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Guided by spirit? 

Sarah Palin, a Fort Mill church and controversial Pentecostalism

The grounds of Heritage USA are far from their former glory. A faux castle sits boarded up, like a post-Armageddon Disney World exhibit. Chunks of brick are missing from a nearby tower. The site, a testimony to the failed excesses of 1980s televangelism, bears little resemblance to the popular tourist attraction of the PTL era. But inside the old hotel, people are still praising the Lord. As long-haired musicians, mostly barefoot, play Christian rock on a recent Sunday, worshippers stream in. A younger crowd, they come dressed in the clothing they might wear to Applebee's. Hands are raised and dancing begins, and the music goes on and on.

It's here that MorningStar Ministries, a Fort Mill-based church linked to a Pentecostal movement that emphasizes miraculous healing, divine revelation, prophesy and "spiritual warfare" (including the expelling of demons from cities), has set up shop. Led by founder and prominent Third Wave leader Rick Joyner, MorningStar in 2004 bought part of the former PTL complex and has slowly been redeveloping the grounds. The ministry has congregations in Wilkesboro, Winston-Salem, Wilmington and Boone, but it hasn't received much attention outside the charismatic Christian community.

Until recently, that is. MorningStar has recently been thrust into the secular spotlight for its links to churches attended by vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, whose reticence since accepting the nomination has fueled interest in her background and beliefs. Joyner and church leaders have not commented to media about Palin, and he did not respond last week to requests for comment.

Until 2002, Palin and her family were members of Wasilla Assembly of God, where she still visits and, according to a church statement, maintains friendly ties. In June, she spoke at a graduation ceremony for Wasilla Assembly's Masters Commission students, McClatchy News Service reported. It was then that Palin said, according to a video posted online, that she hoped the war in Iraq is "a task that is from God" and said the success of efforts to build a gas pipeline wasn't likely if "the people of Alaska's heart isn't right with God." It was also at Wasilla where Thomas Muthee, an African cleric and adherent of the Third Wave movement, "prayed over" Palin, according to video available online. Muthee is also on video as having claimed to have driven "the spirit of witchcraft" out of Kiambu, Kenya, resulting in positive social change.

How does Wasilla Assembly tie back to MorningStar? According to the Alaska church's Web site, Masters Commission students have studied at MorningStar, whose ministry and leader have prominent roles in the Third Wave movement.

Joyner, hailed by some as a prophet and derided by others as a heretic, claimed in a 2006 sermon that a last-day Christian army is now gathering. "In time, the church will actually be organized more as a military force with an army, navy, air force, etc." The theme of spiritual warfare and End Times rhetoric is common within the Third Wave movement, which, though nondenominational, has drawn many adherents from Assemblies of God churches. "The tie is the supernatural worldview," said Margaret Poloma, a research professor at The University of Akron and author of The Assemblies of God at the Crossroads: Charisma and Institutional Dilemmas. "For them, God acts, talks, walks with them."

After leaving Wasilla Assembly, Palin joined Wasilla Bible Church, a non-Pentecostal congregation that has hosted the founder of Jews for Jesus as well as workshops geared to curing homosexuality, according to the Web site Talk2Action.org. While in the Juneau, the state capital, however, she attends Juneau Christian Church, which is an Assemblies of God congregation.

It's not known how Palin's religious beliefs would guide her if elected to national office -- Palin isn't saying. Palin has given few interviews since accepting the nomination, but that hasn't stopped several Web sites and blogs, most prominently Talk2Action and The Huffington Post, from trying to discern how the movement and its more fringe beliefs may have influenced Palin, if at all.

Palin's churches have no doubt influenced her worldview, said experts who have studied the Pentecostalism and the Third Wave movement. "It's very hard to generalize this movement because not everybody in that movement thinks these things," said Anthea Butler, assistant professor of religion at the University of Rochester. "However, I think you can talk about Sarah Palin and if you look at the evidence around her, you might be able to say that this is a belief she ascribes to in part. ... You don't let somebody, in these kinds of traditions, lay hands on you unless you're buying into what they're talking about or at least buying into some of it.

"So I think the first thing we might think is, yes, she's a Bible-believing Christian, but she's a certain type of Bible-believing Christian: She believes that God intervenes not just in human affairs but political affairs -- for instance, praying about the pipeline," said Butler. "You can't expect people to leave their faith at the door, if they've made such a public view of it. It's just not going to happen."

Still, some writers may be stretching in attempting to tie her to some of the movement's excesses, Butler said. "There's no way, just because you happen to be at church that Sunday and somebody does that stuff, that you necessarily agree with it."

Much like other evangelicals, Pentecostals have increasingly embraced mixing religion and politics, Poloma said. "What I see happening more and more in the Pentecostal movement is this combination saying, we can do much more politically; we have to do more politically and we're doing it in the name of God," she said. "And I'm just as afraid of them doing it as I am of Islam doing it."

Though scrutiny of Palin's religious belief has come mostly from liberal quarters, criticism of the Third Wave has come from theologically conservative sources who say practitioners attempt to supplant the authority of holy scripture. Assemblies of God leaders have denounced the Third Wave movement, said Clete Hux, a counter-cult specialist for the Apologetics Resource Center. In Joyner's book, The Harvest, Joyner has written that he has had literal conversation with God.

And in an interview available on the MorningStar Web site, Joyner described AIDS as an "obvious example" of God's penalty for homosexuality and said that he admires some anti-abortion extremists: "This is not to justify going to extremes, as they usually do even more damage to the cause than when we are stopped, but I do respect those who are making such great sacrifices for their beliefs."

In 2000, McCain famously denounced some religious right leaders as the "agents of intolerance." Fast forward, Butler said, and he has associated with -- and subsequently distanced himself from -- preachers whose views are controversial. Rod Parsley has called for eradicating Islam, for instance. And John Hagee has called the Catholic Church "the great whore" and a "false cult system."

"To go from Hagee to Parsley to Palin is really interesting to me," said Butler. "What does that mean? And who's influencing him to do that? These are not mainstream evangelical folk. These are folks that have a very sort of interesting viewpoint about what Christianity is supposed to be ... This is not the garden-variety evangelical type, a la James Dobson -- or even Jerry Falwell, for that matter."

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