Palin’s Witch-Hunting Pastor, Politics and Public Health

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Palin’s Witch-Hunting Pastor, Politics and Public Health

Scott Swenson

Dismiss talk of witch-hunters as fringe wing-nuttery at your own risk -- public health advocates know better after dealing with witch-doctors and AIDS. The challenge is distinguishing the good witches from the bad.

As a native Kansan, I know the importance of distinguishing good witches from bad witches.  It is a skill that comes in handy when dealing with any religion — Pagan, Christian, Muslim, Jew, or any other. There is good and bad within us all.

As more information comes out about Gov. Sarah Palin’s very close relationship with Kenyan Bishop Thomas Muthee, in large part because of the excellent reporting of Max Blumenthal, it is important not to dismiss his claims about witch-hunting as simple superstition, or even fringe wing-nuttery.  This world view strikes a chord with far too many people to be dismissive of it — people who don’t take the time to distinguish good witches from bad, or good Christians from bad — but who see their beliefs as the only good and everyone else as evil.

Blumenthal writes of attending services at Wasilla Assembly of God Church earlier this week, where Bishop Muthee presided:

On the first night of services, Muthee implored his audience to wage
"spiritual warfare" against "the enemy." As I filmed, a nervous church
staffer approached from behind and told me to put my camera away. I
acceded to his demand, but as Muthee urged the church to crush "the
python spirit" of the unbeliever enemies by stomping on their necks, I
pulled out a smaller camera and filmed from a more discreet position.
Now, church members were in deep prayer, speaking in tongues and
raising their hands. Muthee exclaimed, "We come against the spirit of
witchcraft! We come against the python spirits!" Then, a local pastor
took the mic from Muthee and added, "We stomp on the heads of the

Roe is gone. The chaos is just beginning.

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I wonder who they think the enemy is, given this happened this week? And why, if their cause is just and righteous, would such secrecy be required? Why such control over access to information if in fact the mission is to save people from "the enemy"?

We’ve seen first hand what happens when people of science assume that ordinary Americans will see the facts of a given situation and come to a common sense conclusion. We’ve seen what happens when people of faith turn their back in judgment on the sick, or how people desperate to believe anything, often will.

For the first 25 years of the AIDS pandemic, many fundamentalist Christians damned the sick instead of comforting them and claimed the disease was God’s curse on homosexuals. People like the Rev. Fred Phelps, also a Kansan, still hold true to these beliefs, with his "God Hates Fags" protests, even as Pastor Rick Warren puts a kinder, gentler face on the homophobia within the Evangelical movement by championing AIDS advocacy while still distancing himself from gays.

In Africa, public health experts are stuck laboring between the rock of the far-right’s abstinence-only failures mandated by social conservatives in Congress, and the hard place of traditional medicine and local customs of witch-doctors that claimed to have cures for AIDS. These witch-doctors claim to have the ability to pray it away, and teach that having sex with virgins would cure a man who had contracted HIV.  Is it any wonder why young women and girls are the primary victims of this warped thinking?  Try to talk common sense about integrating reproductive health and HIV prevention services to empower women enabling them to better negotiate sex within marriage, and even a medical doctor like Sen. Tom Coburn objects, based not on medical facts, but on his personal religious belief turned into government policy called PEPFAR.

Today, the United States Department of Health and Human Services will close public commenting on a proposed regulation that could allow trained medical staff to ignore accepted medical science and determine, based solely on individual personal religious belief, what services they will provide.

The substitution of personal ideology for accepted medical science is akin to legitimizing the beliefs of witch-doctors who claim to cure AIDS, and perpetuates the pattern of denying medical science and proven public health strategies in favor of far-right belief.  

But here’s where it gets tricky.

Many studies demonstrate the mind’s amazing capacity to accelerate the body’s healing. Jon Kabat Zinn’s excellent book, Coming to Our Senses, is all about the healing power of meditation combined with western medicine as tested in cancer patients, with control groups, and the evolution of humanity’s greater intuitive healing abilities. Additionally, traditional medicine of indigenous peoples in many parts of the world, based on the rich biological diversity of earth, hold cures to many diseases. But climate change and corporations seeking patents threaten traditional healers who passed knowledge free for thousands of years because they cared about people.

We have power within us, through our own ability to use our minds, to reduce stress, make wiser choices, and tap into healing abilities of the body and the earth that science is still discovering. Many of these "new" methods are coming from traditions thousands of years old, and in some cases the very witch-doctors that many want to dismiss. Again, there are good witch-doctors and bad.

The question then becomes: with all we are learning about the power of our minds, why do so many people fail to use them, especially when it comes to distinguishing good witches from bad?

Remember, in the end, my dear friend Dorothy, learned from Glenda the Good Witch of the North that she always had the power to leave Oz and return to Kansas, within herself.

It is easier to project evil, our dark shadow side, onto people we don’t know, or onto circumstances that seem unfamiliar. Change or crisis, especially in complex times, is a fine time to find scapegoats and shirk personal responsibility for our own actions. It is easy to take the fear we experience and externalize it. She’s good, he’s bad. Good side of town, bad side of town. Good values, bad values. Good church, bad church. We all do it — we all create our own evil.  As a political motivator that fear of "other" becomes an amazingly powerful tool.

Yes, there are witches, and many of them are very good, just like Christians, Muslims, Jews and others.  They work with all the healing gifts of nature that the earth and God put forth.

Then, like any religion, there are people who will pray over you, and prey on you, take your money, spin a good tale and bring you into their world, using their power to manipulate and control you rather than helping you tap into your own wisdom. There are people who will weave amazing conspiracy theories about the creation of diseases like AIDS and persuade others that proven prevention methods, like condoms, are evil, or that the medications themselves are the cause of the disease and should be rejected. 

One would hope in such complex times that we could rely on our government as a neutral arbiter of such information, to help citizens suffering with any disease to know what is best for them to do. But in South Africa, one of the nations hardest hit by AIDS, President Thabo Mbeki buried his head in the sand and for years gave credence to AIDS deniers, thus slowing proper response to the pandemic. Many in his own government, not to mention his predecessor Nelson Mandela, applied pressure for Mbeki to awaken to the reality of AIDS and deal with it as the public health crisis it is.

It seems impossible to imagine that a president of any modern country could look at the medical facts, as presented by the best and brightest minds in the world, and ignore them.

Then again, Ronald Reagan did. Fundamentalist Christians and the politicians who wanted to mobilize the far-right kept him from even uttering the word AIDS even has his friend Rock Hudson suffered, as the disease began its rampant spread. The far-right’s condemnation of gay people contributed to the spread of AIDS while the gay community rallied to care for those afflicted regardless of orientation, and led the nation in accelerating attention to the disease, and demanding action. Who were the moral actors then? Who are they now?

John McCain and Sarah Palin support government sponsored and religiously motivated abstinence-only-until-marriage programs over evidence-based comprehensive sexuality education. Those programs expose teens to undo risks, as a matter of government policy.  They would likely retain many of the far-right ideologues in the Bush Administration who are promoting the new HHS rule putting narrow fundamentalist Christian ideology over medical facts.

In many ways, the triumph of ideology over science is the story of every age, as some people in society evolve to new ways of thinking, while others are left behind to customs that future generations will refer to as "traditional medicine."  Ideology may triumph in the US, but the rest of the world will move forward into a bio-tech age, and look on our ways as quaint local customs the way many Americans now view witch-doctors.

Palin claims Bishop Thomas Muthee, the witch-hunter, helped make her way politically, and given her meteoric rise, it is hard to dismiss that something other than the power of her ideas and experience is propelling her. Could it be pure ideology?

The question for Bishop Muthee is, can he tell the difference between a good witch and a bad witch? The question for all Americans is, recognizing that there is good and bad in every faith tradition, should we really abandon religious freedom, pluralism, and reason for a narrow ideology a few would like to impose on all?

The video below is from Bishop Muthee in May of 2005 and was removed from the Wasilla Assembly of God web site when John McCain announced Sarah Palin as his running mate, but has recently resurfaced. Palin comes in at about 7:30 after Muthee outlines why religion and politics should be mixed.