Alaska Governor Sean Parnell spent the better part of an hour fielding questions about his Christian faith from Catholic teens during last month’s Alaska Catholic Youth Conference (ACYC) in Anchorage.
Invited by Alaska’s Catholic bishops to participate at this year’s ACYC, Parnell accepted and spoke candidly about how faith and political leadership have shaped his life.
Standing before a packed crowd at St. Benedict Church on June 3, Parnell first praised the youth for taking time out of their summer to “learn how to connect with those things that are truly important. Not only for your life but for the life of this state.”
A Protestant Christian with a history of backing pro-life laws and defending religious liberty and traditional marriage, Parnell acknowledged that standing before nearly 300 Catholic teens to talk about his faith was unusual.
“As governor I get a chance to speak in lots of different venues, lots of places,” he said. “But I don’t often get to speak directly to what I’ve been asked to speak to today.”
He began by reminding attendees that his participation at ACYC was an expression of his constitutional rights.
“How many of you have ever heard of the First Amendment?” he asked, before explaining that it contains the guarantee that “you can freely exercise your faith in our great state.”
The second clause of the first amendment is the establishment clause, he noted: “It means that your government cannot establish a religion for the people.”
“I’m going to speak to you today, as the man Sean Parnell who is freely exercising his religion. I’m not attempting to establish a faith.”
From there, the governor opened the gathering up for questions.
“Who has had the greatest influence on your faith?” one teen asked.
Parnell: “I didn’t know it at the time but my dad.”
He explained that his mom was a devout Catholic and that he and his brother were baptized Catholic. His father, however, who was raised Lutheran was not interested in religion, particularly Catholicism.
He said that when he was about eight years old his mom made a difficult decision to attend the Lutheran church in hopes of saving her marriage and wooing Parnell’s father to become actively involved in the family’s faith life.
“He came back to church, and a man befriended him who was a true follower of Christ,” Parnell said of his father’s ultimate return to church.
“He had been kind of an angry, upset man,” Parnell added. “He had a rough childhood. But I saw a complete change in my dad. He lost his anger, there was just a peace and a calm that came over him and that so changed our home life that I saw that following Jesus Christ could be real. That sparked my faith journey. He was one of the most influential men.”
“How does your faith determine decision-making in government?,” another teen asked.
“It means that not only do our founders honor our inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but we actually live that out through policy,” Parnell answered, “and focus on preservation of life and individual liberty rather than government making those determinations.”
One teen asked how the governor keeps his religious beliefs separate from his political determinations. Parnell said he doesn’t.
“You make an assumption that you do, but if my religious belief tells me to be honest and tell the truth because that’s part of Scriptural direction, how can I separate that from what I do?” he observed.
Parnell clarified that he doesn’t “sit in the office and go through scriptural principles in light of the decisions I’m making.” Internally, though, religiously informed moral beliefs are “all part of who I am in my faith and that gets played out in the public arena,” he added.
In response to a question about whether he has a favorite devotion or Scripture, Parnell cited the Psalms.
In particular he listed what some have coined the “Psalms of Accent,” those passages that show King David’s progression from despair to faith.
“If you read those Psalms you can see a progression in your life, from being absolutely without God and without hope,” Parnell said. “But the nearer you draw to him you realize, ‘Wait a minute, I’m valuable, God made me for a purpose, he’s with me.’”
When asked about the biggest threats to religious liberty and the free exercise of religion in Alaska, Parnell said it comes down to “just a lack of tolerance.”
“It really comes down to individual respect,” he said. “I cannot expect somebody to want to live their life the way I live. I want to compel them to do so by how attractive Christ is to me, not by forcing them to do this.”
He added: “I also want the other side — that would like to deprive us of religious liberty — to have that same respect for those of us who will freely exercise our religious beliefs. It comes down to respecting other people.”