Palin and the Christian Patriarchy Movement

By Kathryn Joyce

This weekend, John McCain said that Sarah Palin is successful as a vice presidential candidate, politically speaking, first and foremost because she appeals to antifeminist voters, and that she represents the antithesis to the feminist movement. While at first that rhetoric might seem as dated as his accusing Obama of supporting socialism, in fact it looks like McCain is a lot more tuned in to the right wing base than it appears.

For the past several years, I"ve been researching an antifeminist Christian right movement that call itself the patriarchy movement. It advocates that men and women were given different roles and responsibilities by God in a sort of separate but equal hierarchy where men, whether husbands, fathers or brothers, are the spiritual leaders of the household, and women are helpmeets whose highest calling is being submissive, stay-at-home wives, willing mothers to many children, and mentors who teach other young Christian women how to be biblical wives who obey their husbands. In the most extreme circles, generally in the large and quickly growing homeschooling movement, patriarchal theology means that women aren't allowed to speak in church and that wives are subject to their husbands" wishes in everything.

But this movement isn't just relegated to the fringes. There's a milder, more polite version of patriarchy theology that's very common in mainstream conservative evangelical churches: complementarianism, which names itself in opposition to a form of evangelical feminism called "egalitarianism." Egalitarians asked only that the church recognize and respect women with careers, that birth control decisions be left within the family, and that the church allow a greater discussion of equality in marriage roles. But even these modest requests were threatening to complementarians, who believe that wherever the world goes, in a decade or two, the church will follow. So twenty years ago, they began to fight what they saw as the church's acceptance of this tepid feminism by creating the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood - an organization closely tied to the mammoth Southern Baptist Convention, which at 16 million members is the second largest denomination in the U.S. The Council worked with the SBC to create what is by now one of its most notorious statements: its 1998 family statement that says that women are to graciously submit themselves to their husbands" sacrificial leadership, as the church submits to the headship of Christ. This idea of submission and headship - that husbands have the "burden" of the final say in disagreements, and women are supposed to follow and support their husbands in whatever he decides - are echoed across mainstream evangelical churches, which stress biblical marriage roles as the cure for troubled marriages.

What's most striking about the patriarchy movement and complementarianism is how vehemently they denounce feminism, and in fact are defined by their opposition to feminism. They see it as a slippery slope that leads to things like abortion, divorce, gay rights, teen sex. That's no surprise, but interestingly, they also see feminism as something that can unravel the very foundations of biblical literalism. If the church ignores the gender hierarchies laid out in the Bible by accepting women's rights, they argue, then how will the lay believer trust that the Bible is the literal truth on any other matter? They also argue for traditional marriage from what might be called a marketing point of view, saying that women should submit to husbands to make the Christian church look like a return to well-ordered harmony, full of stable, happy marriages, that could attract outsiders.

There is an entire library of writing on biblical womanhood - a lifestyle that complementarians promote as the antithesis to feminism - in which conservative Christian women advocate fiercely antifeminist lives of submission and service. Within this literature, written largely by women, feminism is denounced as womankind's original sin. Sometimes it's spoken of as Eve's inherent sin nature that led her to take an unbiblical leadership role within her marriage by deciding to eat the apple without consulting Adam, and that that set up Satan's pattern of attacks on God's sovereignty - through women who upset the gender hierarchy. Sometimes they say that feminism is the snake itself - tempting Eve, as one writer for the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood put it, by telling her that the only way she could "reach her full potential" is to eat the apple.

So there's a lot of backstory to consider when John McCain told Fox News's Chris Wallace this weekend that "on a cold, politically calculating level" Sarah Palin is a boon for his campaign because she represents "a direct counterpoint to the liberal feminist agenda for America." The base that is energized by her, he implied, love her precisely for that reason.

Since the moment Palin was announced as McCain's running mate, conservative organizations have been hailing her as "our kind of woman," a "real woman," and the vanguard of "a new women's movement." Obviously, it's not entirely new, after more than twenty years of grassroots antifeminist activity, but Palin's nomination did serve as a sort of coming-out party for a movement that conservatives know has been growing for decades. On the day she was announced, Janice Crouse of Concerned Women for America released a statement saying:

"Take that feminists - here is a woman of accomplishment who brings a fresh face to traditional values and models the type of woman most girls want to become. For years, the feminist movement has acknowledged for leadership only those women who embrace a radical agenda. How refreshing that we have a woman who reflects the values of mainstream American women"pro-life, pro-marriage and pro-family."

CWA was only one of literally dozens of Christian right groups that immediately released statement praising the pick of Palin as one that not only paid homage to evangelicals, but to the conservative women who fill their ranks. Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition said that Palin would bring a new demographic to life -- "Faith Moms." Faith moms, he explained, are "the millions of women that attend weekly Bible study and discussion groups, coordinate church activities, drive their children to youth group and choir practice and are literally the lifeblood of thousands of churches across America." Mahaney continued, "I don't think it is an exaggeration to say these millions of "Faith Moms" could make the difference in November. Their passion and energy, which has been ignored in past elections, will be front and center this November. To paraphrase an old expression, this year "maybe the hands that rock the cradle" will help decide who rules this nation."

The hand that rocks the cradle is a favored expression among complementarians and patriarchy movement advocates, who use it frequently to describe women's true and lasting power, as they see it - through their posterity and the influence they can have on society by proxy, through the children they raise and the men they support. That this form of power is very second-hand and relational doesn't really come into the discussion of platitudes promising that women really are their most powerful as mothers.

But of course, Palin doesn't actually reflect the values of mainstream American women, and the notion that she would appeal to disillusioned Hillary Clinton voters was gradually dropped, along with the weird spectacle of right-wing misogynists feigning outrage over "lipstick on pigs" comments, or supporters pasting Palin's face on posters of Rosie the Riveter. This weekend, McCain made a surprisingly frank admission about Palin is valuable for embodying that "direct counterpoint" to the feminist agenda, but what her real intended appeal is has been clear for weeks. CNBC pundit Donny Deutsch illustrated it blatantly when he said that Palin marked "a new creation " of the feminist ideal," as a woman who did what Hillary Clinton did not do: "She put a skirt on." "I want her watching my kids," wrote Deutsch. "I want her laying next to me in bed."

In fact, Palin's appeal to women is dwarfed by her appeal to men. The New York Times's quote of the day yesterday was taken from a story on the men who attend Palin's rallies - and they attend in far greater numbers than do women. The quote of the day was a man explaining his support for Palin as a twist on the hand that rocks the cradle: "They bear us children, they risk their lives to give us birth, so maybe it's time we let a woman lead us." The article was full of praise for Palin that rested exclusively on her traditional womanliness, her femininity, rather than any personal qualifications for office. Other men interviewed for the article said things like, "Proud to be voting for a hot chick," "Who can't trust a mother?" "Marry me, Sarah," "You tell "em baby," and "This is not a ladies" campaign."

A number of feminist writers, and even Chris Matthews, have made the point that Palin's role in the campaign has not been as a vice presidential candidate, but as a surrogate campaign wife, chosen explicitly for her sex appeal, who could replace Cindy McCain - a woman who often seems beaten down and unhappy in her role. Conversely, Palin presents no weird dilemma of an unhappy spouse, but is instead has maintained the image of a buoyant, happy housewive, even as she has risen to the top of her state's political system, and is vying for national office.

Another writer, a women's hockey coach, recently wrote that Palin's identification as a hockey mom represented a shrewd piece of conservative identity politics: deftly marrying a singularly "Red State" sport, connoting aggression and nationalism, with motherhood politics, making Palin at once a picture of red-meat patriotism, and the demur wife who lets her husband do the fighting. This deceptively simple picture of a fierce feminine wife and mother ready to fight for her home, her kids, and her man - the image that complementarians say is the meaning of true womanhood; a woman who can do anything men can do, but chooses not to out of obedience to Christ - is underscored every time Todd Palin is raised as part of her qualifications, as McCain did recently.

There's also some theological resonance to Palin's sex appeal power. In a recent video report, Max Blumenthal found a number of Palin supporters in Alaska who agreed with the assessment of some Christian conservatives that Palin represented a new biblical "Esther" figure. Esther of the Bible was a woman chosen in a beauty pageant to be the new wife of the King of Persia, after he executed his own wife for disobeying him. She was chosen both for her beauty and her reaffirmation of women's submissive role. Though Esther's biblical fame is actually due to her using that submissive role and her beauty subversively in order to save her people from genocide, it seems the means and not the ends are what are most appreciated about Palin. For the numerous Christians who claim Palin is a new Esther, it's her beauty and their sense of her as "chosen" or anointed by God for these times that appeal more than her actual, personal qualifications.

Palin certainly speaks in such a way as to encourage these associations. During her first national speech when her name was announced, she declared that she would approach governing with "a servant's heart" - a bit of evangelical rhetoric that seemed to signal to the evangelical base, just as George W. Bush had used terms like "power in the blood" to telecast his religious sympathies in 2000, that she was one of them. In the term "servant's heart" - a staple of complementarian and biblical womanhood literature - the faithful hear 20 years" worth of sermons on men's and women's roles. Likewise, in a turn of phrase that speaks to anticontraception "Quiverfull" believers, who think Christians should accept as many children as God gives them, Palin referred to her children as her five blessings. Appropriately, Blumenthal's video also featured a wealth of Palin supporters at an antiabortion rally in Alaska where the pastors denounced birth control as equivalent to abortion.

Also in the video was footage of Pastor Thomas Muthee revisiting one of the churches Palin attends. Muthee is the African pastor who prayed over Palin in 2005, saying, "We come against the spirit of witchcraft, against all forms of witchcraft, against the python spirits." Later in the same video is audio of another of Palin's past religious advisors, Ed Kahlins, pastor of Wasilla Assemblies of God church, blessing Palin and cursing "Jezebel."

This sort of language isn't just the easily-mocked Pentecostal weirdness that so many have taken it as. In ideological movements, language means a lot. Witchcraft, in the parlance of conservative Christian believers, has an applicable, real life meanings, like trying to control areas of your life that should be controlled by God - which is an argument that a number of anticontraception activists make. It more broadly means rebellious independence, particularly in women. A line of Scripture often quoted against women who attempt to rise above their place is 1 Samuel 15: For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft. Likewise, Jezebel has a specific meaning in defining women who attempt to usurp male authority or become spiritual leaders in contradiction to the Bible's prohibitions. Women who, biblical womanhood advocates write, "believe they are doing what is good for the family" but instead are undertaking a "religious act driven by rebellion." This is a frightening accusation to make against devout women because they are constantly reminded that rebelling against proper male authority is equal to being a Jezebel, or to witchcraft - both of which are punishable by death.

While it might seem contradictory then that so many conservative Christians have embraced Palin's candidacy, considering that, if the Republicans win, she will be in a position of serious authority over men, a number of prominent Christians have performed some rhetorical gymnastics to square their support with their complementarian convictions. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and Southern Baptist leader Richard Land both argued that Palin was acceptable as long as A, she was performing political and not spiritual leadership, and B, her husband approved of her career goals.

That the Christian right has found a way to approve of Palin's candidacy should not be seen as a comforting move towards modern gender roles, but rather a stark reminder of how far afield from the mainstream the people Palin appeals to and represents are. And how emboldened they now are about their convictions that they can parse their definitions in public.


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