Another memoirist might prefer to keep such matters private, but Sarah Palin is not another memoirist. In Going Rogue: An American Life, Palin describes, perhaps for the first time in the history of political autobiography, a furtive trip to an out-of-state drugstore to obtain a do-it-yourself pregnancy test. This was in the fall of 2007, when the 43-year-old mother of four was governor of Alaska and began to notice “some peculiar yet familiar physical symptoms, like the smell of cigarettes making me feel more nauseated than usual.” So, while on business in New Orleans—at a time and in a place where her anonymity was still possible—Palin procured the kit. In the privacy of her hotel room, she “followed the instructions on the ... box. Slowly a pink image materialized on the stick.
Palin has already overshared: nothing makes a person, let alone a politician, appear more vulnerable, more ordinary, and more unambiguously female than a scene in a bathroom where she pees on a stick. But then she defies a generation of pro-life activists who preached that the life of the fetus is sacred, no matter what an individual woman wants. For a split second, Palin—already at the limits of her time and energy—stops to consider the chaos another baby will create in her life. These are really less than ideal circumstances, she thinks. And then the inconceivable. I’m out of town. No one knows I’m pregnant. No one would ever have to know. Any woman who has faced a pregnancy test with hope or with dread can picture the governor sitting there, alone with her dilemma, certain that her future will change. We know, of course, how the story ends. Trig, diagnosed in utero with Down syndrome, was born just months before his mother’s vice presidential run.
At a breakfast in Washington, D.C., last month, Palin, wearing a rosarylike cross around her neck and a sparkly American flag lapel pin, told a version of the Trig story to 550 women who had paid at least $150 each to the Susan B. Anthony List, an organization devoted to supporting pro-life female politicians. When Trig was born, Palin recounted, “they lay him in my arms, and he just kind of melted right into my chest ... And it was just like he was saying, ‘See, God knows what he’s doing, and this is going to be good’ ... I tell you truly, Trig has been the best thing that has ever happened to me and the Palin family.” Around the room, women rose from their chairs, stamping their feet, clapping, and hollering. And when they all finally sat down, Palin smiled like a beauty queen and said, “Yes. Bless you.”
Let’s face it: the Trig story is a women’s story, the kind girlfriends share over coffee or in church. It has all the familiar elements of evangelical testimony: tribulation and dread; trust in God; and, finally, great blessings. Many Christian women loathe Palin, of course, and many men love her, but a certain kind of conservative, Bible-believing woman worships her. And it is these women Palin has been actively courting as she crisscrosses the country talking about Trig to women’s and pro-life organizations.
To millions of women, Palin’s authenticity makes her a sister in arms—“Sisters!” she called out in Washington, as if at a revival—a beautiful, fearless, principled fighter who shares their struggles. To a smaller number, she is a prophet, ordained by God for a special role in the cosmic battle against the forces of evil. A 2009 profile in the Christian magazine Charisma compared Palin to the Old Testament’s Queen Esther, who saved her people, in this case the Jews, from annihilation.
Palin has been antagonizing women on the left of late by describing herself as a “feminist,” a word she uses to mean the righteous, Mama Bear anger that wells up when one of her children is attacked in the press or her values are brought into question. But while leftist critics continue to shred Palin as a cynical, shallow, ill-informed opportunist, and new polls show her unpopularity rating to be at an all-time high—53 percent—Palin is now playing to her strengths. Even if she never again seeks elected office, her pro-woman rallying cry, articulated in the evangelical vernacular, together with the potent pro-life example of her own family, puts Palin in a position to reshape and reinvigorate the religious right, one of the most powerful forces in American politics. The Christian right is now poised to become a women’s movement—and Sarah Palin is its earthy Jerry Falwell.
Already Palin has shown herself to be a kingmaker (as well as a queenmaker). Two of her fellow “mama grizzlies,” as she calls them—Carly Fiorina, the Senate candidate in California, and Nikki Haley, the gubernatorial candidate in South Carolina—benefited from her endorsements last week, winning and placing first in their races, respectively. (Haley’s triumph is especially remarkable since her campaign was beset by last-minute allegations of marital infidelity, which she denied.) “She 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,” says Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
Abortion, the cause around which the religious right was built two generations ago, seems to be reemerging as a potent political issue as well (though the oil spill, terrorism, and the global economy may still overshadow it in the voting booth). Eleven states have passed anti-abortion laws since the beginning of the year, and 370 bills have been introduced in state legislatures, according to the Guttmacher Institute. American women are more likely to call themselves “pro-life” (48 percent, up from 42 percent in 2001, according to Gallup), and while young white evangelicals are more accepting than their parents of gay marriage, they’re less open-minded on abortion. Seventy percent want more restrictions, compared with compared with 55 percent of those in the older generation, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
The religious right has always had female leaders, of course—Phyllis Schlafly and Beverly LaHaye, to name two—but since the Supreme Court upheld Roe v. Wade in 1973, its most visible political brokers have been men. Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson used their media megaphones to preach a “family values” agenda—and then supported candidates who upheld their pro-marriage, antigay, and pro-life views. Their great triumph, the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, was followed by decades of acrimonious public debate about abortion, and political operatives soon discovered that no issue motivated voters more. “Pro-life folks on the ground are the most loyal; they’re worth their weight in gold,” says Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List. In 2004 Karl Rove called in 4 million evangelical Christian votes to help George W. Bush narrowly win a second term. And while women have long been active, even zealous, foot soldiers in family-values causes, they have not until now been passionate about their representatives on the national stage. Christian women may have given money to Schlafly, but they didn’t want to be like her.
But the culture was changing, and by 2006 the religious right was in disarray. Falwell would die the following year, and Dobson and Robertson were widely regarded as dinosaurs. Even evangelical Christians, for whom abortion remained a priority, said they didn’t like being yelled at: many turned their focus to global poverty and the environment. At the same time, as Harvard professor R. Marie Griffith writes in her book God’s Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission, conservative Christian women—though they would not have called themselves feminists—were grappling with changing realities in their own world: too many were divorced and working outside the home to wholeheartedly embrace the traditional female identity of submissive wife and mother. Conservative churches fought and split over questions of women’s leadership roles. “Evangelical ideals of Christian womanhood ... perceptibly shifted ... as notions of submission were modified by other notions of female occupation and female power,” she writes. In 2008, 28 percent of born-again Christian women voted for Barack Obama (Kerry had gotten 23 percent in 2004), a sign of their dissatisfaction with the status quo. That year, Obama was, ironically, the “values” candidate. John McCain made evangelicals suspicious, and Palin, playing it safe, remained mostly mute about her faith.
With her new faith-based message, Palin gathers up the Christian women that traditional feminism has left behind. In her speech to the SBA List last month, Palin derided the old feminism as a relic of “the faculty lounge at some East Coast women’s college, right?”—even as she wrapped the label around herself, channeling the pioneer wives who “made sacrifices to carve out a living and a family out of the wilderness.” Hers is a “mom of faith” movement, a “mom uprising.” It’s an emotional appeal, unfettered by loyalty to the broader policy agenda of traditional feminism. (Palin will praise suffragettes, abolitionists, and Margaret Thatcher, but not the early feminists who arguably paved the way for the 96 Republican women running for House seats in 2010.) The women who follow Palin will fight against Roe—and support adoption and prenatal health clinics—but they aren't generally focused on birth control, sex education, or gender discrimination. They shrug at the agonies of the overeducated moms who feel forced to choose between work and family (no one had to do that on the farm), and they refute the idea that to succeed in the world a woman must look and act like a man. (“That Supreme Court nominee—I can’t relate to her at all,” Ruthie McIntosh, one of those who jumped to her feet at the Palin breakfast in Washington last month, told me.) These Christians seek a power that allows them to formally acquiesce to male authority and conservative theology, even as they assume increasingly visible roles in their families, their churches, their communities, and the world.
Palin shows them a path through this thicket of contradictions. “Within these circles, there is very much an ideal Christian woman model,” explains Griffith. “It’s an image that blends this kind of submissive, pretty, aw-shucks demeanor with a fiery power, a spiritual warfare.” Palin may say she’s a pugnacious jock primed to take on the big boys, but her family, beauty-queen figure, and glossy hair are her calling cards.
When asked why she loves Sarah Palin, a conservative Christian woman will point you to Proverbs 31. There, you’ll find a wife and mother who adores her husband, works the fields, rises before dawn, “makes her arms strong,” feeds the poor, helps the needy, has a head for business, and wears beautiful clothes. No exhausted careerist is she: the Proverbs 31 woman laughs easily; her children are happy. Christian women have long puzzled in their Bible study groups over how she does it, and in Palin they finally have an example—not just for themselves, but for their daughters.
“God gives us gifts and talents and abilities, and [Palin] is kind of modeling that it’s OK to use those,” says Lynette Kittle, 52, a mother of four grown daughters, who recently traveled more than a thousand miles from her home in Colorado Springs, Colo., to hear Palin speak. “I know there’s a saying, ‘You can’t have it all,’ but in some ways you can.”
Traditional feminists see Palin’s feminism as a joke. “It’s such a contrivance,” says Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of North America. “There’s nothing there. I don’t think Sarah Palin is going to change the national scene on choice or on feminism. Her rallying cry is pretty empty if she’s against women’s rights.”
It is impossible to know what Palin really believes about God, but having been raised in conservative evangelical churches in Alaska, she is fluent in evangelical language and culture. Public Christian prayer makes many Americans squeamish, but in evangelical circles it is the air they breathe. Christian women pray for each other, their families, and their leaders, not just in church but in casual groups, online, and in private all the time. Vicki Garza, who owns a marketing firm in Dallas, was so inspired by Palin’s presence in the 2008 campaign—“something in me was rekindled,” she says—that she built a Web site called PrayFor SarahPalin.com, which at its height received 24,000 visitors a month.
Like many evangelicals, Garza believes a great cosmic battle is underway for the soul of America and that Palin has been singled out by God for leadership: “The anointing on her is so strong,” she says. Assaults on Palin by the press only strengthen Garza’s conviction, for as any Christian knows, martyrs most deserve to gain God’s kingdom. “She’s just fearless,” Garza says. “Jesus said, ‘They persecuted me; they’ll persecute you.’ ”
To her Christian audiences, Palin talks about her own life in terms of mission and destiny. She was the keynote speaker at a Women of Joy conference in April, a convention of 16,000 Christian women who traveled from three dozen states to Louisville, Ky., and paid at least $79 per ticket for a weekend of praise, song, and prayer. Upon mounting the stage, Palin immediately thanked her “prayer warriors” for the “prayer shield” they built around her. She quoted from Proverbs 3—“Trust in the Lord with all your heart ... and he will make straight your paths.” And then she connected herself with Esther. She was explaining the meaning of the Jewish queen’s heroism to her 9-year-old daughter Piper, she said. “[Esther] was out there on the stage, wondering if she’d have the opportunity to be chosen to really help change the world.”
Behind the Christian-military rhetoric, though, is a theology that’s generic, Griffith and other scholars say. (Though the video clip that made the rounds during the campaign of Palin being prayed over by an African minister gave foes on the left the willies, most churchgoing conservative evangelicals were completely unfazed.) In her speeches, Palin never damns anyone to hell. She never talks about sin: discussing her daughter Bristol, accidentally pregnant at 17, she talks about responsibility. When Palin writes about her born-again experience, she talks not about an encounter with Jesus or the Holy Spirit, as so many evangelicals do, but of a sudden awareness of the awesomeness of creation. “Looking around at the incredible creation that is Alaska—the majestic peaks and midnight sun, the wild waters and teeming wildlife—I could practically see and hear and feel God’s spirit reflected in everything in nature.” Palin refers often to Ronald Reagan in her speeches, and even critics concede there’s something Reaganesque about the way she approaches faith. It’s easy. It’s optimistic. It’s future-oriented. “She seems like an ordinary Christian woman who has done extraordinary things,” says Georgetown history professor Michael Kazin.
For all her apparent authenticity, though, Palin’s real motivations remain hidden. (She declined to be interviewed for this article.) The Trig story, moving in its first hearing, turns discomfiting and self-serving upon repetition. Further, Palin’s lack of expertise on policy questions—and her apparent lack of curiosity—bothers not just her critics but even some of her most devoted fans. “I would have preferred for her to stay on as governor and maybe get involved in the policy debate,” says Ruthie McIntosh.
Palin has her faults, but the left is partially to blame for her ascent. Its native mistrust of religion, of conservative believers in particular, left the gap that Palin now fills. “You hate to say it, but mainstream feminism has had an antireligious bias for a really long time,” says Griffith. When she’s talking about Trig, Palin is able—if just for a few minutes—to convince a lot of women that she’s just like them. She’s a hardworking mom with too much on her plate. Her momentary consideration of the alternatives makes her ultimate choice more sympathetic, not less. No matter what generations of activists on both sides say, there is gray area in the abortion debate, and Palin is claiming it for the Christian right.
Lisa Miller is NEWSWEEK's religion editor and the author of Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife.