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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.

Palin's resonance with the religious right is not about her organizing acumen or ability to launch the new Moral Majority -- it's about her emotional appeal. When Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention 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 mobilizing capabilities -- to convince people to work against access to legal abortion, to vote Republican, or to go to a Tea Party. 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.

A 'Biblical Worldview' Is About Women, But Not For Them

The Christian right has always been a movement about women -- about their roles in the family, the church and the culture. That doesn't make it a women's movement, and that doesn't make Palin its leader.

The biblical principles deemed by religious right followers as God's "design" for the family 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" (in the words of the Southern Baptist Convention and other followers of that complementarian theology), or choosing not to get married and have children at all.

Palin made her claim to feminism in a speech to the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-choice PAC that 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 is named for one of feminism's founding mothers, based on the claim that Anthony opposed abortion -- despite, as Ann Gordon and Lynn Sherr recently demonstrated, no evidence that Anthony was anti-choice and real evidence that she eschewed religion in politics.

When asked about balancing career and family, SBA List president Marjorie Dannenfelser doesn't talk about 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 by World magazine how women can get involved in politics, she said:

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.

In Christian right parlance, that's a biblical worldview -- not feminism. As a true leader -- as opposed to motivational speaker -- of the religious right, Palin stands no better a chance than does Dannenfelser, or Phyllis Schlafly before her.

The Christian right movement may be about women, but men will always be granted the plum spots at events where women are occasionally trotted out as examples of biblical-worldview virtues. At the 2010 Conservative Political Action Conference, Dannenfelser, along with other anti-choice activists, such as Charmaine Yoest of Americans United for Life (whose PhD makes 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 held forth 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.)

With Palin's ascension followed by that of other conservative Christian Republican women, like South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley and Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle, the notion that women may one day run the religious right will gain more potency. The SBA List recently described Angle as a "frontier feminist," -- but that doesn't mean she's looking to take a man's place in the church. As conservative evangelical Christians, these women champion their unique female role; they're not clamoring for a chance to become the face of the religious right. Until they or other women do -- the frontier feminists and the Esthers of the religious right will continue to take an organizational back seat to the men who hold the reins.