How do you solve a problem like Newsweek?

Journalists have long been puzzled over Sarah Palin’s popularity. In November, Newsweek took a stab at the trend with its provocative cover of Palin in running clothes: “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Sarah Palin: How Sarah Palin Hurts the GOP And the Country.”

The magazine’s latest cover features Palin with a halo on her head titled “Saint Sarah: What’s Palin’s appeal to conservative Christian women says about feminism and the future of the religious right.”

Lisa Miller’s thesis is compelling if it is true, but journalists usually rely on hard facts, polls, maybe interviews with political scientists to prove their points. Unfortunately, Miller’s article contains none of these to support her theory that Palin is somehow the new leader of the Christian Right. Instead, she strings together a bunch of anecdotes and quotes to prove what she thinks is happening. Allow me, in Douglas LeBlanc fashion, to pull some quotes out and make comments (bolded phrases are my own).

The story leads with Palin’s classic story of how she decided to give birth to her son Trig.

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.

Is there any indication that Palin doesn’t think the fetus is sacred? Lots of women who chose to give birth give testimonies about their decision-making process. Is she actually defying other activists?

Let’s face it: the Trig story is a women’s story, the kind girlfriends share over coffee or in church. It has all the familiar elements of evangelical testimony: tribulation and dread; trust in God; and, finally, great blessings. Many Christian women loathe Palin,

Who? Why?

of course, and many men love her,

Who? Why?

but a certain kind of conservative, Bible-believing woman worships her.

Who? Is it only Bible-believing women who worship her? And really? Worships her?

To a smaller number, she is a prophet, ordained by God for a special role in the cosmic battle against the forces of evil.

What forces of evil? Who thinks she was ordained by God? Does this smaller number think the political arena is the cosmic battle?

Palin has been antagonizing women on the left of late by describing herself as a “feminist,” a word she uses to mean the righteous

Is there a specific instance where she said that she means the righteous? Where’s the evidence of this?

Even if she never again seeks elected office, her pro-woman rallying cry, articulated in the evangelical vernacular, together with the potent pro-life example of her own family, puts Palin in a position to reshape and reinvigorate the religious right, one of the most powerful forces in American politics.

I would actually argue that her evangelical vernacular is somewhat lacking if she’s not talking about Jesus (which Miller mentions briefly). Is there any physical evidence that she’s actually reshaping or reinvigorating the religious right? It seems that the religious political arena has recently been overshadowed by the tea party movement (something Palin seems to spur). Also, what about Palin’s endorsements that weren’t successsful?

The Christian right is now poised to become a women’s movement–and Sarah Palin is its earthy Jerry Falwell.

What happened to the men in this? Is there evidence that people like Tony Perkins, James Dobson, etc. are taking marching orders from Palin? Is she somehow driving men out of the religious right? Have men stopped participating in politics? She writes about her support for Nikki Haley and Carly Fiorina, but these women haven’t won the general election yet. Why is helping in primaries enough to give her this much influence? Is there any evidence that people driving Fiorina and Haley votes are evangelicals, particularly evangelical women? How much has she raised? How much has she spent?

Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson used their media megaphones to preach a “family values” agenda–and then supported candidates who upheld their pro-marriage, antigay, and pro-life views. Their great triumph, the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, was followed by decades of acrimonious public debate about abortion, and political operatives soon discovered that no issue motivated voters more.

I don’t think Dobson was involved in supporting candidates until the last decade or two. If this is the case, what explains Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 and 1996? Wouldn’t it have motivated a certain percentage of voters, not “voters” in general?

And while women have long been active, even zealous, foot soldiers in family-values causes, they have not until now been passionate about their representatives on the national stage.

Where’s the evidence of this? Are there statistics on volunteers pre and post Palin? What about George W. Bush’s campaign in 2004? What about Reagan? How does she know that there are more volunteers?

…though they would not have called themselves feminists–were grappling with changing realities in their own world: too many were divorced and working outside the home to wholeheartedly embrace the traditional female identity of submissive wife and mother.

All evangelicals promote the female identity as submissive wife and mother? That’s quite the stereotype.

In 2008, 28 percent of born-again Christian women voted for Barack Obama…

Doesn’t this go against Miller’s theory? Or is she saying that Palin has emerged after the 2008 election? If that’s the case, where’s the evidence?

The women who follow Palin will fight against Roe–and support adoption and prenatal health clinics–but they aren’t generally focused on birth control, sex education, or gender discrimination.

How is she getting any idea about what these women believe? Has their been a poll or a survey?

These Christians seek a power that allows them to formally acquiesce to male authority and conservative theology, even as they assume increasingly visible roles in their families, their churches, their communities, and the world.

Is conservative theology just “female submission” in her mind? How can Palin (a woman) lead a group that wants to acquiesce to male authority?

When asked why she loves Sarah Palin, a conservative Christian woman will point you to Proverbs 31.

Who pointed to Proverbs 31 for why she likes Palin? Was this just one person she’s interviewed? Many? Is that really the first thing they mention?

Behind the Christian-military rhetoric, though, is a theology that’s generic, Griffith and other scholars say. (Though the video clip that made the rounds during the campaign of Palin being prayed over by an African minister gave foes on the left the willies, most churchgoing conservative evangelicals were completely unfazed.)

How does Miller measure whether evangelicals were unfazed by a video?

In her speeches, Palin never damns anyone to hell. She never talks about sin: discussing her daughter Bristol, accidentally pregnant at 17, she talks about responsibility.

Does anyone expect her to talk about hell and sin? She is a politician, not a preacher.

Palin has her faults, but the left is partially to blame for her ascent. Its native mistrust of religion, of conservative believers in particular, left the gap that Palin now fills.

Perhaps Miller should have spent more time writing about this part of the story. It would be more compelling to read more about the left’s mistrust of religion that left a gap.

Scholars write entire books on the “Religious Right,” as it has always been a difficult movement to pin down. That said, I find it odd that Miller couldn’t find one political scientist to quote. Surely someone who has analyzed the data and watched the trends would weigh in on whether this is a trend. What Miller fails to grapple with is whether Palin is actually a Christian leader like Dobson, Falwell, et al or whether she is mostly just a political/celebrity leader. Religious leaders are usually found in pastors, theologians, speakers, authors, someone who isn’t primarily political.

Perhaps Palin is more of a leader for the pro-life movement (the Susan B. Anthony List leader she quotes in the article is Catholic, not white evangelical) and maybe the tea party movement. Palin doesn’t seem to be bending over backwards to lead Christians; Besides, white evangelical women aren’t likely to get excited by a “rosarylike” necklace.

Now, Palin could be the favorite for evangelicals if she runs for president, but would that necessarily make her the leader of the religious right? The article also lacks mention of someone who could be Palin’s political contender: Mike Huckabee. His show and books are quite popular, and in some cases he uses religious language more often than Palin does. On some level, he would probably vie for “values voters” as much as Palin would.

If Palin is really leading the religious right, has anyone captured photo evidence of Palin’s flock? The accompanying slideshow, titled “Cult of Palin,” features Palin condoms, porn movies and strip clubs. The slideshow does nothing to back Miller’s thesis about Palin’s new found leadership of the religious right. Maybe that’s because Newsweek is making Palin in its own image.

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  • Mike Hickerson

    What Miller fails to grapple with is whether Palin is actually a Christian leader like Dobson, Falwell, et al or whether she is mostly just a political/celebrity leader. Religious leaders are usually found in pastors, theologians, speakers, authors, someone who isn’t primarily political.

    This exactly what I was thinking the whole time I was reading this article. Yes – Falwell, Robertson, Dobson, et al., were/are very involved in politics, but all of them had separate – and significant – careers completely outside of politics. They established large followings in cultural/religious areas, and then motivated their followers toward political activism. That’s a very different trajectory than Palin’s. Miller doesn’t seem to get the difference between “religious leaders who are active in politics” and “politicians who are religious.”

  • John Pack Lambert

    The article really does not get to the core of the Susan B. Anthony’s List issue. Is Susan B. Anthony’s list an organization of “white Evangelical” women, or is it by and large a group of pro-life women who are more Catholic than “white Evangelical”.

    The fact that the newsweek writer does not even realize there is a difference is disturbing. The pro-life movement has strong Catholic links. The “white Evangelical” label also falls apart when Nikki Haley is thrown into the mix. She is clearly not white, and the fact that this author can mention her whie talking about “whites” is odd, unless of course white really means “not black”.

    The notion that Social Conservatives want submissive wives is clearly out of line with reality. The underlying assumption is that a women who stays home and raises the children is “submissive”. This is a simplistic assumption that ignores the whole history of many things.

    It is the type of simplistic understanding of the goals of the pro-family movement that make it so hard for any discussion on family issues to occur. Mothers staying at home and raising their children is not about “submissiveness”. Valrie M. Hudson (Casseler) has written multiple policy papers about the need to preserve man/woman marriage, but the division of home duties between her and her husband is not fully traditional.

    Julie B. Beck, the general Relief Society president of the LDS Church, has been a full-time mother most of her adult life and has earned the outrage of many Mormon and more so ex-Mormon liberal femanists with her bold statement in favor of mothers proactively staying home and raising their children, but submissive is not an adjative that anyone who has heard her speak would think of applying to her.

    In some ways it is not so much that Palin differs from past conservative women, but that she differs from the caricature of past conservative women that many leftists hold in their mind.

    On the other hand, the argument of Susan B. Anthony’s list is that Susan B. Anthony and many of her associates were pro-life and that the liberals in trying to claim that to be feminist means to be pro-choice have twisted history.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Mike, I think your comment is spot on. I doubt many of her fans, even if they are evangelical, see her as a religious leader.

    John, I do think the SBA List distinction is significant as you suggest. It seems this article is tied to that event that Palin spoke at, but as you say, it’s not necessarily white evangelical (probably more Catholic). I think that suggests her leadership in the pro-life community rather than a religious community.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Where would the media be without stereotypes??? They might actually have to do some serious research and analysis and the general public might wind up much better informed. But since most of the mass media is so liberally oriented and “liberalism” thrives on ignorance (look at how they fight tooth-and-nail any laws that would mandate educating pregnant women about development of the baby in the womb)stereotypes will remain the order of the day.
    And Sarah Palin isn’t just a hero to many Evangelical Protestants who are “values voters” but also to many Catholic “values voters.” However, that doesn’t fit the media stereotype of who Palin’s fans are.

  • Mattk

    defies must be a typo. Defines makes much more sense in that context.

  • Ben

    This is an example of writing that goes way beyond the reporting done, to the extent that I don’t think you can really call this proper journalism. For a cover story, Miller appeared to attend a breakfast speech, possibly a second speech Palin gave but that’s doubtful, and called up three other people. I can see why Newseek is heading in this direction: Reporting is expensive, but not nearly as expensive as losing your reputation.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Matt, you might be right. Though I have heard some say that Palin is radical because she discusses the “choice” of having Trig.

    Ben, your comment is right on. Her article reveals very little on the ground reporting, much less phone call reporting.

  • Caro

    Sorry, but I can’t resist. . .

    The way to solve a problem like Newsweek is to go to http:\ and type in the Konami code (Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Enter . . . yes, do use the arrow keys)

    No, it doesn’t have a thing to do with the quality of the reporting, but it is pretty entertaining.

  • Simon

    Sarah- I thought your article was spot on. Great analysis. I can’t believe what passes for journalism at Newsweek

  • Crimson Wife

    I too would like to know what percent of white Evangelicals in California voted for Carly Fiorina over Chuck DeVore. Most of the conservative Christians I know voted for DeVore.

  • Julia

    John Lambert said:

    In some ways it is not so much that Palin differs from past conservative women, but that she differs from the caricature of past conservative women that many leftists hold in their mind.

    Amen. Soon after Palin appeared, I realized what made her seem so familiar. She reminds me of my Kansas pioneer grandmothers who wrung chickens by the neck and took no gruff from anybody. These were the same women who loved their families to death and fought to make the world a better place. My mother’s mom was an election judge until they made her quit when she was 80. Palin even talks about pioneer women at one of the speeches mentioned in the article. Could the writer not see what Palin, who was raised to hunt for her own dinner, was getting at? There have always been strong women, the left didn’t invent them and most/most conservative men value them.

    My politically active 38 yr old son nearly spewed his beer when I told him that Newsweek magazine was associating Sarah Palin with submissiveness to men. He couldn’t stop laughing. Actually, Sarah has a really cool relationship with Todd that exhibits what the feminist movement has been saying for decades they want.

    Elsewhere in the article the writer says that Sarah owes her success to feminists who paved the way for her – implying that she’s ungrateful at all the leftist women have done for her. Actually, Sarah’s way was more paved by the likes of Phylllis Schlafley who worked in an ordinance factory to get herself through law school and never had a bad word to say about the husband who later supported her political ventures.

  • Julia

    and most/most conservative men value them

    and many/most conservative men value them.

  • michael

    How do you solve a problem like Newsweek?

    Do what most other people have done. Stop reading it.

  • Jeff

    Looking at the covers, I only come away from this latest foray into Palin-itis by Newsweek thinking, “If I had you in counseling, I’d be asking Newsweek ‘why do you think you are so obsessed by Ms. Palin?’ and would fully expect the initial response to be ‘obsessed? I don’t think I’m obsessed with her . . .’ to which I’d probably start with ‘hmmm. Really?’”

  • Mike Hickerson

    The Newsweek article mentions the Women of Joy conference in Louisville that my wife and mother-in-law went to in April, but it’s too bad that Miller didn’t take a closer look at all of the speakers. That would have helped to put Palin into a larger context of evangelical women. Yes, Palin was the featured speaker in Louisville and gets top billing on the website (probably for marketing reasons), but Palin spoke at only one of the six conferences, and she appeared alongside several other speakers and musicians. When my family returned from the conference, they talked about Michael W. Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman, and Liz Curtis Higgs much more than about Palin.

  • Mike Hickerson

    Quick addition to my last comment: instead of just quoting Palin’s talk, why not ask Women of Faith’s organizer’s how they saw Palin’s role? Who knows if they would have commented, but I’m willing to bet that they see Palin as an example of a successful Christian who lives out her faith in her professional/cultural context, but that the speakers who either taught from the Bible or led worship (Kay Arthur, Michael W. Smith, Chapman, Priscilla Shirer) would be considered the “religious leaders” for the conferences.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Friends, Bill O’Reilly had Lisa Miller on his Fox show and tells her that he thinks it’s a fair piece (with a few bones to pick about feminism).

    What do you think? O’Reilly is pretty pushy, and he doesn’t really ask Miller questions I would’ve asked about her claims about the religious right. He says he does think Palin appeals to conservative women, but does that mean her base is white evangelical women?

  • Brett

    I saw the O’Reilly piece at the gym and so I read it on closed-caption more than watched it; I really can’t stand him for much longer than his weekly segment with Dennis Miller. So my memory may be faulty about the overall interview.

    Having said that, sometimes O’Reilly’s desire to play fair or to be seen as playing fair leads him to a sort of semi-iconoclasm about what he also calls “the liberal media” in order to seem more even-handed. I don’t think he’s familiar enough with evangelical culture to see many of the issues Sarah’s raised, so to him it might very well seem like a mostly fair piece.

  • Mollie

    Bill O’Reilly had a lot to do with me beginning to write about religion. He called my church body “unChristian” because we weren’t patriotic enough for his tastes. Whatever else can be said about him, the man is a theological lightweight and I would take your criticism of the piece a million times over his.

    On that note, this was a really fun read and a necessary corrective to yet another silly Newsweek piece. Good work.

  • Gail F

    If I didn’t already know that the writer had done numerous stories about religion, I’d be a little more charitable and assume she was out of her depth and simply didn’t know what she didn’t know… But really, there’s no excuse for this. Ms. Miller must be quite aware by now that she is woefully uniformed about religion, either theologically or sociologically. She seems to be uninformed about Sarah Palin as well. And as far as the piece itself goes, I suppose it must be nice to be able to write cover stories in a supposedly NEWS magazine, which do not require you to do any research or reporting. Just throw out a half-baked opinion and see what happens! What a job!

    This kind of story amazes me. So many people from the Left assume they know everything about the Right and Center, and all they know is a weird amalgamation of what they’ve seen on tv and imagined in their heads. I used to be a liberal. I like people a lot more now (and that includes liberal people!) than I did then, when I made so many assumptions about what other people did and believed, and why. I don’t think liberals like other people much.

  • CV

    Newsweek will seemingly grab any stick to beat Sarah Palin. She just scares the crap out of some people.

    Still, they’re clearly beginning to notice the rise of accomplished conservative women, and they don’t like it one bit. I think I think Kathryn Jean Lopez of National Review Online has a much better handle on what’s going on here:


    “…This is the breakthrough we’re seeing in American history right now, and it’s becoming next to impossible to deny these realities. The evidence is there, from Sarah Palin to Meg Whitman or even Democrat Blanche Lincoln. In the wake of a series of primary elections this June, there has been much talk that we are in another year of the political woman. And this time, she is frequently more right than left.

    In truth, this is nothing shocking or new. The celebrated model of the female politician may have been a liberal, like Democrat Barbara Boxer, fighting against the rights of the most vulnerable among us, the unborn. But she was never every woman. In fact, those who fought for female suffrage were a different type, whether women who have voted subsequently realize it or not. They brought a maternal instinct to their activism.

    When you meet a Sarah Palin or a Carly Fiorina, or the next woman the media goes into a frenzy over, you’re not actually meeting someone who appeared yesterday or who is somehow contrary to nature. When you look at some of the issues we’re debating today — issue such as preserving who we are and protecting those innocents — we’re in exactly the place as a nation where a few good women of this kind might do a world of good alongside a few good men.

    The Left willl try to pretend a woman who doesn’t buy the party line of the professional-feminist sisterhood is somehow an oddity, even a traitor to women or a misogynist. (I’ve heard them all.) But the truth is that she may simply represent a commonsense backlash. The feminist movement tried to deny so much that women, uniquely, can bring to the cultural and political table. And America is moving on, Ms.

    When you look around right now on the political landscape, you see the shoulder-padded walls of 20th-century feminism crumbling throughout the political scene. Some women will always vote Democrat and have liberal views; the same goes for men. But they do not vote or think uniformly. And it is not simply because a sexy Sarah Palin figure exists that this is true….”


  • Michigan

    Sarah- I really enjoyed reading your rebuttal. It was great and you raised all the appropriate questions. Thank you for writing it.

    I saw the interview with Bill O’Reilly and I was frustrated with some of the comments that he made (i.e “fair article”). Lately, he seems to be bending backwards to try to sound “fair and balanced” that he’s starting to miss that mark.

    As for Lisa Miller, I expected she would either cowardly lie about the article, or not make sense or just not have any evidence to support her article. I thought she covered all the above; lied, didn’t make sense and failed to support what she wrote.

  • StewartIII

    NewsBusters: Religion Blogger Shreds Newsweek’s Take on ‘Saint Sarah’ Palin

  • tmatt

    Cathy Lynn Grossman has a blog item up at USA Today on our Sarah’s take on the Newsweek cover.

    The opening goes like this:

    Ow! Ow! One of the crew of media critics at Get Religion has whacked Newsweek’s Saint Sarah Palin cover by Lisa Miller to smithereens.

    By the time Sarah Pulliam Bailey, an editor for Christianity Today and one of the writers for Get Religion, was done laser highlighting massive holes in Miller’s reporting, unfounded assumptions in the writing, and the lack of authoritative sourcing all around, you almost felt sorry for Miller.


  • Bram

    “So many people from the Left assume they know everything about the Right and Center, and all they know is a weird amalgamation of what they’ve seen on tv and imagined in their heads. I used to be a liberal. I like people a lot more now … than I did then, when I made so many assumptions about what other people did and believed, and why. I don’t think liberals like other people much.”

    Spot on, Gail F — spot on. This has been my experience as well. Thanks for summing it up for me so clearly and succinctly.

  • Dianne

    My mother was not “divorced” but widowed, and too busy raising her children while running the family business to waste time worrying about labels like “feminist.” She is conservative, and would have been the “traditional” wife and mother if she could have, yet was long active in the Republican Women’s Club and “passionate about her representatives on the national stage.”

    Mom is also a Christian woman who is appalled at Palin’s poor parenting skills, lack of intellect, and actions in direct conflict with the values Palin claims to have. A good number of the women in my church find Palin an embarrassment to women in general, and specifically to Christian women, and certainly aren’t looking at her as a leader we would follow. Miller was way off the mark, which a little good research should have shown. Shame on Newsweek for trying to pass off their Sarah Palin tripe as journalism. There is a reason I don’t waste my money on their rag.

  • Bern

    “So many people from the RIGHT assume they know everything about the LEFT and Center, and all they know is a weird amalgamation of what they’ve seen on tv and imagined in their heads. I used to be a CONSERVATIVE. I like people a lot more now … than I did then, when I made so many assumptions about what other people did and believed, and why. I don’t think CONSERVATIVES like LIBERALS much.”

    This has been MY experience–which has nothing to do with journalism of course but I just had to say it . . .