ANCHORAGE — In June, long before she was selected as the Republican nominee for vice president, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin attended a religious gathering at the Wasilla Assembly of God, her former church.
Standing on stage and speaking to the college-aged graduates of the church's Master's Commission ministry, the governor reminisced about growing up in the fellowship — "getting saved here, getting baptized by Pastor Reilly in Little Beaver Lake Camp" — while urging the new disciples to help fulfill the church's mission, as well as certain destinies for America and Alaska.
Pray for the construction of the $30 billion natural gas pipeline, Palin told them. Pray for the military men and women overseas, "that our leaders, our national leaders, are sending (U.S. soldiers) out on a task that is from God. That's what we have to make sure that we're praying for — that there is a plan and that that plan is God's plan."
Later, senior pastor Ed Kalnins — with Palin standing at his side — spoke about tapping into Alaska's natural resource wealth in order to fulfill the state's destiny of serving as a shelter for Christians at the end of the world.
"I believe that Alaska is one of the 'refuge states' — come on you guys — in the Last Days," Kalnin said, raising his arm to underscore his point. "And hundreds of thousands of people are going to come to this state to seek refuge. And the church has to be ready to minister to them."
Now that she's been selected as Republican presidential candidate John McCain's running mate, such comments raise questions: What are Sarah Palin's religious beliefs? What churches has she attended and who are her pastors? How have her beliefs played out in her public life in Alaska? And what do they portend for a possible vice-president?
For someone who's been touted nationally as being exactly what evangelical Christians want in Washington, Palin is surprisingly circumspect these days on the subject of religion.
The authorized and recently published biography of her life, "Sarah — How a Hockey Mom Turned Alaska's Political Establishment Upside Down," by Kaylene Johnson, spends a total of three pages on the subject.
McCain-Palin spokeswoman Maria Comella told the Anchorage Daily News on Friday that the candidate wasn't available for an interview. E-mailed questions on religious subjects weren't returned. The New York Times reported Friday that Comella had refused to discuss Palin's religion.
So what's on the record?
Palin considers herself a born-again conservative Christian. As mayor of Wasilla, she once suggested removing books from the Wasilla Public Library that she found morally objectionable. She supports teaching creationism in the public schools, outlawing nearly all abortions (even in cases of rape or incest) and prohibiting same-sex marriage.
After becoming governor 20 months ago, on the other hand, Palin didn't balk at implementing an Alaska Supreme Court ruling that ordered the state to provide the same benefits to same-sex partners it provides to married couples.
And she has yet to advance legislation that insists that creationism, or "intelligent design," be taught in public school science classes whenever biological evolution is taught — as urged by a plank in the official Alaska Republican Party platform.
Nor has she tried so far to eliminate standard sex-education classes in public schools in favor of the abstinence-only programs she prefers.
That Palin hasn't yet pushed a religious conservative agenda isn't surprising, said state Rep. Beth Kerttula, a Juneau Democrat and House Minority Leader. So far the governor has been consumed with the complex and contentious legislation involving oil taxes and a proposed natural gas pipeline.
"She really didn't have much opportunity" to push a social agenda, Kerttula said. Should Palin return to Juneau and not go to Washington, Kerttula said she expects the governor to focus on cultural and religious issues, like creationism and abortion.
Legislative allies have also been active.
Not least of all the elder from her own church who Palin chose to fill the seat vacated last winter by Rep. Vic Kohring, R-Wasilla, who's now serving three and a half years in prison for bribery, conspiracy and attempted extortion as part of the federal crackdown on Alaska political corruption.
His replacement is Wes Keller, one of 10 elders in the Wasilla Bible Church and one of three candidates on a short list that was submitted to Palin by state Republicans. Another of the three finalists, Keller said, was also a member of the church.
Keller said he got to know Palin when she and her husband, Todd, joined the Wasilla Bible Church in 2002. He thinks his appointment to the House seat probably had more to do with his own community achievements than his membership in the church.
But his track record so far has pleased the religious right. In the recent legislative session, Keller sponsored a bill to make performing late-term "partial birth abortions" a felony. He also introduced legislation sought by the Alaska Family Council that requires all state-funded public libraries to install filters to protect kids from "inappropriate" material.
Eventually he hopes to advance a bill mandating that intelligent design be taught alongside evolution, Keller said Friday. He also favors providing public funds to parents seeking private education through some kind of voucher system.
Palin doesn't attend his church that often, Keller said — he sees her maybe a half dozen times a year.
"She isn't presumptuous. She'll often come in a little late and leave a little early."
But he's convinced her faith is genuine. "I would say she has a servant's heart... I believe that she has purpose."
Born in Sandpoint, Idaho., in 1964 to Chuck and Sally Heath, Sarah moved to Alaska with her family when she was only a couple months old. Her father taught science in high school. Her mom worked as a secretary.
According to Johnson's biography, Sarah and her three siblings were each baptized into the Roman Catholic Church as infants. Later their mother gravitated toward the Wasilla Assembly of God — a Pentecostal church that emphasizes a personal relationship with Christ — and introduced the faith to her family when her children were still young.
"With or without her husband, Sally bundled up the kids and took them to church every Sunday for morning and evening services and most Wednesdays too," Johnson writes. "As a little girl, Sarah sat through services fidgeting, staring at her shiny shoes and smoothing her skirt.
"Over time, however, she began to notice that the words being spoken from the pulpit seemed directed not just to the general congregation but specifically to her. She found, too, that the music lifted her spirits in a way that nothing else did. And she discovered that when she prayed, she felt the presence of something far greater than herself."
At the age of 12, Sarah joined her brother and two sisters in getting baptized into the Wasilla Assembly of God by pastor Paul Reilly, a family friend. Later, as a basketball star at Wasilla High School, she would become the leader of the high school's Fellowship of Christian Athletes, writing Bible verses in her friends’ senior yearbooks.
'WE'RE JUST A COMMUNITY CHURCH'
By all accounts, Palin has been an observant evangelical Christian ever since — through college (attending five separate schools before graduating from the University of Idaho with a degree in journalism). Through the early years of her marriage to Todd, her high school boyfriend (in an elopement to a Palmer court house). Through the births and baptisms of Track, Bristol, Willow, Piper and Trig. But the church the Palin family attends these days apparently varies. And the differences tell a tale.
In 2002, Palin and her family shifted their allegiance from the Wasilla Assembly of God to the non-denominational Wasilla Bible Church, a move that coincided with Palin’s run for lieutenant governor, her first bid for a statewide office.
From its very modest origins, with only a few families 30 years ago, the Wasilla Bible Church has since grown into a fellowship that now hosts up to 1,000 parishioners a Sunday, according to senior pastor Larry Kroon, the church's first and now senior minister. They meet in an unadorned boxish building on the gravelly edge of the Parks Highway at the northwest end of town.
"We’re just a community church," said Kroon, a West Anchorage High graduate who later earned a degree in religious studies at Seattle Pacific University. "We weren't trying to follow some trend. We’'e not trying to lead a parade."
The same goes for the Palins whenever they attend, he said.
"When they come in here, it's 'Todd' and 'Sarah' and that's just it — I really don't take their faith into the public arena for comment," Kroon said. "I value all our politicians, (our) public servants.... I don't care if it's Obama, Biden, McCain or Palin. I think it's a noble thing to step into that arena."
The same sentiment isn't always apparent at the Palins' former church, the Wasilla Assembly of God — where its current pastor, Kalnin (who took over for the retiring Reilly in 1989) has publicly inveighed against Democrats while offering thinly veiled support for President Bush. In a sermon recorded in 2004 Kalnin doubted the chances that John Kerry supporters would ever get into heaven.
"I'm not going to tell you who to vote for," he said. "But if you vote for this particular person, I question your salvation — I'm sorry."
The Wasilla Bible Church has made waves as well. Two weeks ago, a guest speaker, David Brickner — a conservative Christian who condemns the Jewish faith and tries to convert its adherents through his Jews for Jesus ministry — suggested that terrorism in Israel is God's judgment against Jews.
The McCain campaign has acknowledged that Palin was in the audience. But in a press statement , campaign spokesman Michael Goldfarb said the governor did not know Brickner would be speaking, and Palin does not share the views he expressed.
"She and her family would not have been sitting in the pews of the church if those remarks were remotely typical," Goldfarb said.
Since winning her race for governor in 2006, Palin has also attended a large Pentecostal church in Juneau — the Juneau Christian Center. She's also worshiped at the Church on the Rock, a sprawling mega-church in Wasilla.
All four fellowships the family has attended appear to have one trait in common: They all insist on the inerrancy of the Bible. Their pastors preach that scripture is literally God's spoken word.
Launching into a discourse on the purpose of man earlier this year, Juneau Christian Center pastor Mike Rose touted the Genesis version of creation while dismissing Darwin's theory of evolution, which some Christian faiths are willing to accept.
Rose strongly disagrees with denominations that interpret passages in the Bible figuratively rather than literally.
"If you really want to know where you came from — and happen to believe the word of God, that you are not a descendant of a chimpanzee — then this is what the word of God says," Rose said in a sermon recorded in April. "I believe this version."
David Pepper, the senior pastor at Church on the Rock — where the Palins occasionally worship in Wasilla — takes his Christianity one step further, arguing that the purpose of the United States is to glorify God.
"This nation is a Christian nation!" Pepper said last fall in a recorded sermon. "God will not be mocked! I don't care what atheists say! God will not be mocked!... Judgment Day is coming. Where do you stand?"