What Scarlet Letter?
By Hanna Rosin
Posted Thursday, Sept. 4, 2008, at 1:15 PM ET
When I first heard about Sarah Palin's, uh, domestic irregularities, I expected social conservatives to react with a kind of qualified, patronizing support—we are all sinners, there but for the grace of God, something like that. Instead, they are embracing her with unbridled admiration. The Family Research Council praised her for "choosing life in the midst of a difficult situation." Cathie Adams of the Eagle Forum, a conservative women's group, called her "the kind of woman I've been looking for all along." The two difficult pregnancies—Palin's with a Down syndrome baby and now her unmarried teenage daughter's—is just proof that "they're doing everything right," gushes Adams. Even the stern religious right godfather James Dobson doted: "A lot of people were praying, and I believe Sarah Palin is God's answer."
Some of this reaction can be explained just by listing the religious right's priorities in order. In the pantheon of family values, avoiding abortion sits at the top, above marriage or staying home to raise your children. Conservatives have spent the last 30 years seeding the country with crisis pregnancy centers dedicated to convincing young women not to abort their babies, regardless of their personal situations. The fact that Britney Spears' younger sister made the same decision to keep her pregnancy at 17 and that Juno was a hit movie only adds an unexpected glamour to the choice.
But this explanation takes you only so far. What's missing from the conservative reaction is still remarkable. Just 15 years ago, a different Republican vice president was ripping into the creators of Murphy Brown for flaunting a working woman who chose to become a single mother. This time around, there's no stigma, no shame, no sin attached to what Dan Quayle would once have mockingly called Bristol Palin's "lifestyle" choices. In fact, so cavalier are conservatives about Sarah Palin's wreck of a home life that they make the rest of us look stuffy and slow-witted by comparison. "I think a hard-working, well-organized C.E.O. type can handle it very well," said Phyllis Schlafly, of the Eagle Forum.
Suddenly it's the Obamas, with their oh-so-perfect marriage and their Dick Van Dyke in the evenings and their two boringly innocent young girls, who seem like the fuddy-duddies.
What happened? How did the culture war get flipped on its head? Of course, conservatives are partly lining up behind Palin just so they can stay in the game. But it's not all crass opportunism. To any religious conservative, Palin, with all her contradictions and hypocrisies, is a very familiar type in this peculiar moment in evangelical history.
Starting in the 1970s, leaders such as Dobson began rewriting the rules of the traditional Christian marriage to make it more palatable in an age of feminism. Domestic work was elevated to a special calling; Christian women were told their child-rearing decisions had national implications, as they were raising a generation of righteous soldiers. Mom took on a political tinge. Home-schooling mothers dragged their large broods to volunteer in campaigns. Like with many Christian moms of her generation, Palin's résumé starts with the PTA.
In the Gingrich era, a few of the Christian mom-types, including Palin, broke out and started their own political careers. Andrea Seastrand was an elementary-school teacher elected to Congress in California in those years. Linda Smith, of Washington state, kept a blown-up picture of her granddaughters in her congressional office. I remember interviewing her one day while her husband, Vern, sat in a hard chair in a corner and gave words to the obvious contradiction: "One of the reasons we got into politics, we wanted to preserve some of the traditional lifestyle we'd grown up with," Vern told me. "It's funny, with Linda away, we end up sacrificing some of that traditional family life to pass some of that heritage to our children."
Conservative women became a powerful tool for the party, and everyone was willing to overlook the cost to their personal lives. If a conservative Christian mother chose to pursue a full-time career in, say, landscape gardening or the law, she was abandoning her family. But if she chose public service, she was furthering the godly cause. No one discussed the sticky domestic details: Did she have a (gasp!) nanny? Did her husband really rule the roost anymore? Who said prayers with the kids every night? As long as she was seen now and again with her children, she could get away with any amount of power.
The larger Palin clan, meanwhile, reflects a different trend among evangelicals. The stereotype we associate with evangelicals—intact marriage, wife at home, teenage daughter saves it for marriage—actually applies only to the small minority who attend church weekly.
The rest of the 30 percent of Americans who call themselves evangelical have started to slip in their morals and now actually poll worse than the rest of America on traditional measures of upstanding behavior—they are just as likely to live together and have kids out of wedlock, and their teenage daughters lose their virginities at an earlier age than the girls of most Americans. University of Virginia historian W. Bradford Wilcox blames this partly on class differences and particularly on a lingering "redneck" Appalachian strain in evangelical culture. (I'm a "fucking redneck," wrote Levi, the father of Bristol's baby, on his MySpace page, before it was taken down.)
In that way, Bristol's pregnancy can be spun as just another one of the Palins' impeccable working-class credentials—salmon fisherman, union member, DWI, hockey mom, soldier son, pregnant teenage daughter.
The most remarkable differences between the large mass of evangelicals and the rest of Americans are in divorce statistics. Since the '70s, evangelicals and the coastal elites have effectively switched places. Evangelicals are now far more likely to get divorced, whereas couples with four years of college education have cut their divorce rates in half. An intact happy marriage that produces well-behaved children, it turns out, is becoming a luxury of the elites—bad news for the Obamas.
Hanna Rosin is the author of God's Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission To Save the Nation and a contributing editor at the Atlantic. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.