Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Unclothed Emperor: Sarah Palin and Catholic Voters

I’ll put my cards on the table right away: I think Sarah Palin would be a disaster as vice-president. In fact, I find it insulting in the extreme that a major political party would offer her to the American people as a possible vice-president—as if we have no brains, no moral acumen, no ability to sift fact from fiction even when the fiction is so outrageous that only a fool would mistake it for fact. If I were a woman, I’d be fighting mad at the insinuation that I might choose to vote for Sarah Palin because she’s a viable role model for women in the 21st century.

Political analysts are rightly focusing attention on Sarah Palin’s lack of any preparation at all for the office for which she’s being proposed. I share this concern. But my primary objection to Sarah Palin has to do with her religious worldview. It’s, in a word, dangerous—dangerously dangerous.

And here’s the galling thing about it: there’s nothing really new about Sarah Palin’s religious worldview. The kooky theocratic positions she defends, tricked out in carefully clipped scripture verses that ignore the entire gist, the basic moral thrust, of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, are not significantly different from those that the political right has dangled for some years now in front of “values voters.”

The insult Sarah Palin represents to American voters is that she’s being offered to us now: now, when anyone with eyes to see can see that the values shtick of the religious right has never been anything but a carrot dangled before the horse of right-wing Christian voters, with no intent for that carrot ever to reach the mouth of the horse. Who keeps predictably lunging for the carrot, wizened as may be, even when it will never have a taste of it . . . .

There are many ways to approach the question of all that is dangerous about Sarah Palin’s religious worldview—an all that comprises a grab-bag full of horrors ranging from the belief that women are made to be dominated by men, to the belief that God has a special place in God’s heart for the red, white, and blue, to the assumption that the war in Iraq is a holy war, to the conclusion that God intends to “save” the Jewish people before the final curtain of history slams down, and that anything the state of Israel does in the meantime is therefore automatically blessed by God. And then there’s the shooting wolves from airplanes thing, the cherished proposition that the natural world is given into “man’s” hands to exercise dominion over (read: exploit) it . . . .

Not to mention the whole family values bag of tricks, whose contents are rightly being pulled out for inspection by bloggers and reporters today, and examined with mingled amusement, consternation, and disbelief. Here’s a way to track the absurd claim the religious right continues to try to make on American voters’ loyalty today—even today: in less than two decades, the religious right has gone from wagging its finger at us about the immorality of out-of-wedlock pregnancy (remember Dan Quayle and Murphy Brown?), to chiding us now if we dare to wonder whether conceiving a child without benefit of marriage might be antithetical to sound family values.

We’re now being told—and told we’d better swallow the story, or else—that conceiving a child before marriage is a positive demonstration of pro-life values. It’s a choice that affirms the sanctity of marriage, the resolve of “Christians” to overcome abortion, the complementarity of servant women and master men. Tom Minnery, senior v-p of Focus on the Family Action, informed the American public after he and other right-wing politico-religious head honchos had twisted McCain’s arm to pick Palin, that she "she has not rejected the feminine side of who she is, so for that reason, she will be attractive to conservative voters" (

Puhleez. I don’t care a flip whether Sarah Palin’s first-born son arrived eight months after she eloped with Track’s father. I think it’s as distasteful (and as enervating, given the real problems our society faces) to focus attention on the struggles Bristol Palin now faces as it was to focus attention on Bill Clinton’s White House sexcapades week after dreary week after dreary week several years ago.

But—and this is a but that can't simply be cast aside as irrelevant special pleading on the part of liberals—the Sarah Palins of the world have made these questions an issue. Sarah Palin opposes sex education in schools. Sarah Palin believes abstinence-only education works. Sarah Palin has held her foot in the door to keep pregnant teen mothers from receiving benefits they desperately need in order to raise the children that she and the churches allied with her tell these teens they must bear and raise, or else.

Sarah Palin has represented herself as a shining exemplar of family values. She is a courageous foot soldier of the Lord in the battle against demonic gays with their demonic clamor for marital rights equal to the ones she and her spouse enjoy. It beggars belief that her defenders would now seek to flip her own family’s record vis-à-vis family values upside down and try to convince us that this painfully marred record not only does not require embarrassed justification, but is actually exemplary—a wonderful demonstration to us of the lessons about the ideal family that the religious right has been trying so hard to get through our thick skulls lo these many years now.

And who’s buying this hogwash? Well, Catholics, for one thing—at least some Catholics, and if a recent online Zogby poll is any indicator of the drift of Catholic opinion after McCain’s announcement of Palin as his running mate, a goodly number of Catholics.

Today’s Clerical Whispers blog has a report that a Zogby poll done soon after the announcement found that 54 percent of Catholic respondents see McCain’s choice of Palin as positive—a percentage that mirrors the views of voters as a whole in the entire sample of 526 respondents ( Fifty-four percent of American Catholics—if the Zogby poll is accurate—see Palin in a positive light. Fifty-four percent of my co-religionists not only do not see her eccentric, dangerous religio-political worldview as objectionable, but presumably find it consonant with Catholic teaching and Catholic values.

These findings don’t surprise me. But they do boggle my mind. They represent the strongest possible indictment of the American Catholic bishops, who have intentionally led Catholic voters into the cul-de-sac of Christian right politics—a cul-de-sac going nowhere, because it was designed to be a dead end. And it has not taken rocket science to see this. In continuing to permit—even to encourage—Catholic voters to believe it is their religious duty to vote for Sarah Palin and her ilk, the American Catholic bishops are shamefully abdicating their duty to be responsible teachers of their flock, not to mention competent pastors.

There is tremendous irony in what has happened to the American Catholic vote in the last two decades. And if we cannot see that irony, I think we might as well begin to pack our bags and abandon the public forum in which we claim we have something of importance to share about values.

Here’s the dark heart of the irony: Sarah Palin is what used to be called a lapsed Catholic. She was baptized Catholic, and as a young teen, chose to be re-baptized in the Assemblies of God church (see Cathleen Decker and Michael Finnegan, “Palin Has Risen Quickly from PTA to VP Pick,” Los Angeles Times, 30 August,,0,2159346.story).* In choosing Sarah Palin over Joe Biden—apparently with the active complicity of many bishops—American Catholics are choosing a lapsed Catholic over a practicing one. The claim that Sarah Palin somehow represents Catholic values better than Joe Biden does requires as many mental contortions to make it acceptable as does the claim that conceiving a baby out of wedlock is an exemplary demonstration of family values.

What is wrong with this picture? Well, it’s what’s always wrong when fiction trumps fact, and when we’re asked to pretend that we don’t spot the fiction, that our eyes and brains are on cruise control—a damning irony so frequently evident in the behavior of morally vacuous leaders that Hans Christian Andersen invented a fairy tale about an emperor with no clothes to expose the irony.

As recently as last Saturday, the high muck-muck of the Knights of Columbus, Carl A. Anderson, was once again spouting gibberish about how Catholics have no choice except to vote McCain in this election, because Biden is “a man at odds with the highest levels of his own Catholic faith” (see, linking to an op-ed piece by Anderson in the Sun Times [Chicago],,CST-EDT-open30.article). Yes, that Carl A. Anderson, the same Supreme Knight who recently announced to this year’s annual convention of the Knights of Columbus that,

We will never succeed in building a culture of life if we continue to vote for politicians who support a culture of death.

It is time that Catholics shine a bright line of separation between themselves and all those politicians who defend the abortion regime of Roe v. Wade.

Imagine if this year millions of Catholic voters simply say “no” – no to every candidate of every political party who supports abortion (

If this is not a classic look-at-the-emperor’s-splendid-clothes argument, then I’ve never met one of those splendid-clothes arguments. News flash for Mr. Anderson: millions of Catholic voters have been simply saying no to candidates who support abortion, over and over—as in helping get Mr. Bush elected.

And if the current presidential regime even remotely resembles what “building a culture of life” rather than a culture of death is all about, then I believe I’ve just spent the last four years on Pluto rather than planet Earth. In what shape, form, or fashion does the response to Katrina represent the values of a culture of life? Or the war in Iraq? Or the failure to provide even basic healthcare for millions of citizens, including millions of children and teen mothers struggling to raise children?

The disparity is too easy to see. The glaring reality—the gap between fact and fiction—is simply too obvious. Something else must be going on in the bishops’ willingness to let themselves be played for fools again and again by the religious right, when no promises about life values are ever cashed in, and yet Catholic voters are asked one more time to believe that their votes will contribute to a culture of life, if they’ll only vote right.

There must be some other reason for the bishops to permit people like Carl Anderson to claim the protection of the episcopal mantle, as they fulminate about what those at the “highest levels of the Catholic faith” think about matters political. Sadly, I have come to the conclusion that the American Catholic bishops, on the whole, actually believe in and support the “values” of the current administration, in all their bankrupt ugliness, more than they do the values of those who propose viable ethical-political alternatives to the status quo.

It’s about power. It’s all about power. It’s about image management. It’s about money, its ebb and flow. It’s about compromises and back-room deals. It’s about you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.

It’s, as Sarah Palin reminds us, about men ruling the world and women submitting to their God-given role as servant leaders. It’s about abandonment of pastoral responsibility—an abandonment so painfully evident in what we now know about the abuse crisis and how a majority of bishops have handled it that I really do not know how these distinguished gentlemen of the cloth keep holding up their heads, let alone stand in the pulpit and preach to us.

And this is an abandonment of pastoral responsibility that runs through the leading ranks of all American Christian churches. Were it otherwise, McCain would never have even considered insulting our intelligence and moral sensibility so profoundly by offering Sarah Palin to us as an exemplar of Christian values.

*Interestingly enough, though John Allen’s analysis of Palin as a post-denominational Christian notes the irony of her appeal to Catholic voters, Allen does not even mention her childhood Catholicism: see


Amanda said...

First off, I offer my apologies as I'm sure this comment will probably run on, and in a babbly sort of way, too. It's hard to gather my thoughts in a comment and I have a lot of thoughts on this subject.

Now, to the topic at hand. Sarah Palin. So much to say about her.

1) I want to say right away that I'm not a traditional democrat. there are several places where I veer from the party beliefs, and abortion is one of them. I am pro-life. I believe choice comes in many forms, and I don't think a woman should be allowed to murder her baby for any reason. I don't believe in murder. I don't believe in it for war, for death penalty, or for abortion. I am anti-murder. A woman's choice is two-fold - she can choose her sexual practices, and in the case of rape/incest/etc, she can choose to put the baby up for adoption. I understand that there's a line - I have less of a problem, for instance, with an abortion done to save a mother's life - but on the whole, I view abortion as a means to irresponsibility. People have argued with me that if we don't allow abortion, girls will resort to coat hangers and poisons, but frankly, I don't care - that's their choice, too. I don't believe mothers should do their children's homework for them in order for their children to do well in school, either. If the children chose not to do their homework, they have to pay the consequences. That's how we learn in life - consequences.

that having been said, though, this isn't a major issue in the presidency. We obviously just had 8 years of pro-life-supporting Bush, and did that change the laws? No. What are people afraid of? If Obama gets elected, he'll allow abortions? Um...yeah, we already allow it in our country. I dont' get why this is such a major issue because nothing is even close to changing at this point, and neither candidate is going to make a dent in it. There are so many other topics that are hotter and more relevent. Unfortunately, I know people who vote strictly on abortion beliefs. The whole thing just boggles me. Why? We aren't fighting this political battle right now! If it was up for debate, sure, that'd make sense, but come on!

2) The idea of McCain picking Sarah Palin in order to win over the Hillary Clinton supporters is absurd and patronizing. As if we, as women, are stupid enough to just go wherever a woman is involved. I think that some of those Hillary fans, who had planned to vote for McCain just to "get even" with Obama for winning (in itself stupid logic) will now be swayed back to the democratic side because of this insult. I think McCain just dug his grave with this decision. Plain and simple.

Unfortunately, I know people who were on the fence who have decided to vote for McCain because of Ms. Palin. One girl I know said Sarah Palin "rocked" and is the perfect representative of all American women. Ah! I shudder to imagine this. Really, it makes no sense. That comment came from a woman who is a stay at home mom, and who believes all women should be stay at home moms. How in the world does Sarah Palin represent the stay at home moms of the world? Politics is like the ultimate career path! Maybe in her small-time world she had time to spend with her family, but if she got into the White House? No, I'm sorry, but she'd almost never see her kids. She'd be like the ultimate antithesis for what the religious right believes women should be. And they're promoting her? I don't get it. Personally, I think with five kids, one of them with Downs Syndrome and another pregnant, she needs to pick a career that will allow her to see more of her family. And not just because she's a woman! I don't know what her husband does but I would say the same thing about him. That many kids with that many problems need parents who pay attention to them even more than the rest of kids. I doubt the best thing for that family is to pull them into more neglect. And it confuses me to no end that the...hem..."family values" party would proclaim it a good thing for her to practically abandon her family to be the vice president.

3) Now, speaking of those "family values," I'm so sick and tired of hearing about them. How can the right say they have family values if they're the one leading the army against marriage equality? What - exclusive family values? We're going to deny people the opportunity to have families and yet say we're all about the promotion of families? Give me a break.

4) Abstinance education. Yeah. Maybe if she'd have supported equalized sex ed, her daughter wouldn't have gotten pregnant. I feel so sorry for the poor girl - 17, pregnant, for all that they say they're proud of her I'm sure her parents are totally ticked off and that she feels completely depressed for disappointing them, getting married to the teen father in what I'm sure will end up being a miserable marriage on its way to divorce, in the spotlight in the nation, totally unprepared for what's coming up. Her mother is using her as a political tool! Turn a bad situation to your advantage, take advantage of your children, exploit them, force them to conform to your beliefs. I think the lady should be in prison for that logic. Someone needs to talk to Bristol and let her know there's life out there, and options. No, I don't think she should get an abortion, but really, is marriage to the father the best choice? Why not give the kid up for adoption, or does the right's "family values" say adoption is unamerican? (hmm...I wrote a story about that once)

5) I didn't know that Sarah Palins' first son was born 8 months after she married. That's interesting. Do you find it ironic that while republicans are babbling away about family values and teen mothers keeping the baby etc that no one seems to realize that they could say the exact same thing on the other side of the fence? Obama's mother was 18 and his father left their family. She chose to keep him and raise him. Maybe she didn't have the option to get married - does that make her less pro-family? If Bristol's fiance jilts her, does that make Sarah Palin less qualified? The idea is absurd.

In conclusion, I'm just thankful that this lady has just about zero chance of getting into office. This was a poor, poor choice from the republican party. I know I missed some points in there, but I think I've said most of what I want to say. AGain, my apologies for the length and scattered nature...

William D. Lindsey said...

Amanda, your comment is not by any means babbly--it's full of rich insights.

Re: abortion, I agree with your assessment that "we obviously just had 8 years of pro-life-supporting Bush, and did that change the laws?"

This is what baffles me about the continued willingness of so-called pro-life voters to keep on electing leaders who have no intention of changing the abortion laws, but are using this issue as a wedge issue to get elected.

And it's not like we don't know this. It has happened time after time, and many religious leaders are STILL encouraging their flocks to vote "pro-life"--when the record on the other side of the fence, the anti-life record, of these same leaders just becomes more impossible to ignore.

I'm struck, too, by what you say about Obama's own story insofar as it parallels the spin now being put on the Palin family story. I hadn't thought of it, but you're absolutely right there.

But, then, we use such a double standard in assessing our candidates, with race playing a major factor. It is coming out that Sarah Palin's various churches have made outrageous politico-religious statements that go way beyond anything Rev. Jeremiah Wright said.

And yet, not a peep of outrage about those statements by white pastors and white churches. And I have no doubt at all, sadly, that if Obama's daughter were 17 and pregnant, there'd be all kinds of overt and covert racist rhetoric about the pregnancy.

Thanks for reading, and more than that, reading my blog carefully and taking time to respond to it.

Amanda said...

"And I have no doubt at all, sadly, that if Obama's daughter were 17 and pregnant, there'd be all kinds of overt and covert racist rhetoric about the pregnancy."

Oh--ouch. I hadn't thought of that and just reading it made me wince. What a horrifying thought.

I guess it's politics and one should expect double-standards, but it certainly doesn't make them any easier to tolerate or swallow.

Amanda said...

Ah, there's the point I missed. I meant to comment on the whole everything-Israel-does-is-sacred idea. American support for Israel really irks me. My sister lives on the West Bank and is married to a Palestinian refugee there. They are having a lot of trouble getting him a green card to the US, not because of him, but because no one will listen. They were married in February, and my brother and I flew overseas to stay with her for a week and be with her in her marriage. I remember being very excited about going to a totally different culture. i read up on Israel and its history and learned a lot. What I did learn was what things were really like over there.

I'd always sort of dismissed my sister's sentiments about the situation because I know she had certain biases. She loves the Middle East and its culture, spent a year in Yemen before going to Palestine, and she always spoke about Israel in a degrading, disgusting way. When I landed in Tel Aviv, I was disappointed because everything was so modern, so westernized. I was surprised that things weren't so different. It was nighttime, and we drove all the way to Jenin. Once we crossed the checkpoint border (manned by army members with gigantic guns), suddenly, we were in a different world. We were in a world of poverty. The roads were so bad we needed motion sickness medicine just driving around. Everything smelled of sewage. People had nothing. My sister had always said that the reason they gave people such a hard time at the airport if they said they were going to the West Bank was because Israel didn't want the world to know how bad the situation was in Palestine. When I got there, I realized that this wasn't just a bias - this was true.

Over the course of a week, I spent a lot of time in both parts of the country. I grew to despite Israel. I heard all the stories about their human rights violations. About torture. About snipers shooting off the heads of 10-year-old girls. I watched the way the guards at checkpoints (which were all over the place) treated everyone. They aren't lying - Israel is NASTY. I can't believe we support them and give them millions - perhaps billions - of dollars every year. Israel is a terrorist nation, even if they don't terrorize the US. But the in the US, it's good manners to be friends with them. They're a good bully-ally. It's awful, and when I hear the rare person get up and speak against Israel, it makes me very happy.

William D. Lindsey said...

Amanda, these are powerful first-hand observations. They mirror observations shared with me by a Mennonite family I met in graduate school. The husband was a classmate of mine. They had lived on the West Bank and saw much discrimination against the Palestinians.

To my mind, what's objectionable in the worldview Palin represents is how it twists biblical passages into some kind of justification for everything Israel does. I think that kind of religious gloss to give automatic justifications to what ANY nation does, including our own, is very dangerous. It's a kind of idolatry.

I can certainly understand the defensiveness of Israel and the passionate attachment many Americans have to the nation. At the same time, I don't think that passionate attachment should translate into a green light for human rights violations--particularly when bizarre apocalyptic views that distort the bible are used to justify that approach.

As an aside that's not really an aside, I always find it especially grievous when people who have endured terrible unmerited suffering turn around and inflict the same kind of suffering on others. The most painful experiences I've had as a gay man have occurred at the hands of African-American women.

I naively expect better of people who know what it feels like to have one's rights trampled on.

colkoch said...

Great insights Amanda, and thanks Bill for posting this. I, myself, am still too incoherent to write anything remotely sensible. I understand exactly where Amanda is coming from.

I too, did not know that Palin was pregnant when they eloped. No wonder the Abstinence Only message didn't get through to her daughter.

Bill, this piece is a brilliant expose of the twisted vicious logic of the religious right. When you wrote about Murphy Brown and the out of wedlock baby controversy I just laughed. What a perfect choice to expose this blatant hypocrisy.

However, when you also wrote that Palin prevented funding for unwed mothers in Alaska, I wasn't laughing.

I wasn't laughing when she allowed the righteous right to use her son Trig as a political football.

I wasn't laughing when I saw the pictures of her daughter holding Trig to cover up her as of yet unannounced pregancy.

I wasn't laughing when I heard she practiced the ever so courageous sport of hunting from helicopters.

I wasn't laughing when the president of the NRA gushingly stated: “How can you go wrong with a moose burger-eating, fishing governor?”

And I haven't been laughing as the pro life bunch lauds her and her family as perfect examples of Family Values.

I keep thinking of all the crummy paying jobs I took so I could spend more time with my own daughter. All the opportunities turned down, all the ambition stifled. I cannot imagine towing small children around in a wagon showing them off in the furtherance of my own political ambition. I can't imagine my own mother who had a family of five leaving us high and dry to pursuit political ambition, essentially leaving us to raise each other.

I just read another article which makes me cringe. Apparently her husband Todd has unlimited access to her Alaskan office, sits in the executive chair no less. Who did Alaska really elect as governor?

For all the bashing Billary took as a couple, the boundaries seem even more enmeshed with the Palins. All in all this is no laughing matter. It's sickening scarey shit, and what little respect I had for McCain is entirely evaporated. Long live independent bloggers.

William D. Lindsey said...

Colleen, you say, "Apparently her husband Todd has unlimited access to her Alaskan office, sits in the executive chair no less. Who did Alaska really elect as governor?"

Excellent point, and one that underscores my argument that Palin's religious worldview is dangerous. Susan Brooks Thisthethwaite, a theologian who teaches at Univ. of Chicago, has written an editorial for the Washington Post noting that Palin's brand of religion requires women to submit to their husbands.

Which would mean, as Thistlethwaite notes, that it wouldn't be Palin, but her husband, making decisions if she occupies the v-p chair. You know, the one that once belonged to an Alaskan separatist party and addressed its convention....

The Thistlethwaite editorial is at

IronKnee said...

And let's not forget the splendid and classy "baby daddy," Levi Johnston. He described himself in his MySpace profile as follows:

"I'm a f**kin' redneck who likes to snowboard and ride dirt bikes. But I live to play hockey. I like to go camping and hang out with the boys, do some fishing, shoot some sh*t and just f**kin' chillin' I guess. Ya f*ck with me I'll kick ass."

Only he didn't leave out the vowels. Sarah Palin is now parading him on stage at the RNC as her future son-in-law and another exemplar of family values.

IronKnee said...

I probably sounded pretty negative in my last comment about Levi Johnston, so I should balance that with a positive note. He's 18 years old, he has a "big potential" (new code word?), and he's only been arrested once.

William D. Lindsey said...

IronKnee, I appreciate the response--and to me, you didn't sound negative in your comment. I was just talking over lunch to a mother with two teens now in college, and she was saying (in the context of this same discussion) that she emphasizes to her teens how important it is to remember anything they put on a site like MySpace will one day come back to them.

You're just quoting what Levi Johnston wrote, after all.

I find it strange--really appalling, to be honest--that these young folks are being put front row center in a political campaign, by the very folks who have tried to tell us their family is off-limits. I suppose it's inevitable that, if you declare yourself to be a model family, people will want to gawk.

But when a teenaged daughter is dealing with a pregnancy and is not married? This has to be excruciating for her.

colkoch said...

I don't Bill, we may see this whole family on Jerry Springer before this is all done.

On a personal note, as a rabid hockey fan myself, these folks aren't doing much for the reputation of the sport. Canadian and European hockey parents must be cringing. I know I am.

William D. Lindsey said...

Colleen, I hadn't thought of the downside of this political discussion for hockey fans--but you're right, it involves you all in a personal way! And I know from my years studying in Canada how intensely folks react to that sport and those who play it.

I'm glad to know there are some hockey moms like you who speak a language that makes a little sense to me.