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Why Sarah Palin Will Never Lead the Religious Right

Despite her claim to a conservative form of feminism, Sarah Palin will never lead the religious right for one simple reason: She's a woman.
 
 
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To the Republican base, Sarah Palin represents many things: a trailblazer for female candidates, a "pro-life" stalwart, a devoted mother, an athletic superstar, a moose hunter extraordinaire and a stylish crowd-pleaser unafraid to speak her conservative mind.

But for a segment of the Republican base -- the religious right -- Palin represents something more divine: a heaven-sent, conservative answer to the sort of feminism claimed by liberal women. But while Palin's call for the "Mama Grizzlies" of the conservative movement to roar their version of feminism does get that part of the base riled up, Palin will never rise to be more than a motivational leader of the religious right.

In her Newsweek cover story, "Saint Sarah," Lisa Miller wrote, "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.

Palin, it's true, has a certain star power that other religious right women lack. To her fellow Pentecostals and charismatics, especially, Palin is "anointed" -- a figure sent by God to perform his will. But that's very different from being the organizational leader of a movement.

Sister Sarah and Queen Esther

To those outside the Christian right, it's hard to get this until you talk to a Palin supporter or see Palin in person, in front of a crowd. I remember the moment when it really clicked for me, when, two weeks after John McCain chose her as his running mate, a charismatic evangelical source told me he believed Palin was anointed. "By anointing," he said, "I mean more than just stage presence. I mean authority. Palin believes what she is saying. It comes through. She is confident because she believes she is right....She is gifted in that area."

Six weeks later, at a Palin campaign rally in York, Pennsylvania, I saw the crowd react to Palin's "gifts." "She's got that thing," I told a colleague.

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," religious historian Anthea Butler told me during the presidential campaign. While that's an improvement on the role of woman as submissive wife required by the doctrine of, say, the Southern Baptist Convention (which doesn't allow women to be clergy), it won't catapult her to the leadership of the Christian right. Movement leaders are no doubt pleased by Palin's ability to pull off the theatrics that excite and motivate followers, but that's unlikely to convince them to step aside for Sister Sarah.

Newsweek's Miller wrote of how followers of the religious right see in Palin the echo of the Bible's Esther, queen of Persia, who saved her fellow Jews from the genocidal designs of the evil Haman, an advisor to her husband, King Ahasuerus. By convincing the king of Haman's evil, Esther, who was just a humble (albeit beautiful) young woman, saved her people from annihilation. Evangelicals convince each other that anyone -- even the most humble among us -- could be, like Esther, part of God's will for saving the world from satanic plots.

Evangelicals believe God placed Esther in the kingdom "for a time such as this" – a time of danger. It's a phrase they frequently invoke, whether to explain the rise of George W. Bush in the 2000 election, Christian Zionists agitating against Iran's nuclear ambitions (since Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is often compared to Haman), or the appearance of Palin, seemingly out of nowhere, just as John McCain's presidential campaign was faltering. When members of the religious right speak of an Esther figure, or an "Esther moment," it's a means of motivating followers to believe that, like Queen Esther, anyone can step up and save the world from evil -- in Palin's case, it could mean anything from abortion (which many evangelicals consider tantamount to genocide), secularism or that Tea Party trope, socialism.