God and Woman at Wasilla
Remember when religious populism walked hand-in-hand with economic populism? Neither does Sarah Palin.
William Jennings Bryan’s theology was fundamentalist, but his politics were liberal, and he campaigned tirelessly for such causes as progressive taxation, trust-busting, and anti-imperialism. His charismatic oratory, like Palin’s, won him a following among millions of devout evangelicals. “God has brought you forth, and ordaind [sic] you, to lead the people out of this state of oppression and despondency into the Canaan of peace and prosperity,” a furniture salesman wrote to Bryan from Pittsburgh in 1896. Today, liberal evangelicals like Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo try to emulate the Great Commoner (his creationism aside), though they are more popular among Democratic office-holders than with the masses of their coreligionists.
There is a faint echo of altruism in Palin’s book, or a pretense of it. Like other savvy foes of abortion, she mixes her opposition with disarming phrases about building “a culture of life in which we help women in difficult situations”–which primarily means putting their babies up for adoption. She and Todd resolved to bring Trig to term, she writes rather movingly, because to do otherwise would have given in to un-Christian feelings of selfishness and fear: “I asked if [Todd] had the same question I had: ‘Why us?’ He looked genuinely surprised by my question and responded calmly, ‘Why not us?’”
But Palin draws the line at any hint that the country might benefit from stricter regulation of corporate America or a health system that provided coverage to all. White evangelicals have long been divided between advocates of a moral commonwealth and those who preached moral self-control and self-reliance. The latter have dominated since the 1960s, due largely to the twin shocks of gay rights and legalized abortion and their vigorous advocacy by secular spokespeople; the identification of liberals more with anti-authoritarian values than with economic grievances played a role as well.
Thus, Palin can confidently assert that both big businesses and small ones “are built by regular people,” and so should be left to innovate and prosper. And she contends that the only way to help the poor, besides encouraging them to work, is to have a charitable soul. Her in-laws, Palin writes, are “willing to give the shirts off their backs for those in need. Todd’s mother, Blanche Kallstrom, ran her businesses that way and has been materially blessed for being so generous to others.”
Such personal anecdotes–and 24 pages of family photos, most in color–help freshen a politics that otherwise just parrots the secular right-wing gospel as handed down by Reagan and Gingrich. Blithely ignorant of the historical record, Palin believes the New Deal made the Great Depression worse and is happy to reduce her current agenda to the size of predictable bumper-stickers: “Encourage the free market. Lower taxes. Get government out of the way…Respect honest work. Strengthen families.” But to the many followers of this attractive Christian mother with a tough, insurgent image, it clearly has a fresh, moral edge. “This woman has the guts to tell it like it is,” gushes “James M.” from Dallas, one of the many fans who’ve reviewed the book on Amazon.com. “America needs Sarah Palin today…as much as we needed Reagan after Jimmy Carter. This woman is the true/real AMERICAN’S voice and savior. GOD BLESS AMERICA and Sarah Palin.”
All the hoopla will keep Palin smiling–and probably convince her to run for the GOP nomination in 2012. In Going Rogue, she compares herself to Ronald Reagan in 1976, who was able “to turn things around” for conservatives four years later. But it is hard to imagine how she could win. No candidate so polarizing, so tightly strung, and so inflexible in her positions has ever been elected president. What’s more, her base of white evangelicals–just a quarter of all voters in 2008–is a dwindling part of the population. Mexican-American moms with white-collar jobs who are sincere Christians but have little time for church are the future of the American electorate.
Yet demography is not always destiny. If it were, a bi-racial man with a Muslim middle name would not be sitting in the White House today. The tea-party movement may lose strength by the time candidates start criss-crossing Iowa. But for now, that movement gives Palin a larger base than Barack Obama had when he started his run in 2007. Of all the aspects of her biography, it is her sentimental faith, voiced with such casual resolve, that marks her as the anti-Obama for millions of Americans. If you sincerely trust in the goodness of the Lord, Palin implies, then you cannot believe he will long allow this smooth elitist who thinks ordinary people “cling” to their religion to rule the country you love.
So liberals should not comfort themselves in assuming that Going Rogue is, in Jonathan Raban’s words, “a four-hundred page paean to virtuous ignorance.” It is instead a tribute to Palin’s ability to draw a sizeable gathering of people who long for a politician who is, at the same time, a pious Christian, a stalwart conservative, and an aggressively modern woman. While that combination may not be virtuous, there is nothing ignorant about it.
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