As the scrutiny of Palin's religious views begins in earnest–here's CNN's take on Anderson Cooper last night–it's important to understand the Alaska context in which evangelicals like her operate. Alaskans may seem like rednecks in mukluks, but religiously they are a much better fit with the rest of the Pacific Northwest than with the redneck South. Their rate of religious affiliation is low. According to the North American Religion Atlas (data base developed by the Polis Center as part of the Greenberg Center's regions project), 60.2 percent of Alaskans are religiously unaffiliated or uncounted, putting them in close proximity to Washingtonians (62 percent) and Oregonians (65 percent) but far away from, say, Oklahomans (30 percent). And whereas over half the population of Oklahoma is affiliated with an evangelical church, in Alaska less than 15 percent are.
What this means is that Alaska's evangelicals constitute a distinct subculture if not the kind of self-conscious counterculture that characterizes them in the rest of the Northwest. Nowhere else in the country are evangelicals so skeptical of environmentalism, which in Oregon and Washington has acquired the status of a civil religion in and of itself. (For more on this, see chapter 10 of our new book, One Nation, Divisible: How Regional Religious Differences Shape American Politics.) Under the circumstances, Palin has needed to be circumspect about translating her very conservative social views into either electoral politics or governance. She may have wanted to get immoral books removed from the Wasilla library shelves, but her tentative effort to do so failed. She'll ask fellow evangelicals to pray for a gas pipeline but not Alaskans at large. Wedge politics based on a religious right agenda requires considerable delicacy in Alaska.
Abortion, the premier religious right issue, is the most notable case in point. Alaska is a pro-choice state by a considerable margin; a 2005 state-by-state survey ranked it as the 32nd most pro-life state, with 58 percent of Alaskans describing themselves as pro-choice, as opposed to 37 percent pro-life. There's no question that Palin, who makes no bones about it, is about as pro-life as a politician can get, opposing abortion in all cases except to save the life of the mother. But open anti-abortion politics is not a winner in Alaska. In her gubernatorial campaign against pro-choice Tony Knowles two years ago, her campaign insisted that she would not advocate for her anti-abortion views, and in fact she's been very gingerly in pushing for anti-abortion legislation as governor.
No doubt, Palin will be asked about her views on abortion by ABC's Charlie Gibson on the road in Wasilla this week. My guess is that she will, as she did in Alaska, enunciate her pro-life position and then accuse her opponents of using abortion to divide Americans. ("Tony Knowles is working to divide Alaskans by making abortion an issue," her spokesman told the Juneau Empire in 2006.) It's called having your cake and eating it too, and it's pretty good politics in a country that's exactly as pro-choice as Alaska is.
(Originally posted at Spiritual Politics)