Sarah Jones over at PoliticusUSA has posted a piece attempting to decode Sarah Palin’s odd repetition of the phrase, “I have that fire in my belly” in an interview on Greta van Susteran’s “On the Record,” explaining (with help from an accompanying video put together by Leah Burton) that Palin’s use of this phrase connects to the theocratic dominionist leanings of her old Wasilla Assembly of God church home. Unfortunately, Jones is simply trying too hard. Are the Miami Heat a group of Christian dominionists? After all, they have that “fire in their belly” too. Is Sam Keen’s book, Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man somehow a front for dominionism also? After all, the phrase is in the very title of his book, indicating that he’s very covertly trying to push a theocratic agenda. At least we can be sure that the LA Dodgers weren’t pushing the dominion agenda for one game against the Marlins this year. As for whether the Dodgers will be pushing for theocracy in their other games? I guess they might be—just like former Democratic candidate for Illinois Lt. Governor Scott Lee Cohen.
The phrase “fire in the belly,” as it turns out, has nothing to do with dominion theology (nor is it a common buzzword in dominion circles, although “fire” itself often has a technical sense within Pentecostalism). Rather, it’s a common turn of phrase that has been in use since at least the late 19th Century, meaning:
“An unquenchable thirst for power or glory; the burning drive to win a race or achieve a goal. As a political phrase, the expression is usually used to indicate a Presidential candidates’ desire to win, particularly the willingness to endure the long contest. It first appeared in print in 1882, in an essay by Robert Louis Stevenson, in which he compared historians Thomas Carlyle and Thomas Babington Macaulay. The source of the expression is not known. Perhaps this metaphor for ambition comes from stoking a potbellied stove or from the fiery sensation of heartfelt heartburn.” (From William Safire, Safire’s New Political Dictionary [Random House, New York, 1993], 249–250.
It’s used all the time in sports (as the above links demonstrate), and it has a long history within politics as well. Do those videos of Wasilla Assembly of God make use of the term? Sure. But they’re using a common and long-established term, mixing its typical meaning of a burning drive for achievement with the idea of the fire of the Holy Spirit driving them to do God’s will. The odds that Palin’s use of the term (in its more common political context) were her way of delivering a coded message that she is trying to establish a Christian theocracy in America is highly unlikely. Using the terms of my own field, the “intertextual volume” is low here, owing to the commonness of the phrase in question. It is quite simply far more likely that she was just using (and overusing, as is her tendency) a trite cliché referring to the desire to run for political office. I doubt Palin was even at any of those services, and since this isn’t exactly a dominion buzzword or technical terminology (contrary to what these bloggers are suggesting), the simplest solution should be preferred. Leah Burton, Sarah Jones, and the others pushing this are simply grasping at straws. Why they would feel the need to overreach like this with such an easy target as Sarah Palin is beyond me.
Just to be clear: I’m in no way defending Palin, whose anti-intellectual, soundbite-driven, empty populism is bad for the USA. As a friend recently put it: “Sarah Palin strikes me as a Mary Kay woman who made it big”—not the kind of person we need informing our nation’s decisions (nothing against Mary Kay folks, they’re just not the first place I’d go looking for political wisdom). It would really be better for everyone if she’d get out of politics altogether and try to get her own house in order. Nor am I defending dominionism (which I address here and here). But this kind of looking to make every common and innocuous phrase into some sort of coded reference to some secret conspiracy is unacceptable and counterproductive. It is no better than the sort of empty rabble-rousing practiced by demagogues like Palin, seizing on a simple turn of phrase to stir up fear. As the 2008 election showed, Palin’s inadequacies are displayed easily enough once policy matters have to be discussed in any depth beyond populist soundbites. It’s better to focus on the actual issues at hand and why some solutions are better than others rather than digging for (and inventing) this kind of unproductive junk.