By Chris Hedges
Sarah Palin may be a governor and a vice presidential candidate, but in the hyper-masculine world of the Christian right, she is subservient to a male hierarchy that claims to speak for God.
A cult of masculinity defines the Wasilla Assembly of God church and the Juneau Christian Centre where she worshipped. This cult propagates a vision of the world where believers are warriors. They are taught to ready themselves to engage in a final cataclysmic clash with the forces of Satan. This cosmic struggle, infused with the language of war, death and violence, leads inevitably to the slaughter by the righteous of all non-Christians. The photos of Palin hunched over dead animals she has shot are not simply images of a woman who is a member of the National Rifle Association. They are images of a woman who believes violence against nonbelievers is ultimately part of her religious life.
The cult of masculinity is used to banish ambiguity, especially sexual ambiguity. It fosters a world of binary opposites: God and man, the saved and the unsaved, the church and the world, Christianity and secular humanism, and male and female. All in life is rigidly defined. Disorder and chaos are banished. Reality, when it is defined in these absolutes, is predictable and understandable, something deeply comforting to believers who have often had trouble coping with the messiness of human existence.
All configurations of human life that do not conform to the rigid Christian model, such as homosexuality, are forms of disorder, tools of Satan, and must be abolished. This is why Palin opposes gay marriage and calls for gays to be cured. A world that can be predicted and understood, a world that has clear markers, can be made rational. It can be managed and controlled. The petrified, binary world of fixed, immutable and established roles is a world where people, many of them damaged by bouts with failure and despair, can bury their chaotic and fragmented personalities. They can live with the illusion that they are strong, whole and protected. Those who do not fit into these narrow definitions must be proselytized and converted.
The decline of America is ascribed to the decline of male prowess. This decline has led to weakness and moral decay. It has resulted in a bewildering human and social complexity that, often seen as feminine, is the work of Satan. This is why Palin consistently celebrates "male" values.
James Dobson, one of Palin's most ardent supporters, has built his career on perpetuating these rigid male stereotypes. On his Family.org Web site he discusses "the countless physiological and emotional differences between the sexes." The article "Gender Gap?" on the Web site lists the physical distinctions between man and woman, including strength, size, red blood cell count and metabolism. For a woman, Dobson writes, love is her most important experience: Love gives woman her "zest," it makes up her "life-blood," it is her primary "psychological need." Love holds less meaning in a man's life than a woman's -- though a man can appreciate love, he does not "need" it.
"Genesis tells us that the Creator made two sexes, not one, and that He designed each gender for a specific purpose," Dobson goes on. And these differences mean different roles: They mean the man is the master and the woman must obey.
"One masculine need comes to mind that wives should not fail to heed. It reflects what men want most in their homes. A survey was taken a few years ago to determine what men care about most and what they hope their wives will understand. The results were surprising. ... What [men] wanted most was tranquility at home. Competition is so fierce in the workplace today, and the stresses of pleasing a boss and surviving professionally are so severe, that the home needs to be a haven to which a man can return. It is a smart woman who tries to make her home what her husband needs it to be."
Dobson says that to achieve this tranquility wives have to be submissive. He instructs the husband in how he "should handle his wife's submission" and goes on in Family.org to insist that " ... submission is a choice we make. It's something each one of us must decide to do. And this decision happens first in the heart. If we don't decide in our hearts that we are going to willingly submit to whomever it is we need to be submitting to, then we are not truly submitting." The choice not to submit to the male head of the household, Dobson makes clear, is a violation of God's law.
By disempowering women, by returning them to their "proper" place as a subservient partner in the male-dominated home, the movement creates the larger paradigm of the Christian state. The men's movement Promise Keepers, which at its height a decade ago drew tens of thousands of men into football stadiums, called on men to "take back" their role as the head of the household. The movement used the verse from Ephesians that calls on wives to "be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord" (5:22). Women were not allowed to attend the events, although some could volunteer at concession stands outside. The founder of the group, former Colorado football coach Bill McCartney, called the movement's battle against abortion the "Second Civil War" and lambasted gays and lesbians as "stark raving mad." He dismissed gays and lesbians as "a group of people who don't reproduce, yet want to be compared to people who do reproduce, and that lifestyle doesn't entitle anyone to special rights." The organization mounted campaigns such as "Real Men Matter," in which men were instructed to recover their maleness in a "morally-bankrupt, godless society." The goal of the movement, strongly supported by Dobson, was to help men regain their place in society. And while Promise Keepers is on the wane, its agenda is embedded in the Christian right.
In the mega-churches, the pastor, nearly always male, is obeyed by the congregation. It is the pastor who interprets the word of God. It is why Palin, along with Alaska Lt. Gov. Scott Parnell, went to be publicly blessed before some 6,000 congregants by Wasilla Assembly of God’s Head Pastor Ed Kalnins. It is why she calls Kalnins, who claims that some parts of the globe are controlled by demons and that family curses can be passed down through generations, for guidance and advice. He is her male conduit to a male God. The male leader in this belief system governs through a divine mandate. He can heal the sick. He can speak in tongues. He can prophesy. And if Palin wants to remain in God’s favor, she must be guided by men like Kalnins.
The movement builds concentric male fiefdoms. They radiate out from the home. They do not permit revolt, discussion or dissent. And women who buy into the paradigm, one that supposedly protects their families, makes their boys into men, their husbands into protectors and themselves into Godly Christian women, cede most of their personal, political and economic power. Those who are weak or different, those who do not conform to the stereotype, those who have other ways of being, must be forced by the stern father to obey. If they do not they will be destroyed by God.
The religious leaders that Palin admires, such as Dobson, are petty despots. They travel on private jets, have huge personal fortunes and descend on the faithful surrounded by a retinue of burly bodyguards. These little kingdoms, awash in the male leadership cult, mirror the America they seek to create. In this America, there is no questioning. In this America, followers surrender their personal and political power. The divinely anointed male leader rules a flock of obedient and submissive sheep. All must hand over their freedom. All must cease to think independently.
The simple-minded earnestness on the part of believers such as Palin gives the Christian mass movement its sense of sincerity and decency. Believers are not brainwashed. They are not mindless automatons. They are convinced that what they are doing is Godly, moral and good. They work with the passion of the converted to bring this Christian goodness to everyone, even those who resist. They believe that what they promote is moral and beneficial. They fear for their own souls and they fear for the souls of those who remain unsaved. This earnestness, although employed for frightening ends, is a powerful part of Palin’s attraction. She is willing to make great personal sacrifices for the cause of Christ. But nonbelievers, in the end, have no place on her moral map.
Danuta Pfeiffer, who from 1983 to 1988 was the co-host on “The 700 Club” with Pat Robertson, was, on some level, the Palin of her day. She reached heights because of her celebrity status, usually reserved for men, although it was clear she always had a role subservient to Robertson’s. She was the first person to be allowed to lead the mandatory half-hour chapel service held before lunch at the Christian Broadcasting Network, where “The 700 Club” is filmed. She was sent to speak at national Christian women’s groups and later mixed audiences, numbering in the thousands, at several of the nation’s largest mega-churches.
Her reception at the gatherings she addressed was frightening. Crowds swarmed toward her. They asked her to touch them and heal them. Her status was nothing compared with that of Robertson, she said, “who stands for his followers as the embodiment of God’s conscience.”
“They were seeking a message, a healing, hope, a little encouragement,” she remembered. “They wanted a little piece of God. They thought I could give it to them. People wept when I prayed for them, touched them or hugged them. It was as if they were meeting a rock star.”
She was increasingly disturbed by the power that had been thrust upon her and the emotions unleashed by those who begged her for guidance. She understood how pliant these people had become and how cleverly they were being manipulated. The realization led her finally to leave the movement. Her experience was a window into how willingly followers hand over their conscience to these male leaders. Followers abandon all moral responsibility to obey those who elevate themselves to quasi-deities.
“They trusted us more than their family,” she said. “They thought we had a clearer path to God because we were on television. They thought we were on television because God put us there. We were prophets to these people. We were seen as people who could walk on clouds and heal and pray. We were God’s special messengers. Pat was seen as having the ear of God. He had words of knowledge that could identify their deepest fears and illnesses. We would identify people on the air by speaking about the color of their clothes or an illness they had. We would say, ‘There is a woman with a blue blouse crying at this moment. She has bad hearing in one ear. She is being healed right now.’ And viewers would claim these healings. They saw our presence on the show as a sign that we were anointed. They wanted to know how to live, how to operate on a daily basis, how to communicate with their family and friends, what jobs to get and how to interpret the world around them, even the daily news. They wanted every type of emotional, spiritual and physical information. We had this kind of authority over their lives. They abdicated their hopes and lives to us because we spoke for God.”
Palin enjoys the enthusiastic backing of the Christian right because she is blindly obedient to the male hierarchy. She does not question. She submits and obeys. Her views on abortion and marriage, on the Middle East, on gays and the war against Islam are precooked. They are handed to her by men who claim to speak for God. And in power she would be the perfect conduit for an ideology that seeks, in the end, to eradicate individual moral choice and replace it with subservience to a terrifying Christian fascism.
Chris Hedges, who graduated from seminary at Harvard Divinity School, is the author of “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.”
AP photo / Al Grillo
The Wasilla Assembly of God church in Alaska. In June, Gov. Sarah Palin, now the vice presidential nominee on the Republican ticket, told ministry students at her former church that the U.S. had sent troops to fight in Iraq on a “task that is from God.”