Sunday, September 7, 2008

Sarah Palin and Religious Conservatives

One of the key turning points in the 2008 presidential election was last month's candidate civil forum at Saddleback Church, in Orange County, California.

Palin Republicans

In responding to Pastor Rick Warren, Barack Obama - careful not to alienate voters on questions faith and traditional values - ended up looking like a nerdy Ivy League law professor parsing the opinion of some obscure obiter dicta from a long-lost Supreme Court ruling on the First Amendment's religious clauses.

John McCain, on the other hand, came out with such snappy minimal-syllable responses that the left went haywire with
allegations of cheating, claiming that McCain was given interview questions in advance.

Now, with McCain's selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as vice-presidential running mate, the conservative base has demonstrated pure ecstasy with the GOP ticket, and the evangelical base of the party may be seeing in Palin its most significant standard-bearer since President Ronald Reagan mobilized the Moral Majority in the 1980s. Lisa Miller,
at Newsweek, offers an interesting analysis of Palin's impact on the GOP's evangelical base:

Since 2004, the story goes, evangelicals have softened. Sure, they still care about abortion and gay marriage. But a new, outspoken generation also cares about global warming, Darfur, illiteracy, human trafficking, preventable disease. The era of divisive religious rhetoric, characterized by James Dobson and Jerry Falwell, is past. Eager to help care for the planet, these Christians are building bridges between left and right, between the secular and the devout, even among subscribers to different holy books. These "new" evangelicals, according to the mainstream press, are exciting now because they're politically powerful. As Frances Fitzgerald put it in The New Yorker this summer, they have the potential to "change the Republican Party beyond the recognition of Karl Rove or doom it to electoral defeat for many years to come."

Not so fast. If the selection of
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as the Republican veep candidate means anything, it's that conservative Christians—the kind who listen by the millions to Dobson's "Focus on the Family" radio program and were galvanized to vote for Ronald Reagan thanks to Falwell—are still numerous and powerful. Of the 60 million white evangelicals in this country, 60 percent of them believe the Bible is literally true. More than a third believe the end of the world will occur within their lifetimes. Palin, despite her fresh young visage, speaks directly to them. Her pro-life credentials are obvious and beyond dispute. She was raised in the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination with an end-times theology that emphasizes adherence to a strict moral code: no tobacco, no alcohol, no social dancing. (Also no premarital sex, but never mind.) The senior pastor of that church, in sermons that circulated online before they were taken down last week, preaches hell for anyone who isn't saved by Jesus. America does not know enough yet about what Palin personally believes, but her church background—she now worships at a nondenominational Bible church—puts her squarely in the tradition of the old-school religious right. The media narrative about the revitalized evangelical center isn't wrong. It's just half the story.
Miller goes on to say that some younger "new evangelicals" are upset that traditional values in other areas outside of reproductive health haven't been relaxed to conform to their less structured view of faith and values. Palin's nomination is thus doubly-troubling for people of this cultural persuasion (unfortunatlely for them, as there's no halfway-station for deeply-conservative Christians).

It's not just the new evangelicals, of course. Palin's ascent to the national political stage has rekindled the culture wars
like no event in decades.

I'm particularly interested to see how
the issue of teenage pregnancy gets played out in the months ahead, especially if the McCain-Palin ticket wins in November. The Palins' loving response to their daughter's pregnancy - and especially Bristol's pledge to marry her partner - energized conservatives who say that the family's handling of the troubles confirms traditional values and a culture of life.

The response on the left has been almost unreal. Charles Blow, at the New York Times, attacked America's "puritanical culture," then threw up his hands to say:

We need to take some bold steps beyond the borders of our moralizing and discomfort and create a sex education infrastructure that actually acknowledges reality and protects our children from unwanted pregnancies, or worse.
Those "bold steps" include Blow's endorsement of sex education classes for four-year olds. That's bold alright, and half-baked. Others even further to the leftist extreme have basically argued that Bristol Palin should get an abortion.

It's no wonder evangelical Christians have rallied to the GOP banner!

Cartoon Credit: Michael Ramirez