'Saint Sarah' Misses the Point

Newsweek Cover Story Is a Caricature of Christianity

Republican vice-presidential candidate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin holds 6-month-old son Trig onstage after her address at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn.
Republican vice-presidential candidate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin holds 6-month-old son Trig onstage after her address at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. (photo: CNS photo)

You’d think she were one of the mysteries of our faith, all the writing that has gone into trying to grapple with the political career and attraction to and hatred for former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

In the case of the recent Newsweek cover portraying Palin as “Saint Sarah” — in a backhanded canonization not quite the same as the Vatican approach — the quandary isn’t all that mysterious. The Newsweek story, written by a writer who fashions herself as an expert on religion, once again has the magazine betraying an ignorant caricature of Christianity in its newsroom.

Take, for instance: “Many Christian women loathe Palin, of course, and many men love her, but a certain kind of conservative, Bible-believing woman worships her.”

I’m not so sure that was just a cute stylistic maneuver. The pro-life Christian conservative woman is an exotic creature in this particular venue. To the outsider, devotion to saints would be far from the strangest thing a Catholic does. Further, in a country where Barack Obama has, at times, been likened to a deity, why wouldn’t someone worship Sarah Palin too?

Newsweek recounts her honesty about her most recent pregnancy. She had a dark thought. This, in Christianity, according to this newsmagazine, is anathema. Christians as human? Dark thoughts and temptations? How can that be? Never mind that perfect people would have never been in need of redemption and salvation.

But I digress from a good story.

The cover piece goes on to castigate Palin for her femininity. “Palin has already overshared: Nothing makes a person, let alone a politician, appear more vulnerable, more ordinary, and more unambiguously female than a scene in a bathroom where she pees on a stick. But then she defies a generation of pro-life activists who preached that the life of the fetus is sacred, no matter what an individual woman wants.”

As a political strategy, did Hillary Clinton crying during primary season hurt her? It’s a legitimate question for political analysis. But it’s only in a culture where the sexual revolution has so skewed our attitudes and relationship with natural law and biology that being “unambiguously female” makes headlines.

Newsweek goes on to describe Palin’s story about having her son Trig, who has Down syndrome, as a women’s story, which “has all the familiar elements of evangelical testimony: tribulation and dread; trust in God; and, finally, great blessings.”

You, of course, don’t have to be evangelical to appreciate fear, faith and gratitude. Some of the most powerful testimonies frequently come from men. From the Gospels. From the pulpit. It’s not something for the script of the Christian Sex and the City. It’s about the cross. It’s about why we’re alive. It’s about why any of this matters.

The newsmagazine misses all of that glory, though. So they are stuck with an odd trailblazing curiosity who is working out a puzzle — “a path through this thicket of contradictions” that is being a Christian woman who wants to do more than fit Newsweek’s caricature of what a Christian woman is. In truth, while being on a presidential ticket isn’t all that commonplace, insofar as she is a Christian mom and wife engaged with the world, Sarah Palin isn’t the rare bird Newsweek thinks she is. It’s why the night of her famous Republican Convention speech so many men e-mailed me to say that they liked Sarah Palin’s presence on the national scene because she reminds them of their own wives: a religious woman working hard on various fronts, not really represented in popular culture and, for all her flair, actually pretty “ordinary.”

Obviously, Sarah Palin herself continues to be a legitimate news story, and she’s a person full of complexities and decisions, and hers is an unfolding story. But the Newsweek story and the new attention to her as a backlash to feminism is an old story that the media doesn’t really know what to make of. And it’s way bigger than one woman.

It’s a story that those who paid attention to the late John Paul II know well, when he offered a different vision of what feminism could be. It’s a story that those who paid attention to and drank in Paul VI’s warnings in Humanae Vitae know too painfully well. Men and women are not only different, but there is a beauty and genius in our differences. A complementarity that the world needs and heaven knows we need in our lives.
The chaos of the sexual revolution, though, ravaged our culture, media and otherwise. We saw it not only in the secular world, but throughout the Church as well. Just consider the chaos of the recent health-care debate. Though I simplify, the image of a non-habited religious sister railing against the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on CNN was not unrelated. We lost something, all of us, when we lost sight of who we were and our relationships to one another in the natural order — when we stopped supporting one another.

“Palin may say she’s a pugnacious jock primed to take on the big boys, but her family, beauty-queen figure, and glossy hair are her calling cards.” Again, Newsweek reacts not so much to Palin, but acknowledges the existence of Christian women who will be both, trying not to compromise either fundamental reality of their existence. Newsweek derides Palin’s Christianity as Reaganesque — which they mean as backhandedly as the “saint”: “It’s easy. It’s optimistic. It’s future-oriented.”
And there they stumble into the real story! The story of Christianity and the cross and the natural order is much easier than the alternative, though never easy in our fallen state. And, in terms of the future, it’s the true audacity of hope, offering mercy and redemption that no mere politician can dole out.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist.