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Palin's Progress

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Sarah Palin is everywhere: a money-machine for Tea Party candidates, a contender for the 2012 presidential race, and a Newsweek cover girl, "Saint Sarah," is now "anointed" by Religious Right women. Palin has her finger on the pulse of a large female demographic, traditionally ignored and certainly misunderstood by liberal feminists, what Newsweek religion writer Lisa Miller describes as a "women's movement" of the Christian Right.

Sarah Palin is more familiar to me than to many other liberals, who perceive her as folksy, quotably inarticulate, and an intellectual lightweight. Part survivalist, part revivalist.

I grew up in socially conservative churches all over America with fierce women like Sarah Palin. Some of them were my Sunday School teachers, some of them were even glamorous in that "I-shoot-my-own-turkey-for-Thanksgiving" and "God-on-my-Side" way. Some of them I quite admired for their feisty feminine opinions. They struck me as trapped, but independent spirits, who stayed within the system to make change. These conservative women stood up to the Southern Baptist patriarchs and finally succeeded in getting the vote for women in our churches.

With this history of sexism, it's deeply ironic that the Religious Right -- the ultimate American patriarchy -- should have spawned such an unpredictable female action figure as Sarah Palin. She buys into the patriarchy, but with a smiling hint of feminine steel that is as sexy as it is subversive. The scantily-clad beauty queen with sharp-shooter glasses is well-armed with rifle and Bible. In the timeless power struggles of gender, Palin is a dominatrix dressed in a choir robe.

While paying lip service to religious and political patriarchs, Palin still wears the pants in her family. During the 2008 presidential election, she drew such a hot spotlight, it burned an aging McCain -- who was ordered to stay out of the sun. No Icarus he.

And no wonder Palin is a high-flying role model for those small-town and conservative Christian women who struggle to accept their subservient fate as Adam's rib. Palin is a male-identified woman whose greatest admirers are those women who have endured patriarchy's demands: You marry, you mother, you worship God and country. Now, because of Palin, you can also run for president. This is progress, even if we liberal feminists fear that she will take us backwards.

As much as I dislike Palin's appalling lack of curiosity and her contempt for nature, I have to credit her lineage: Those fundamentalist church women of my childhood who rose up from spiritual slavery and, like Eve, ate the apple of the Tree of Knowledge. It might have been an apple cobbler at an endless church social, but it was a forbidden apple.

Sarah Palin has tasted power and she is loose in the American Garden of Eden: money, media, and politics. We liberals need to understand Sarah Palin's appeal, especially to women, instead of dismissing her. As a Christian soldier battling secularism, Palin speaks to the Religious Right's need for patriotism, for a tribal sense of belonging.

Palin's appeal to the conservative base use their code language: a fundamentalist dialect of sinners and chosen, of punishment and blame, of heaven (small town values and Biblical god) and hell (gay marriage and abortion). Liberals misunderstand this language and are mystified that so many others resonate to this frequency. If liberals used more words like "loyalty" and "belonging" and "belief" and "spirit" and "integrity" and "responsibility" we might be heard by those only tuning into Sarah Palin's talk show.

Women in the Christian Right are also outraged that mainstream feminism doesn't engage in much spiritual dialogue, especially about abortion.

"Abortion is not just a political right," says one of my anti-abortion friends. "It is a spiritual dilemma."

Feminists might do well to take seriously Palin and her devout contingent of "Momma Grizzlies." "She seems real," one of those supporters told me. "Like us."

"She's not Ivy League or East coast elite," one of my conservative West Coast students said in explaining Palin's allure.

Anyone who grew up in the South will recognize Palin's Last Frontier chip-on-her-shoulder as a Western spin on that enduring Confederate rage toward urban Yankee carpet-baggers. These Tea Party and self-styled Far-Right rebels -- even when they were in power under the Bush years -- still perceive themselves as victims.

Palin's unsettling combination of bravado and persecution complex, as evidenced in her memoir Going Rogue -- no accountability, no self-reflection, much blame -- is a one-note-samba, an entertaining self-promotion. But it is also a manifesto that is resonant with conservative women who feel forgotten by liberals. So it must be heard and answered.

I no longer believe much of what my Sunday School teacher taught me; I couldn't navigate by her moral compass. But I still admire her conservative convictions. She was a strong woman, with whom I disagreed. That didn't make her less powerful.

What if we liberal feminists recognized the Far Right "women's movement" as part of us? What if we invited real dialogue on such issues as abortion, women's health care, female leadership, and the wage inequality? If we can find bipartisan bridges, instead of building verbal Brides to Nowhere; if we open the conversation, Sarah Palin will become one well-considered point of view, not ridiculed as a sideshow. Her high-wire trapeze could even be a main act in that proverbial Big Tent -- a tent, as they always say in politics, that must hold us all.

Brenda Peterson is the author of the recent spiritual memoir I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth. For more, visit www.IWantToBeLeftBehind.com.

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