Religion reporter Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette produced a compelling and original article on the view evangelical women have on Palin as both a role model and a pulverizer of long-standing stereotypes. Rodgers mixes hard data from sources such as polls with softer anecdotes from a wide variety of perspectives that paint a narrative reflecting many of the discussions going on within the broad area of Christian evangelicalism.
The bulk of the article uses the Palin story to delve into the tricky issue of the traditional church doctrine on a woman’s role in the church. Both perspectives are given as well as a picture of reality in some traditional churches today, particularly Palin’s church:
Wasilla Bible Church, to which the Palins moved in 2002, doesn’t allow female “teaching elders,” which includes pastors. But the Rev. Larry Kroon, the senior pastor, said the church’s statement of faith doesn’t mention that issue and he doesn’t consider it a problem if members disagree with his interpretation of finer points of the Bible.
“Biblically, we believe that the husband is the head of the home, but he is to lead following the servant leader model set by Jesus,” he said. “Scripturally we believe the senior pastor should be a man and he should follow in the servant leader model of Jesus. In the community at large, we have no hesitation about a woman as vice president or president,” he said.
However, “Sarah may never have heard me preach on any of this,” he said. “It’s not an issue here; it’s not something we put out like some sort of straitjacket that people have to live in.”
The article also touched on, but did not delve much into, the response by evangelical women to the news that the McCain campaign spent a lot of money to outfit Palin and her family in fairly expensive clothing. There are hints of the prosperity theology, but it is not addressed as well as it could have been:
Evangelical women are not likely to be turned off by news that the Republican National Committee purchased Ms. Palin’s designer wardrobe at high-end stores, said Marie Griffith, professor of religion and director of the Women and Gender Studies Program at Princeton University. She wrote “Daughters of God” about women in the neo-pentecostal Aglow movement. Although most Aglow women dressed from bargain stores, they chose leaders who were slender and glamorous. They wanted to be represented by women with style, she said.
“Just in terms of her comportment and her looks and her clothes, Sarah Palin would have appealed to them as someone to aspire to be like,” she said
“Those high spiky heels and short skirts say something about that style of femininity that is quite common among women at leadership levels in those evangelical circles. There is something about her mix of femininity and toughness that is very appealing to them.”
The article is filled with stereotype-busters, particularly ones that destroy the idea of evangelical women as docile compliant people who would rather leave important matters to their husbands. Whether or not that stereotype exists today is not reflected in article. However, the voice of the traditional view, as reflected in many evangelical denominations, that women should not serve in church leadership roles, is given plenty of room in the article.
Other voices are also reflected in the article, particularly ones that believe evangelicals should move beyond that traditional view:
Cindy Levine Hatch, a psychotherapist from Oakdale who specializes in counseling evangelical Christians, said that in 20 years of practice she’s seen emphasis on male family leadership decline but not disappear.
An avid evangelical, her own response when her husband asked her to define submission was, “That’s where you submit your ideas to me and I tell you if they’re stupid or not.” . . .
Ms. Palin was a dream pick for the Susan B. Anthony List, said political director Joy Yearout, 26, an evangelical in the religiously diverse group.
She hopes Ms. Palin will inspire more evangelical women to run for political office. Ms. Yearout finds her easier to identify with than other prominent women in politics.
Whether or not Palin’s candidacy makes traditional evangelical leaders re-consider their male leadership doctrine, as one source quoted in the story believes, is yet to be seen. The best part of the article is that it wasn’t written with the assumption that evangelicals all think alike and we should be surprised that there are disagreements within the rather amorphous group of Christians. This news article does a good job setting a baseline for the issue and should allow for journalists in the future to track and report on whether there are any changes on this issue.
Photo of Sarah Palin in Dover, New Hampshire in October 2008 used under a Wikimedia Commons license.