Friday morning, before the major news outlets made any definitive announcements, Christian right pundits were buzzing about Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s likely nomination for vice president. Rev. Rob Schenk, President of the National Clergy Council and a member of the National Pro-Life Action Center, and Steven Petrouka, founder of Pro-Life Radio, both made early predictions based on confidential sources, and sung of the governor’s conservative credentials. She’s a devout Christian, a vocal antiabortion advocate and gay rights opponent, and the mother of five children — including a new baby diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome. Palin’s decision to continue the pregnancy after learning the diagnosis was declared proof positive, to pundits of the religious right, of how good the Alaska native would be for the pro-life cause: a beautiful, quasi-"feminist" face for social conservative politics.
In short order the announcement was lauded by the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, the Christian Coalition for America, the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission — which proclaimed Palin "a true Christian" (as compared to Obama and Biden) — the Population Research Institute, Fr. Frank Pavone’s Priests for Life, the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America and the Beverly LaHaye Institute. Indeed, Rush Limbaugh has been promoting Palin since February. Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition, said the religious right was "beyond ecstatic" at the choice, while Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, who endorsed McCain with extreme reluctance, called the pick an "outstanding choice" that reassured conservatives of McCain’s pro-life judicial intentions. Richard Viguerie, one of the architects of the new right, observed in a press release that, "Conservatives, the base of the party, have been listless. But, now, nearly all will work enthusiastically for the McCain-Palin ticket. In fact, this is the most enthusiastic conservatives have been since the era for Ronald Reagan."
The Family Research Council, already elated that the GOP platform was "the most conservative, pro-life, and profamily platform in Republican party history… articulated
with the dedicated efforts of many conservative women, standing on the shoulders of long-time conservative leaders such as Phyllis Schlafy," saw Palin as the icing on the cake. They declared succinctly, "Conservative Women Rule."
The reason for all the excitement? Palin’s committed antiabortion politics, largely, which were expressed in her "Safe Haven for Infants Act," an antiabortion sop requiring "safe" placement for unwanted babies, and her oft-quoted statement that she and her husband proceeded with the pregnancy of their youngest son because of their prolife conviction "that every innocent life has wonderful potential." In a gubernatorial debate, the National Organization of Women reported, Palin promised such a steadfast opposition to abortion "that even if her teenage daughter was impregnated by a rapist, she would ‘choose life’ — meaning apparently that she would not permit her daughter to have an abortion." She has also proven herself a dedicated opponent of gay rights, gambling, stem cell research, physician-assisted suicide, and has advocated teaching creationism alongside evolution in public schools.
But solid culture-war credentials like these were swept under the mainstream media’s coverage of her historic selection by McCain. And, following Palin’s homey self-description as a "hockey mom," MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski, co-host of "Morning Joe," (Joe, being former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough) declared her "the epitome of the modern woman," and proposed of Palin’s combining work and motherhood, "She is just like you and me, only more so." The "just like you and me," though, imagines a general womanhood in "Middle America" different than that many women actually live. Feminist organizations like NOW noted the appeal McCain’s campaign hopes Palin will have among women, as well as the disconnect between Palin’s historic candidacy and her antifeminist voting record.
The fact that Palin is a mother of five who has a 4-month-old baby, a woman who is juggling work and family responsibilities, will speak to many women. But will Palin speak FOR women? Based on her record and her stated positions, the answer is clearly No.
But among conservative women, the choice was a stunning affirmation of the grassroots, women-led antifeminist movement of the last three decades. The president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a prolife women’s group, Marjorie Dannenfelser said, "Women voters are electrified, and Sarah is someone who is truly in sync with the way real American women think."
The emphasis on "real women" didn’t end with Dannenfelser either. Janice Crouse of the Beverly LaHaye Institute provided key insight into the excitement Palin was causing among the religious right, crowing: "Take that feminists — here is a woman of accomplishment who brings a fresh face to traditional values and models the type of woman most girls want to become."
"For years the feminist movement has acknowledged for leadership only those women who embrace a radical agenda. How refreshing that now we have a woman who reflects the values of mainstream American women. Sarah Palin is pro-life, pro-marriage and pro-family."
With this political grounding, Crouse, normally aligned with "profamily" advocates who espouse a strictly traditionalist line for gender roles, prioritizing women’s roles in the home and in raising children, felt free to praise the way Palin balances "the personal and professional in admirable ways."
From the sound of Palin’s acceptance speech, it sounds as though Crouse knows her woman. In a line that evoked George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign references to the "power in the blood," (referencing an old gospel hymn There is Power in the Blood [of the Lamb]) Palin declared that she would approach government with "a servant’s heart." Just as Bush’s stump speech was later judged a vehicle for courting the religious right in psalmic and hymnic code, Palin is delivering a very clear message to religion-savvy listeners, who hear in her call for "servant’s hearts" the message of twenty years’ worth of "complementarian" sermons, exhorting Christians to be "servant-leaders" and, among women, to view their highest calling in service to male leadership: willing helpmeets to their husbands’, fathers’ and pastors’ authority. She also employed a word usage common among profamily pronatalists who encourage large families, referring to her children as "blessings" in the same way that women of the Quiverfull conviction call every pregnancy a blessing.
The Christian Coalition of America seemed to highlight Palin’s motherhood and "servant’s heart" in their celebration of the nomination, noting Palin’s promise to her Alaska constituents after the birth of her latest son that she could handle both responsibilities. "It’s a sign of the times to be able to do this. There is no reason to believe a woman can’t do it with a growing family. My baby will not be at all or in any sense neglected." And she added, "I will not shirk my duties."
Though they ostensibly mean that Palin’s motherhood won’t interfere with her duties as governor — or possibly later vice president — from the context it seems the Christian Coalition’s statement was meant to reassure traditionalist Christians who believe a woman’s highest responsibility is domestic and maternal. While many are happy to work with conservative Christian women against abortion and other feminist issues, followers of the growing complementarian doctrine are leery of women in positions of authority. Purists among these, such as Doug Phillips, the influential pro-patriarchy homeschooling leader and founder of Vision Forum, typified this concern in a mild rebuke of the GOP, reminding readers of
Isaiah 3:12 — "As for my people, children are their oppressors, and women rule over them" — which paints women leaders as a sign of God’s curse on a damned nation. One of Phillips’ authors, Jennie Chancey of the "biblical womanhood" blog Ladies Against Feminism, agreed:
"Isaiah 3:12 truly applies… I can assent to Sarah Palin’s conservative views and even applaud them, but I mourn for a nation whose men have forgotten how to lead their families and their land in the way our Founders envisioned and the way God intended. A wife and mother has already been elected by God to the highest office in the land. She has her own particular husband to help, his calling to make successful, and her children to nurture and train to the glory of God. How could the vice-presidency possibly compare with a task that God has personally designed her to fill?"
Clearly Palin won’t win the support of traditionalists of this bent, but her assurances that motherhood is her most important vocation, indeed duty, seems tailored to comfort less strict opponents to women in leadership.
While the mainstream media repeats Palin’s homage to both Geraldine Ferraro and Hillary Clinton, and absorbs stories about her breaking glass ceilings, and while purist complementarians like Phillips are concerned about Palin’s self-description as a "prolife feminist," more mainstream conservative Christians know just how tepid that feminism is. In Palin’s case, it’s that of "Feminists for Life," which appropriates the terminology of women’s liberation to temper the often stark misogyny of the antiabortion movement with the tagline "Women Deserve Better" (than abortion). Feminists for Life has been an early promoter of the increasingly popular prolife emphasis on the harm abortion does to women, and a champion of "father’s rights" with the help of the disgraced ex-Bush appointee Wade Horn (the former pro-abstinence Assistant Secretary of Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services who resigned after funneling one million dollars to his own National Fatherhood Initiative, paying reporters, and directing other grants to programs he oversaw).
Rounding out Feminists for Life’s resume are its opposition to family planning, population control, and euthanasia; they frequently link abortion rights to child abuse and infanticide, urge pregnant college women to marry, and helped The National Center for Men locate a male plaintiff to sue for the right of men to have a say in whether or not a woman has an abortion.
Palin’s Christianity has been a component of her political career from the beginning. During her run for mayor of
Wasilla, a small town that one Alaskan commentator at Daily Kos painted as a religious conservative stronghold largely given over to WalMart’s interests, the then 32-year-old Palin’s campaign supporters ran a quiet sub-campaign based on Palin’s pro-life and pro-gun politics: issues that critics charged would never arise in the office she was running for.
In a sharp Anchorage Daily News profile from 2006, writer Tom Kizzia wrote that Palin’s continuing political persona has been the offer of "fresh ideas" never clearly elucidated, and repetitions of self-effacing lines about the lessons of teamwork she brought from her basketball-champion past: everpresent components of the Palin "product," wrote Kizzia, describing a calculation that seems to belie her claim to "accidental" political success. Further, after Palin beat three-term mayoral incumbent John Stein, her supporters declared her the town’s "first Christian mayor" with such enthusiasm that Stein, himself a Christian, wrote a column in the local paper speculating that his last name was making people think of him as a non-Christian. Palin responded shortly by demanding resignation letters from six of Stein’s department heads, sparking a short-lived citizen’s group hoping to recall Palin’s election.
Palin’s religious identity has been much discussed and just as often misunderstood by the media since the announcement. After Schenk described her early on Friday as a pro-life Catholic, she told him that she and her husband are "active members of an independent Bible church." Though Palin grew up in the Pentecostal denomination, Assemblies of God — the world’s largest Pentecostal denomination and the church that John Ashcroft belongs to — a McCain-Palin spokeswoman told Newsweek that she does not consider herself a Pentecostal, but attends "different churches" in Alaska. Among them is the nondenominational evangelical church, Juneau Christian Center. The campaign hesitated to identify her as Pentecostal, perhaps envisioning the easy target that a charismatic church attendee would make (cue the Borat clips). Nevertheless, Palin is still closely affiliated with the denomination, appearing as the special banquet guest of the 2008 Alaska District Council of the Assemblies of God, where she requested that her childhood AoG pastor, now Superintendent Ted Boatsman, and her current pastor at JCC, Mike Rose, lay hands on Palin and pray for her and the state.
The nondenominational JCC is also of interest, seemingly one of a great many unaffiliated nondenominational evangelical churches that describe themselves as "Bible believing" or "Bible teaching" and which are generally distinguished by their deep social conservatism, sometimes missed by outsiders who see the "nondemoninational" tag as a statement of independence from doctrine and denominational tradition. JCC, like a number of evangelical churches, works on a small-groups model, which it describes as a four-step graduation from community evangelism, to "consolidation" of new members through inclusion in small-cell "Life Groups" — men’s and women’s fellowship and accountability meetings that generally serve to bring new members into the community and in line with its standards, and move from casual believers to "high commitment Christians" — to discipleship in the "School of Destiny," five seven-week courses that train Life Group members to become mentors themselves, and finally disciple other new converts.
Religion scholar Alan Wolfe at The New Republic‘s Plank blog imagined Palin’s religion a libertarian-infused Western evangelicalism: toting guns, having taken drugs once, naming two children after witches, vetoing a ban on domestic benefits to gay couples. These were things Wolfe imagined could complicate her reputation with more straight-laced Southern Baptists, although he seems to have misunderstood her refusal to sign HB 4001, the bill forbidding gay domestic benefits. Palin refused only because she was advised that the bill was unconstitutional, though she did support its intent, and had earlier shown her anti-gay rights colors in her support of a 1998 ban on same-sex marriage, which she defended by saying: "I believe that honoring the family structure is that important" — an emphasis on structure that surely rings true to "pro family" advocates of complementarian marriage roles.
How does Palin square these nods to traditionalist family structure with her national aspirations? Through a disclaimer familiar among the women leaders of the antifeminist movement (like Phyllis Schlafy, the grandmother of the cause) who rally women to make careers and personal interests secondary to their highest calling as mothers. Palin, emphasizing her "hockey mom" ordinariness, even while vying for one of the highest offices in the land, disavowed the ambition that took her there in Friday’s acceptance speech, claiming, "I never really set out to be involved in public affairs, much less to run for this office…. I was just your average hockey mom in Alaska, busy raising our kids." The crowd, predictably, interrupted this line with applause: accepting and admiring the pretense of humble aspirations, the accidental achievement more acceptable for being undesired.
A similar dissonance exists in the religious independence that Wolfe suggests is Palin’s Wild West evangelicalism: the same independence which, he argues, distinguished her beliefs from the pious rules-oriented religious right of American politics, ostensibly making her a more independent-minded evangelical. It’s the same image raised by the popular photographs of Palin sitting on couches draped with bear-skin rugs, next to taxidermied Alaskan King Crabs: a new archetype even a purist can appreciate. Tough, Western Christian women in dresses with guns. The truth of the matter to remember, for all media and voters impressed by Palin’s hunter resume and talk of glass ceilings, is that the guns are always in service of a deeply conservative agenda.