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Sarah Palin compared waterboarding to baptism, and Christians are furious

Sarah Palin has drawn fire from some of her supporters on the Christian right.
Sarah Palin has drawn fire from some of her supporters on the Christian right.
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Speaking at the National Rifle Association convention over the weekend, former Alaska Governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin created a stir by comparing a sacred Christian ritual with a form of torture.

"Oh, but you can't offend [America's enemies], can't make them feel uncomfortable, not even a smidgen. Well, if I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists," she said.

To anyone who doesn't understand how baptism works, the full significance of her statement might be lost. Here is a quick rundown of what exactly baptism is, and why Palin's statements have some Christians very angry.

What is baptism?

Baptism is a common ritual in the Christian church. Different branches of Christianity do baptism differently — some typically baptize people of all ages, while others only baptize people of a certain age — but the basic idea is that a minister puts water on a person's head or, in some traditions, completely submerges the person as an act representing a new life with God.

What is the meaning of baptism?

Baptism means different things for different branches of Christianity, but a few of the key things the ritual can symbolize include admission into the Christian church, the forgiveness of sins, and the start of a new life with God. It is given special significance in the gospels because Jesus himself is baptized and after his resurrection tells his disciples to baptize others.

What is waterboarding?

Waterboarding is an interrogation technique that simulates the experience of drowning. The victim is usually immobilized on his or her back. A cloth is placed over the victim's face, and water is poured over the cloth. The phrase "water board" is decades old, according to the New York Times, but it became well-known during the War on Terror, when the CIA used it on suspects. Though many call it torture, some, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, have maintained it is not.

So are Palin's remarks that big a deal?

Palin is no longer a politician, and it's clear that it was a joke. That said, she remains a prominent figure on the American right — one who, for example, is called to speak at the NRA national convention. The very fact that she compared an important Christian ritual to a form of punishment and interrogation has drawn the anger of Christian conservatives, even those who have defended her.

"I've long defended Palin against the offensive treatment she's received at the hands of a blatantly biased media, a media that collectively lost its mind the moment she entered the national stage. But that hardly means she must be defended at all times," writes journalist Mollie Hemingway at the Federalist. "Joking about baptism in the context of this aggressive action suggests that we don't think baptism is as life-giving or important as it is."

What's also important is that Palin has often invoked the Bible and Christian teachings in her political rhetoric, calling the US a "Christian nation."

"For anyone to confess Christ as their savior and to compare one of the means of God's grace to a reprehensible act of torture is reprehensible. I hope members of Gov. Palin's local church will explain to her why her remarks denigrate the Christian faith," writes Joe Carter, an editor at the Gospel Coalition. Even while explaining that he's opposed to the views of the "liberal cosmopolitan elite," he also cautions against a "right-wing populist position" like Palin's. "In our attempts to dehumanize our enemy we end up becoming less than human ourselves. It would be a Pyrrhic victory to save civilization and lose our humanity."

Yet another writer also pointed the finger at the crowd that laughed at Palin's joke.

"Even if you don't believe that waterboarding is torture, surely you agree that it should not be compared to baptism, and that such a comparison should be laughed at," says Rod Dreher at the American Conservative. "What does it say about the character of a person that they could make that joking comparison, and that so many people would cheer for it. Nothing good — and nothing that does honor to the cause of Jesus Christ."

With research from Brandon Ambrosino.

Corrected. This article was updated to correct Mr. Dreher's first name. It was also clarified to indicate that the phrase "water board" is decades old and to clarify the meaning of baptism.