Sorry Sarah Palin, Holy Rollers and Rock 'n Roll Don't Often Mix

In her speech endorsing Republican primary candidate Donald Trump, Sarah Palin linked "Holy Rollers" and "rock 'n rollers." Leaving the politics of the endorsement and analysis of the speech itself to the political pundits, Palin's linking of a particular brand of religion with rock 'n roll was more than a clever turn of phrase. Palin brought together two elements of American history that were once at cross purposes. For some religious groups in the U.S., rock still poses dangers for the religious. Whether Palin coupled the two knowing she swam against the current of her own religious tradition is probably beside the point: she aims to appear part of particular religious milieu, but feels no apparent obligation to be well-informed about it.

"Holy Rollers" refers to a particular form of Christianity, the Pentecostal tradition, which came out of the Holiness movement over a century ago. The name "Holy Roller" was coined as an insult -- opponents of the movement derided members as religious enthusiasts, who allegedly rolled around on the floor as part of their overly-emotional and therefore suspect worship services. Neither Pentecostal nor evangelical Christians generally self-describe as "Holy Rollers." A century ago when the name was coined, they were attacked even by their fellow Christians for their perceived extremism. Following in a Baptist tradition, they took the somewhat unusual path of baptism through full immersion. Pentecostalists spoke in tongues among other unconventional religious practices. Like a number of other Christian churches, Pentecostals abstained from alcohol, smoking and dancing. Sarah Palin has attended a succession of churches broadly within this tradition, so presumably she intended the "Holy Roller" moniker to be self-referential.

The coupling attracts attention for its alliterative quality, its repetition. She may have been influenced by the recent news reports of the deaths of various aging rock stars -- David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Dale Griffin -- wanting to capitalize on the widespread mourning of these artists. To the extent that they appeared in a list intended to be all-encompassing, Holy Rollers and rock 'n rollers served as a final coupling, suggesting a range of possibilities for the identity politics of Palin's auditors. With the comment read this way, Palin suggests that everyone can support Trump, whether members of some of the more conservative churches or fans of rock music. People who once backed the "ban the Beatles" campaign can join hands with the descendants of the Beatles' admirers who hated to see their albums burned in bonfires at those pro-Christian and anti-Beatles rallies of 1966. This animosity, far from dead, returned to public view when evangelical Pat Robinson recently reasserted the idea that some rock music was satanic and sinful. (He did not, apparently, go on to describe Bowie as descended to hell to perform for Satan, as was further reported. See this correction.)

Given the recent reboot of the traditional evangelical Christian hostility toward rock, it's hard to imagine that Palin was unaware of the history of her faith's relation to this musical tradition or the culture style that accompanied it. Clearly the family doesn't care that their religion once proscribed dancing, since her daughter twice competed on Dancing with the Stars, once with her celebrity mother in attendance to cheer her on. For many, even in the more conservative Christian Churches, rock -- once associated with rebellion, with "drugs, sex and rock 'n roll" -- has become mainstream, indeed middle aged. Whether Palin simply liked the sound of her phrasing or knew she was challenging her tradition's disquiet with rock music may be immaterial: Palin, like Trump, wants to reach an amorphous group of voters who like their religion boisterous and, apparently, their music edgy. Meanwhile, the people most likely to be writhing on the floor are not the Pentecostalists but those for whom the idea of a Trump presidency is anathema.