Sarah Palin: the “Ultimate Religious Right Success Story”

Michelle Goldberg has an excellent article in The Nation that traces the rise of Sarah Palin back to Pat Robertson’s failed 1988 presidential bid. The campaign’s grassroots machinery was reorganized as the Christian Coalition and began “building power from the ground up, turning conservative churches into little political machines.” Palin owes her entire career to that effort, which continues to this day.

Palin, “who got her start in a local church-backed political struggle,” followed the Religious Right playbook in her run for mayor by politicizing religion and focusing on social issues that were far removed from the duties of a small town mayor. She also received crucial support from culture warriors near and far:

When Palin ran for mayor in 1996, she leveraged the support of the religious conservatives. Wasilla mayoral races are nonpartisan and in the past had been focused on local issues like taxes and policing. In her challenge to Republican mayor John Stein, Palin changed that, touting her opposition to abortion, her religion and her support for gun rights. “She got a lot of help from the Christian groups,” said Curt Menard, mayor of Mat-Su Borough (which includes Wasilla). […]

According to Stein, a national antiabortion organization sent out postcards to Wasilla voters on Palin’s behalf. There was a whisper campaign that Stein, a Lutheran, was actually Jewish. Some Palin supporters suggested that Stein and his wife, Karen Marie, weren’t really married because they didn’t have the same last name.

Palin likewise depended on the Religious Right in her run for governor: the “Alaska Family Council, a group that formed that year and is loosely affiliated with Focus on the Family, distributed a voter guide showing Palin’s alignment with its ideology.” And when a GOP state representative prematurely left office last year, Palin used the opportunity to shore up her base:

Sarah Palin appointed Wes Keller, an elder in her church, to replace him. He introduced a bill to make the performance of intact dilation and extraction abortions – so-called “partial-birth abortions” – a felony, and…plans to introduce legislation mandating the teaching of intelligent design in public schools.

Palin’s rise from a small right-wing church in Alaska to a slot on a major party ticket gives lie to the notion that the Religious Right is fading away. Or as Goldberg puts it, “the Christian right often has its greatest triumphs just after it’s been pronounced moribund.”