What does Sarah Palin have to do with a couple of dozen books set out in the mid-1990s on a dining room table in suburban Washington, D.C.? Plenty, I think. First, the books. They belonged to the library system in Fairfax County, a well-to-do enclave west of the United States’ capital. A conservative Christian group campaigning for “family-friendly” libraries was pushing to have them removed from the shelves. The leader of the group had brought home a box full of “unfriendly” titles and marked them with yellow stickies so I could see the salacious parts for myself when I arrived to interview her.
I was more intrigued by the campaign she led than by the naughty bits in the books. It was typical of the guerrilla tactics being used at the time by various groups gathered under the banner of the Christian right. Instead of aiming for the stars — think of Pat Robertson’s quixotic run for the presidency in 1988 — the Christian right had shifted its formidable organizing focus to the grassroots. The Fairfax County library group was one of hundreds of cells engaged in local skirmishes across the United States. Collectively, they would lay the foundation for an ultra-conservative social revolution.
Schooled in the art of organizing by tech-savvy groups such as the Robertson-founded Christian Coalition, the library crusaders enlisted volunteers from the region’s big evangelical churches to run telephone, fax and mass-mailing campaigns. They packed library board meetings and eventually managed to wring a few concessions from exasperated board members. But the bigger achievement was to establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with.
The same is true on the national political stage. The Christian right still has muscle and knows how to flex it — it delivered the state of Ohio and the U.S. presidency to George W. Bush in 2004 — but it doesn’t get the attention it once did because it has inched into the mainstream. Christian Coalition architect Ralph Reed goes to work for Bush-Cheney in two successive presidential campaigns and raises money for John McCain in 2008, and it’s no big deal. No big deal, either, that federal agencies such as the Justice Department and advisory committees on HIV/AIDS and reproductive health are full of appointees with links to the Christian right. The Christian right has become as familiar a part of the landscape as Wal-Mart.
Enter Sarah Palin. Central casting couldn’t have dreamed up a vice-presidential candidate with better Christian right credentials. She flirts with end-times and holy-war theology. Opposes abortion rights, same-sex marriage and state health benefits for same-sex partners. Favours abstinence education over sex education. Supports teaching creationism in public schools. Supports the right to carry handguns.
Yet Palin doesn’t flaunt her faith. She doesn’t need to because it’s understood and, for the most part, accepted as part of the dynamic of contemporary politics. If Palin flaunts anything, it’s the effortlessly held conviction that she’s mainstream. “You’re mainstream, too!” is her unspoken rallying cry. Palin’s stunning lack of depth is beside the point. It’s the packaging that’s for sale.
The stealthiest warrior is the one who hides in plain sight. For that reason, Palin may well represent the fullest flowering of the Christian right yet. She did not have to be invented. She sprang naturally from soil the Christian right has been tilling for 20 years. That soil will remain fertile for years to come, whether Palin wins or loses on Nov. 4.
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