I don’t know which I find more bizarre–that HuffPo liberals are attempting to make an unremarkable request at a church to pray for our authorities and armed forces into a call for messianic warfare or the idea that Palin is supposedly being treated as a “saint” by conservatives. The first is more a function of basic illiteracy when it comes to understanding the language used by Christians, evangelical or otherwise, while the other is more of an overreaction driven by Andrew’s continued misunderstanding of the nature of the Republican Party and the conservative movement.
What is striking is how much Palin critics and admirers have wanted to focus on her religious views, when she seems to have shown relatively more libertarian instincts in her brief time in state government. One important source of the Palin enthusiasm is the conviction that she is basically a normal, if not exactly average, American, which is to say that she is admired as much for her ordinariness as for her accomplishments. In other words, she is being revered, if that is the right word, because she is not elite, not a saint of either the spiritual or political world, but because it is exceptionally easy for the average conservative to identify with her as a regular, non-elite person. That she holds executive power in the (fourth) least-populated state in the country makes her the one of the least elite, most marginal members of the political class, and her very recent entry into that class makes even this seem unimportant.
As right as it is to complain that the choice was driven almost entirely by gender identity politics, the more significant kind of identity politics at work here is middle-class family identity politics or, more precisely, lifestyle politics. Church-going and socially conservative views are basic parts of this way of life, or to put it another way Palin’s religiosity is a function of her ordinary family life. Unlike the phony populism of Bush or Fred Thompson, Palin represents something very close to genuine cultural populism because she is not so very far removed from the average American experience. To the extent that she is removed from that experience, this is a result of living in a very different sort of state. Therefore, to fear a “pure emotional-religious wave that redefines the GOP for ever as a purely religious party” because of the strong identification with Palin is to fail to understand that religion is playing at best a supporting, secondary role in the identification with Palin.
Above all, as I said earlier this week, the enthusiasm derives from the feeling that conservatives compelled McCain to back down from picking Lieberman and choose “one of us” instead. Enthusiasm for Palin is as great as it is because it is the sort of thing that many conservatives assumed McCain would never do, and it is as powerful as it has been because the contempt for McCain among many movement conservatives runs so deep. In yielding to movement demands, McCain submitted himself to people whom he has made a career of spurning. While it is commonplace to say that the Palin choice reinforced his “maverick” and “gambler” reputation, which is still partly true insofar as the choice is politically risky in the general election, the choice really represented a moment when McCain surrendered to what he considered to be political necessity.