(Photo: AP Images / Kiichiro Sato)
John McCain's running mate was raised in a Pentecostal church, has called herself "as pro-life as any candidate can be" and already has energized conservative religious leaders who worried the Arizona senator would choose an abortion rights supporter.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is "straight out of veep central casting," said Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religion Liberties Commission. Land said he urged the McCain camp to consider the political unknown.
Gary Bauer, one of McCain's most enthusiastic evangelical supporters, called it a "grand slam home run" that is "guaranteed to energize values voters."
The 44-year-old mother of five, who led her high school chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, was baptized as a teenager at the Wasilla Assembly of God Church, where she and her family were very active, according to her then-pastor, Paul Riley.
Now, she sometimes worships at the Juneau Christian Center, which is also part of the Pentecostal Assemblies of God, said Brad Kesler, business administrator of the denomination's Alaska District. But her home church is The Church on the Rock, an independent congregation, Riley said.
"The church was kind of a foundation for her," said Riley, who said he gave the invocation at Palin's inauguration and had her address students at the church last month.
Maria Comella, a spokeswoman for the McCain-Palin campaign, said Palin attends different churches and does not consider herself Pentecostal.
As a politician, Palin has sided with the majority evangelical view in opposing gay marriage and expressing a desire to see creationism discussed alongside evolution in schools.
During a 2006 debate, she said she was a proponent of teaching both evolution and creationism in schools. She later clarified her stance in an interview with the Anchorage Daily News, saying that she doesn't think creationism needed to be part of the curriculum and that she would not push the state Board of Education to add such alternatives to the state's required curriculum.
Not only does Palin oppose abortion as a matter of policy, but she chose to give birth to her youngest child, a son, after a prenatal exam indicated Down syndrome. Studies show that about nine in 10 pregnant women who are given a Down syndrome diagnosis have chosen to have an abortion.
"That will resonate in a big way," said Quin Monson, a Brigham Young University professor who studies religion and politics.
Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, who initially said he could not vote for McCain but has since opened the door to an endorsement, called Palin "an outstanding choice that should be extremely reassuring to the conservative base" of the GOP. Dobson added that the ticket "gives us confidence he will keep his pledges to voters regarding the kinds of justices he would nominate to the Supreme Court."
"It's an absolutely brilliant choice," said Mathew Staver, dean of Liberty University School of Law. "This will absolutely energize McCain's campaign and energize conservatives."
Staver called Palin a "a woman of faith who has a strong position on life, a consistent opinion on judges. ... She's the complete package."
A Pew poll last week showed McCain leading Democrat Barack Obama 68 percent to 24 percent among white evangelical Protestants. But there was little enthusiasm: Only 28 percent of white evangelicals call themselves "strong" supporters of McCain, far short of President Bush's numbers four years ago.
Many evangelical leaders said McCain helped himself with a solid performance at Pastor Rick Warren's Saddleback Church, where McCain proclaimed, "I will be a pro-life president."
Mark Silk, who specializes in religion and politics at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., cautioned that while evangelical leaders are praising the Palin pick, it might not necessarily trickle down.
"The question is how this will be received by a lot of rank-and-file evangelicals who are just Americans struggling along, going to their megachurches, and care about values," Silk said.
Some question whether old-guard traditional leaders, like Dobson, hold as much influence as in the past. The evangelical establishment never warmed to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's candidacy, but grass-roots evangelicals contributed to his big win in the Iowa primaries.
Evangelical leaders got worried when McCain floated the possibility of a vice presidential candidate who supports abortion rights, including Sen. Joe Lieberman or former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge.
By choosing Palin, "McCain is saying to social and religious conservatives, 'I'm taking your views incredibly seriously,'" said Michael Cromartie, director of the evangelical studies program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.
AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll contributed to this report.