HBO’s Game Change Hits, But Sarah Palin Pic Misses Religion

Sarah Palin’s endless political reality show continued this past weekend with the airing of HBO’s Game Change, which focuses on McCain’s choice of Palin as his running mate in the 2008 presidential election. Since 2008, Palin has been in the news, either for making asinine statements, or for her many attempts to capture the hearts and minds of the Fox viewing public. Her latest screed linking President Obama to pre-Civil War slave owners speaks volumes about what she has learned—which is not much.

Based on John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s 2010 bookGame Change the film reveals what no one else apparently has the chutzpah to say: that Sarah Palin was the opening salvo in the the dissolution and destruction of the Republican Party, which is now on painful display in the 2012 election season. McCain’s choice opened the door to the teeming masses of lower- and middle-class Republicans who believed in Sarah Palin, rather than party politics.

Those masses were given form in the Tea Party, essentially resulting in a takeover of the GOP by the very groups it hoped to exploit for votes: evangelicals, tea partiers, and birthers. Today’s candidates have each taken a page from Palin’s playbook, from prayer rallies to makeovers, while Rick Santorum has even bested the former governor by recounting the story of bringing his dead baby home so the family could grieve. Instead of moving into the 21st century, its political gaffes have sent the Republican Party back to the Dark Ages.

What Game Change Misses

It was John McCain’s inability to connect with the religious right, and the need to one-up the historic moment of an African-American presidential nominee, that got the ball rolling. Clearly in need of a conservative Christian on the ticket, and not being the favorite of evangelicals like James Dobson for his previous stances on social issues, McCain decided to tack toward Pentecostals, gaining endorsements from John Hagee and Rod Parsley. Those short-lived fiascoes left him in search of endorsements from prominent Christians.

What Game Change did not show was how Richard Land and others had promoted Palin to McCain, and that she’d been carefully following the discussions of VP candidates, positioning herself so that she would be exposed to the McCain camp. When the call came, she wasn’t surprised. Palin knew it was God’s will because she had maneuvered herself in position to be chosen.

For McCain, at least at first glance, Palin and her family looked like the portrait of Republican “family values,” including her son Trig, born with Down syndrome months earlier. Incidentally, to date Palin has never produced a birth certificate for Trig, and rumors surround her pregnancy. Trig would become a secret weapon on the campaign trail, ensuring that Palin would attract both the pro-life voters and special needs parents to campaign rallies.

Yet McCain had more babies than he bargained for with the pregnancy of Palin’s daughter Bristol. While Game Change depicts Bristol’s distress over her public pregnancy, in hindsight it’s difficult to take the scene seriously. For one thing, Palin put Bristol’s “mistake” out for the highest bidder after the election, becoming a spokesperson for the Candie’s Foundation—a spokesperson for abstinence. After seeing Bristol’s turn on Dancing with the Stars, a People magazine tell-all, and a memoir of “sexual sin” called Not Afraid of Life: My Journey So Far, it’s amazing that the Palins have made a living selling “Family Values” since the 2008 election.

Game Change is at its most compelling in its depiction of Palin turning against the McCain Campaign and pushing the “Pal’n around with Terrorists” refrain at campaign stops. Her canny ability to gin up a crowd with fear and race-baiting is rooted in her deep resentments and religious fears. While McCain tried to push back on Palin, she went relentlessly with this meme, and has continued to deploy it in attacks on the president ever since. Palin’s role as the spokeswoman for “White America” may not have been what McCain wanted, but it did solidify his base, and guaranteed her a multimillion dollar contract with Fox News. It also caused a significant uptick in death threats against now-President Obama, a testament to her appeal among racists and demagogues.

While many will sympathize with the sight of Julianne Moore as Palin curled up on the floor in her robe, let me assure the viewer that Palin is as wily as they come. Her instinct for racially-coded populist speak is extraordinary, and she has only sharpened it since the 2008 election; those latest comments on the Civil War referenced earlier are just a part of the story of how Palin was able to dupe the religious right into embracing her, while pandering to the most dangerous elements in the Republican Party.

Palin is also Exhibit A in why the Republican Party has an enormous problem with women voters. Palin’s abortion stance, her support of Rush Limbaugh in the recent Sandra Fluke scandal, her cries of victimhood on Fox, and her consistent refusal to support women’s rights (other than her own) makes her indistinguishable from any other misogynist Republican candidate, man or woman.

In giving only cursory attention to the role of religion in Palin’s life, Game Change falls short. Depicting Palin and family praying silently, for example, ignores the widely viewed video of Palin being prayed for by Bishop Muthee a prominent member of C. Peter Wagner’s Dominionist group. Similarly overlooked is her connection to Dominionists through her home church, Wasilla Assemblies of God, which continues to play a crucial role in her thinking. It’s why, even now, when cornered by CNN while voting in the Alaska caucus and asked whether she would throw her name into the ring if the 2012 Republican convention were contested, she responded with the words: “anything is possible.”

For those with ears to hear, they would hear the prayers of a woman who is relying on the prophecies about her to carry her forward into the position she still believes is hers: President of the United States. After HBO’s Game Change, the chances of that prophecy coming to pass are dwindling indeed. Still, there’s no doubt that Palin has changed politics and civil discourse indelibly. “Game change” indeed.

Anthea Butler [@AntheaButler] is a Contributing Editor to Religion Dispatches. Her forthcoming book, in’The Gospel According To Sarah: How Sarah Palinin’’s Tea Party Angels are Galvanizing the Religious Right will be out in 2013.