Palin and Evangelical Politics

Welcome to our new contributor, Jeffrey Scholes. Jeff is finishing his PhD at Denver University, where he focuses on intersections of religion and American culture. He has written from the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture and other publications. Presently he also teaches in the Philosophy Department at my place, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Welcome to Jeff!

Venial vs. Mortal in Evangelical Politics

The Evangelical leadership overwhelming applauded John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate wholesale. Yet as revelations emerge from the biography of this newly minted public figure, the effort to maintain an unqualified enthusiasm for the initial endorsement may get tricky.

More interesting is what statements from prominent Evangelical leaders say about the complex relationship between the tenets of Evangelicalism and politics.

Specifically (for now!) the news that Palin’s 17 year-old daughter, Bristol, is pregnant, will deliver the baby, and will marry the father has presented leaders such as James Dobson with a more complex situation than Sarah’s decision to give birth to her developmentally challenged baby. The latter situation is a hanging curve ball for pro-lifers: the refusal to abort a fetus with Down Syndrome is an example par excellence within the pro-life community. However the approval of Bristol’s decision to take her pregnancy to term is more of a split-finger fastball.

Without missing a beat, Dobson cast the issue in terms of sin. “Being a Christian does not mean you're perfect. Nor does it mean your children are perfect. But it does mean there is forgiveness and restoration when we confess our imperfections to the Lord.” Bristol’s decision to have sex out of wedlock is the forgivable offense; a decision to abort the fetus is not. A hierarchy of sins is not a new way of casting judgments for Evangelicals or Christians in general. The tricky part, though, is balancing public statements that have political cache with the tenets of the Evangelical faith. Because abortion is and has been the most non-negotiable political (and perhaps moral) issue for most Evangelicals, being on the right side of it will always run cover for more negotiable factors that led to the situation. It is on this distinction that really separates the political sides on the issue of abortion.

More to the point, Dobson’s comments underscore the tendency for Evangelical leaders who are inclined to involve themselves politically to offer generalized statements about “the family,” while specifics that go on in all families are submerged. (See Dick Cheney’s awkward handling of his daughter lesbianism.)

I ask myself, “at what point would the Evangelical hammer come down?” Does Sarah Palin’s decision to give birth to Trig cover over a multitude of sins such as the alleged abuse of power she wielded in the firing of a government employee? Does it cover over the implication that she has a daughter who clearly went against the family’s morals and had unprotected sex out of wedlock as a minor? And finally, does the fact that Sarah Palin may become the second most powerful person in the country quickly force Dobson and Richard Land to erect a special filter for their judgments? Perhaps like sins, all people aren’t created equal as well.


Kelly Baker said…
Welcome aboard, Jeff!

What I find highly interesting is that Republicans are lauding Palin's choice and now her daughter's to carry pregnancies to term. These choices as Jeff aptly points out are moral ones, but they are choices. Yet the staunch pro-life rhetoric ignores often the fact that both of these women benefit from a system in which we can choose. Abortion, it seems, will become a hot button issue in this election.

For an interesting take on Palin's choice and the larger debate, see

Blogger New Kid shows how some want to demonize women who choose to abort fetuses with severe health problems as only pro-choice women (to make Palin's choice seem more saintly). As someone who is pro-choice and currently pregnant (how can that be!), the stark debate and moral overtones are quite tiresome because of the caricaturing of each side. I wonder how all of this is going to affect the Democratic platform on this issue.
Kelly Baker said…
I should also note that "severe health problems" is conflated with something like Down Syndrome in this rhetoric, which is deceptive (a point New Kid aptly makes in her post). Families make these decisions all the time, and I don't think Palin is as unique as Republicans and evangelicals suggest.
John G. Turner said…
Welcome Jeffrey -- glad to have you aboard. I hate to nitpick at new contributor, but...

1. "However the approval of Bristol’s decision to take her pregnancy to term is more of a split-finger fastball." Of course Dobson didn't miss a beat on this one. As any staunch pro-life evangelical, he's going to endorse Palin's support of her daughter bringing her fetus to term.

2. "Does Sarah Palin’s decision to give birth to Trig cover over a multitude of sins such as the alleged abuse of power she wielded in the firing of a government employee?" Frankly, no Republican conservatives think those allegations amount to a hill of beans. I don't think that's the dynamic at work here. They're just thrilled to have a bonafide evangelical conservative on the ticket.

What's interesting to me is that the Palin nomination has revived the profile of the Religious Right, in an election cycle in which the media previously focused on its obituary and the emergence of a religious left. Perhaps things haven't changed as much as people thought.
Jeff Scholes said…
Thanks for the comments! To Kelly, yes, the Palin situation highlights some potential new problems for the Dems on the issue of abortion. I don't know if you saw Fred Thompson's speech last night at the RNC, but he ratcheted up the tone on the issue (not just how conservatives have the moral high ground on abortion like W. tended to do) but really took pains to differentiate the Repub. stance from Obama's. We'll see how Obama reacts, but we'll probably have to wait for the debates.

And to John, I agree. Dobson did not veer from the conservative Evan. script on this one. It's not that his comments are surprising as much as the daughter's pregnancy (unwed, teenager) is so quickly put under the category of "a mistake that we all can make" and nothing more. We can assume that Dobson does not approve of premarital sex, yet the fact that this is how Bristol got pregnant is not criticized in the least on his way to his praise for her.

I said it was more of a "split-fingered fastball" as opposed to a "hanging curve" because some moral wrangling has to be done (despite Dobson's unequivocal comments). Or maybe not in his head!!!

Keep 'em coming!

Manlius said…
Jeff, you seem to assume that evangelicals view having an abortion as an unforgiveable offense. That's just patently false. Go to any local evangelical/Catholic pregnancy care center and you'll find very supportive, non-judgmental post-abortion counseling.