loudly rose from the pews. “Bring finances her way even for the campaign in the name of Jesus!” Muthee shouted, his left palm on Palin’s head. “Oh father, use her to turn this nation around . . . so that the curse can be broken.”

The experience had a lasting impact on Palin. When she returned to Wasilla Assembly of God in June 2008 to address the church’s college-age members, Palin linked Muthee’s anointing to her election as governor. “As I was mayor and Pastor Muthee was here and he was praying over me, and you know how he speaks and he’s so bold. And he was praying, ‘Lord make a way, Lord make a way,’” Palin said, imitating Muthee’s raspy, thickly accented intonations. “And I’m thinking, this guy’s really bold, he doesn’t even know what I’m going to do, he doesn’t know what my plans are. And he’s praying not, ‘Oh, lord if it be your will may she become governor.’ No, he just prayed for it. He said, ‘Lord make a way and let her do this next step.’ And that’s exactly what happened.”

While Palin barnstormed the country as a vice-presidential candidate in late September, Muthee returned to the Mat-Su Valley to address a group from the Wasilla Assembly of God. The Kenyan preacher explained the current relevance of Queen Esther, a Jewish beauty queen who married the king of Assyria and then used her seductive wiles to persuade him to save her people from the evil Haman. The resonance was clear: Palin, the former beauty pageant contestant who had chosen Esther as her biblical role model when she first entered politics, would topple the secular tyrants to lead her people, the true Christians, into the kingdom.

Building toward his climax, Muthee summoned the flock to spiritual warfare, invoking Branham’s “serpent seed” doctrine. “How do you kill a python?” Muthee asked an adolescent boy in the front row. “Step on its neck!” the boy responded almost instantly. “Right,” Muthee replied. “You have to step on the necks of the pythons to crush the enemy.” Then Muthee drew the worshippers to their feet for a prayer that included speaking in tongues:

We come against that python spirit. We come against that spirit of witchcraft as the body of Christ. Right now in the name of Jesus! Ooooh-raba-saka-ta-la. Come on, pray, pray! Raba-sandalalala- bebebebekalabebe. Shanda-la-bebebeka-lelebebe. . . . That’s why we come against all forms of witchcraft. All the python spirits that are released against the body of Christ . . . and bring this nation into the Kingdom.

While the mainstream press generally overlooked details such as Palin’s apparent belief in witchcraft, the [Conservative Christian] movement’s adulation intensified. For them she had received “the anointing,” as former Christian Broadcasting Network director Jim Bramlett said. “I believe Sarah Palin could not have gotten to where she is without God’s backing,” a 20-something male picketer outside an Anchorage abortion clinic remarked to me. “And for whatever reason, God appoints leaders.”

“I do believe she’s anointed for this position,” said another protester, a middle-aged woman. The woman added that because Alaska is shaped like a crown, “I really do believe that Alaska’s called to a key position to cry out for our nation and to lead our nation.”

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Max Blumenthal is a senior writer for The Daily Beast and writing fellow at The Nation Institute, whose book, Republican Gomorrah (Basic/Nation Books), is forthcoming in Fall 2009. Contact him at [email protected].