Is Sarah Palin The New Leader Of The Christian Right?

I’ve been writing about Sarah Palin since the moment the Council for National Policy blessed John McCain’s selection of her as his running mate. And there’s no question: her cred with the religious right is enhanced by being a woman. But that won’t make her the movement’s new leader — precisely because she is a woman.

At Newsweek, Lisa Miller writes, “The Christian right is now poised to become a women’s movement—and Sarah Palin is its earthy Jerry Falwell.”

That’s a major prediction, and not one that is suggested either by the past or the present. In some ways, the Christian right has always been a movement about women — about what their role is in the family, in the church, and in the culture. That doesn’t make it a women’s movement, and that doesn’t make Palin its leader. The movement’s original sin, if you will, is that it is entirely predicated on the idea that America is a Christian nation and must be guided by biblical principles. And those biblical principles, as defined by the Christian right, preclude things like women’s free agency — choosing when and if to have children, choosing to enter ministry, choosing not to submit to her husband’s spiritual authority, or choosing not to get married and have children at all.

That’s not feminism, and Sarah Palin is not a feminist. Amanda Marcotte dispenses with that myth today at AlterNet. But while Palin’s not a feminist, she is a lightning rod for evangelical and Pentecostal women, because she gave them a fearless — fearless in that she was unafraid so say whatever nonsensical thought popped into her head — leader on the national stage.

Palin’s claim to feminism arose most recently from her speech to the Susan B. Anthony List, which claims to be the religious right’s answer to Emily’s List, the political group that raises money for and supports pro-choice candidates. The Susan B. Anthony List — despite, as Ann Gordon and Lynn Sherr recently demonstrated, no evidence that Anthony was anti-choice and real evidence she eschewed religion in politics — supports anti-choice candidates. Marjorie Dannenfelser, the group’s president, when asked about balancing career and family, doesn’t talk about things like paid parental leave, affordable child care, or equal distribution of housework; she talks about incorporating her five kids into her work — hardly a luxury most working women share or want, for that matter. When asked about how women can get involved in politics, she says:

Women have a uniquely complementary role with men. They see the individuals in the crowd. They’re very good at one-on-one campaigning, very good at grassroots, door-to-door. Then decide if you’re called, and if your husband thinks it’s a good idea too, look for opportunities. As long as you have a servant mentality, something will come up if you’re really called to serve in that way.

That’s not feminism, that’s — in Christian right parlance — a biblical worldview. And any good biblical worldview proponent will tell you that feminism — along with secularism, Marxism, and the rest — are directly contrary to a biblical worldview.

Palin will no more become a leader of the religious right than Dannenfelser will, because Dannenfelser, like Phyllis Schlafly before her, will be lauded but still marginalized by the religious right men. At the 2010 Conservative Political Action Conference, Dannenfelser, along with other anti-choice activists like Americans United for Life’s Charmaine Yoest (who has a PhD, making her far more educated than many male leaders of the religious right) were relegated to a smaller room for their break-out panel on anti-choice activism, while men continued on the stage in the main ballroom. (In fact, the women were talking about a kinder, gentler form of activism while the men were tossing red meat upstairs.) At the Freedom Federation Summit at Falwell’s Liberty University in April, a panel on “What Women Want from Public Policy” dealt with those thorny questions of whether Planned Parenthood’s true goal was to “separate women from their children” in violation of a “God-ordained relationship” — one that the evil twins of Planned Parenthood and our “socialist” government sought to interfere with. Wendy Wright — another highly visible religious right woman as president of Concerned Women for America, but never, like the others, mentioned as a leader of the religious right — tried her best to dutifully repeat every religious right talking point, from homosexuality interfering with religious freedom, to the biblical basis of the Constitution, to extolling the virtues of W. Cleon Skousen’s 5,000 Year Leap — but despite obediently parroting them, she will never be part of the boys’ club.

Palin, it’s true, has a certain star power that other religious right women lack. As RD’s Anthea Butler told me for a story I wrote about Palin’s religion during the 2008 campaign, Palin “‘is a flat-footed, I’m-in-the-back-of-the-camp-meeting-truck-preaching-woman’ in the style of the trailblazing early 20th century evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.” That’s not the same as the submissive wife required by the doctrine of, say, the Southern Baptist Convention (which doesn’t allow women to be clergy). But Palin can pull off the theatrics that get the base excited and motivated — and I’m sure the religious right men are happy to have that, but surely wouldn’t be willing to step aside for Sister Sarah.

In her piece, Miller talks about how the religious right base sees Palin as an Esther figure — or, as I wrote during the campaign, an anointed figure. But that’s not the same as being a religious right leader. When the religious right talks about an Esther figure, or an “Esther moment,” it’s a means of motivating the base to believe that anyone, like Queen Esther, can step up and save the world from evil. (Sure, Esther was anointed to save the Jews from genocide, and that’s pretty much the same as saving America from socialism, eh?) 

When the Southern Baptist Convention’s Richard Land tells Miller that Palin “is going to be able to raise a lot of money for people she wants to support, and she will make a big difference in the primaries,” he’s referring to her Esther-mobilizing capabilities. And the religious right, and the Republican Party, are undoubtedly grateful for her ability to rally the shock troops and bring in some cash. But it’s hard to imagine that any of the big guns would willingly let Palin compete for a leadership role. She may be leading a movement comprised of women, but that’s not the same as a women’s movement.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email