It’s been a long time since religious conservatives have been this elated about anyone. They raised Sarah Palin’s choice immediately and rallied rapidly to her defense when news broke that her unmarried, teenage daughter is pregnant.
After a year’s worth of stories about whether the religious right was “dead,” they now seem to be flexing great muscle, helping to bring about the most antiabortion ticket running on the most antiabortion platform – ever.
But there’s something else going on here, and it has at least one Christian leader worried. Mark DeMoss, former chief of staff to Jerry Falwell and now a leading Christian public relations executive, is hoping that Palin turns out well but has been shocked and worried by the reflexive Christian embrace of her.
“Too many evangelicals and religious conservative are too preoccupied with values and faith and pay no attention to competence. We don’t apply this approach to anything else in life, including choosing a pastor.” Imagine, he said, if a church was searching for a pastor and the leadership was brought a candidate with great values but little experience. “They’ve been a pastor for two years at a church with 150 people but he shares our values, so we hired him to be pastor of our 5,000 person church? It wouldn’t happen! We don’t say, ‘He shares our values, so let’s hire him.’ That’s absurd. Yet we apply that to choosing presidents. It blows my mind.”
A Matter of Validation
Why does this happen? In part, it’s about validation. Christians in America feel that national leaders and mainstream media hold them in contempt, so having a real evangelical in power tells the world, “we must not be as crazy as people think we are,” DeMoss explains. He refers to the “Yellow Pages mentality” among some Christians: a reference to the idea that some churches publish directories of Christian-run businesses so that other Christians can only patronize them.
To be clear, DeMoss isn’t saying Palin is unqualified. “The reality is, we don’t know – and neither does McCain if he only met her once.” The other Christian leaders who rallied around her didn’t know much either. “I’m not hinting something’s amiss but we don’t know her and the people who gave her glowing response Friday didn’t know. The euphoric rush to anoint without knowing — it’s a dangerous thing.”
There’s one more dynamic that may play out. The more Palin is criticized, the more Christians will come to her defense. That’s especially true if critics mock her religion, but almost any attacks on her may enrage Christians. In 2004, one of the techniques the Bush campaign used to rally Christians was to portray him as a man of faith being mocked by liberals and the mainstream media. That just made him seem persecuted, and therefore more Christ-like.
A Comparison to Hillary Clinton
We’ve already seen that on the gender issue. McCain adviser Carly Fiorina said she was appalled by the Obama campaign’s attempts to “belittle Gov. Sarah Palin’s experience…. Because of Hillary Clinton ‘s historic run for the presidency and the treatment she received, American women are more highly tuned than ever to recognize and decry sexism in all its forms. They will not tolerate sexist treatment of Gov. Palin.”
Watch soon for Christians to cast criticism of Palin as being anti-Christian.
There are several possible risks to evangelicals of having embraced her so rapidly. It’s clear that appealing to religious conservatives was key factor for McCain, so if Palin ends up sinking the ticket, religious conservative leaders will be blamed. They’ll lose face within the party and also among rank-and-file evangelicals who might reasonably have expected that their leaders checked out Palin before endorsing her.
Of course, if Palin turns out to be a great national hero, religious conservatives will look not only powerful but also sage. In short, just as John McCain took a big risk with this selection, religious leaders have gambled their credibility on the same bet.
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