Palin's Paradoxical Power

In the past two years, the culture wars have been complicated on the Right by the rise of the "tea party." In a time of grave economic crisis and massive government action, the traditional right-wing alarm about "statism" has gotten out in front of the "traditional values" agenda that would use the power of the state to enforce a code of personal behavior.

The American Right has always carried this internal contradiction. It’s a twin to the American Left's contradiction between libertarian personal ethics and communitarian political economy. But the Right has really risen when it has had a figurehead leader who can turn the contradiction into a unifying paradox.

Ronald Reagan was that kind of figurehead even though, back in his day, there were lots of jokes about his shaky grasp of policy details. Then George W. Bush came along as a sort of Reagan-lite. But the only unifying figure the Right has now is Sarah Palin.

Palin is strongly identified with the tea party faction, but she also has strong credibility with the Christian Right. She belongs to a nondenominational “Bible church.” She talks the talk. She can use the term "prayer warriors" in a sentence without blushing or cringing. And, in some ways, she has walked the walk. She gets big points for refusing to abort her baby with Down syndrome. On the other hand, it is hard to square Palin's whole "Mama Grizzlies are the real feminists" routine with the usual conservative Christian notions about traditional gender roles. Palin went right back to work as governor immediately after the birth of her fifth child. Since ditching that job, she seems to spend most of her life on the road, signing books, making speeches, and tweeting her head off.

It's been a little surprising to see how quickly some on the Christian Right have been willing to abandon what observers always thought were their core principles about gender. It started back during the '08 campaign, when James Dobson hinted that Palin's selection as McCain's running mate was literally God's answer to the prayers of the Christian Right. And, on her endless speaking tour, Palin has received adulatory reactions from conservative Christian audiences.

Because my wife, Polly, and I have homeschooled our children through the elementary grades, we get a lot of mail from organizations out on the far end of the Christian Right. There's one company in particular from which we regularly buy toys. They happen to sell high-quality stuff, and they guarantee that none of it was made in China. Of course, their catalog propagandizes for male headship and the "Christian Nation" theory of American history. One year we bought a set of wooden medieval swords and shields. The page from which we ordered bore the headline, "Boys Protect Your Sisters!" The "girls" section of the catalog was limited to fancy old-fashioned clothes and kitchen gadgets. Of course, we bought swords and shields for our two young sons, and for our daughter.

But in the 2011 catalog, Polly noticed a big difference, and she brought it to my attention. For one thing, there was a harder political edge to the book selection, including a tome on economics by Christian Reconstructionist guru R.J. Rushdoony and lots of digs at "Obamacare." But here's the Palin fingerprint: In the girl's section, there's a whole new line of products headed "Cowgirl" that includes just-for-girls BB rifles. Clearly, even in the most ideological quarters of the Christian Right, the range of acceptable gender roles is being revised to make room for a moose-hunting mama. And any public figure who can accomplish that is destined to play a large and continuing role, at least on the right end of the political spectrum.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.

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