Remember that really nice girl who greeted you warmly as a potential friend when you first arrived at college? Remember how she conscientiously invited you to dinner, or to study, or to her Christian fellowship activity? Remember the conversations about religion that you thought were a precursor to sharing secrets among friends? But then you expressed a different opinion, or you joined a liberal club, or you started to explore your sexuality, and suddenly, you felt a sharp pain in your back? Betrayed by some evangelical whom you thought was a friend?
The night after Sarah Palin’s speech, I had nightmares. I kept dreaming of people like the many sweet, well-meaning evangelical Christians whom I had trusted in the past, only to find myself rejected for holding some “liberal” view. Days after the Republican convention, these memories kept one scene from a movie running through my mind.
That clip, from the 1999 film Dogma, starts with a ringing doorbell. A mild-mannered suburban woman opens her front door to see a man in a well-tailored white suit standing before her, holding a clipboard. He smiles and says, “Good afternoon, Mrs. Reynolds. I’m from the EPA. We’re checking on possible Freon leaks. Tell me, do you have air conditioning?”
Suspecting nothing extraordinary, our suburbanite answers easily, “Yes, we have central air.” The supposed EPA representative queries further, “In every room?” She nods her head, quizzically. “Except the bathroom, why?” He looks her directly in the eyes and says, “You know what that means, don’t you?” Before Mrs. Reynolds can possibly respond she is stabbed in the back with a hockey stick. Meanwhile, our EPA representative, now known to us as Azrael, enters the house to enjoy the air conditioning, and with a casual wave of the hand, orders the hockey-stick minion to get rid of the body.
Every time vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin describes herself or is described as a “hockey mom,” I remember that scene, and instead of Azrael, I see a train of sweet, smiling evangelical girls. All of their attempts to bring me into line with a “Christian America” ended with my being stabbed in the back.
As a college student, I was not unaware of evangelical theology. I was a born-again Christian who attended eight years of Christian school. However, growing up African American in the 1980s with Jim-Crow-era parents also formed my political views. My mother and father grew up in the segregated south of the 1940s and 50s. They told my siblings and me horrible stories, even describing attacks on black children who were attempting to get an education. The white school board denied my grandmother her right to attend high school. My parents and public school teachers from kindergarten through fourth grade reminded me over and over about how the freedoms we enjoyed were a result of good legislation, like the Voting Rights Act signed by President Johnson. I was born a Democrat and I saw no reason to change.
When I first arrived at college in the Reagan-Bush years, my political views were not initially an issue when I befriended several of these sweet white evangelical girls, smiling nicely and reaching out to me, bringing me into the fold. They were my first friends in college. They invited me to dinner, they helped me study for my exams, they prayed with me, and we went to spiritual retreats together. We stayed up late talking about our hopes and dreams for our futures. During my sophomore year, I became more vocal about my political views, discussing how excited I was about Geraldine Ferraro‘s vice-presidential candidacy. My friends were horrified. One pulled me aside and said, “I believe that God would vote Republican, and if you love God, you will too.” I was shaken by their claims. These people had been good friends.
After thinking about what these girls were saying about God and the Republican party, I doubted myself. So I called my dad. I asked him if as a Christian, I should vote Republican. He reminded me that I could return to my Democratic home even if I voted Republican, “but” he chided me, “the Democrats have always been on your side.” I then went to my friend and reminded her of Democratic support for civil rights legislation. She quipped back to me, “Well, that’s just a liberal agenda, that’s not God’s agenda.” I didn’t know it then, but at that moment, she turned on her heel and went to get her hockey stick. I voted Democrat that season, but, as my sophomore year turned into my junior year, the calls for dinner steadily declined.
During my junior year, I committed a grievous sin: I joined the school paper, otherwise known as the liberal, godless media. One of the articles I was assigned to write involved examining whether or not the pressure due to schools’ divestiture of their holdings in South African companies would be enough to compel that government to overturn apartheid. I had learned little about South Africa in high school. Most of my Christian-fellowship friends knew nothing about the country, except for the fact that “liberal” students were always protesting about the situation there. When I told those friends of my assignment for the college newspaper, they became even more distant. They did encourage me, though, to turn down the assignment; they said that, “We as Christians should not question the actions of another ally government, and perhaps South Africa’s choice to use apartheid has merits.”
So, I went to my editor and did the one thing reporters are told never to do: I turned down the assignment. I explained to her that I wasn’t sure I opposed apartheid. My blond-haired, blue-eyed editor looked at me like I was insane. “Do you know what apartheid is?” she asked. She promptly explained to me that, “it’s like segregation in the Jim Crow South.”
Once I learned that, I immediately went to work on the piece. Most of the campus received my article well, and it supplied additional fuel for divestment. However, the coverage was not well received in my Christian fellowship. The campus minister from this conservative group met with me several times. I expressed my doubts, not about God or Christianity, but about how the Christian fellowship seemed more like a College Republican meeting than a community of prayer.
Finally, the campus minister asked to meet with me in the student union, which required me to cross a picket line, to run past those people demanding the school divest its holdings in South Africa. The conservative campus minister then asked me to make a choice, follow their way or leave the group. I felt a hockey stick hanging out of my back.
The college eventually rid itself of its holdings. And my friends disappeared. Sarah Palin reminds me of these friends who eventually distanced themselves as I became more vocal about my political beliefs. Palin is this sort of warm, loving person whom you adore when you are her friend, but whose hockey stick you never forget if you found yourself on the other side of her beliefs.
She is also the archetypal “˜80s woman, the early Gen X-er. Unlike the college students in the 1960s and “˜70s, who often banged their heads bloody on the glass ceiling of male-dominated fields, women of the “˜80s found that most gender restrictions had vanished, and that women were prominently featured in previously male-dominated fields. Many of us appreciated our debt to first- and second-wave feminists who had cracked so many glass ceilings. Those of us who respected those feminists followed their example from a distance, for there were few role models, very few women professors, almost no women’s studies programs, and the ones that existed were usually run by women so scarred by discrimination that they were more likely to attack the optimistic younger women for being too happy and not angry enough.
However, the conservative women leaders were there as role models in full force, running local pro-life movements off campus and recruiting among the Christian college students. I was surrounded by conservative women from local churches, usually not professional women, but stay-at-home moms who were associated with these churches and married to faculty or staff. The camaraderie and support was amazing. I thought that these people were my friends. I loved that Bible study. The women would meet with us, mentor us, and teach us how to be good Christian women. And they also taught us that the highest good a woman can do is to be a wife and mother-a role that was apparently incompatible with the pursuit of higher education and a professional degree. When I broke up with my college boyfriend, my Bible study leader urged me to go back to him because, in her view, the purpose of a college education was to meet my future husband.
Palin reminds me of this Bible study leader. As a proud hockey mom, she is the sort of woman who will offer you embracing love, but happily hockey-stick you in the back if you are not following the party line. I don’t know Palin, and I’m sure she’s a nice, charming person, just like the other women I met in college. They always try to follow the official position/dogma, because to fall out of line is to lose your community. Palin has no doubt been so trained into this fear that she doesn’t notice it, even if her beliefs would help to maintain apartheid in South Africa. Such women are formed in Christian communities of limited acceptance where, when you enter, you are welcomed with apparently total and embracing love. And the warmth of this love is a stark contrast to what is offered by secular society, the corporate environment, and yes, even liberal communities. In contrast to the solitude that confronts many of us in the world outside, this embracing community is comparable to an oasis in the desert. The problem is that once you have drunk from the well, you believe you have been safely welcomed, without ever realizing you must be on guard against violent hockey sticks.
That young, sweet hockey-stick-grabbing young woman sometimes grows up to be another conservative religious archetype. While taking a seminary course on world religions, I encountered this sort again. That semester, my class visited a mosque. The male students sat on the floor with more than a thousand other men who were praying. Though the mosque invited the women students to sit on the floor with the men, my female classmates decided to join the Muslim women upstairs.
Mostly, the Muslim women prayed in a serious manner. But once in a while, two of them would start talking. When this transpired, another woman came out of nowhere, running across the balcony, flailing her arms until she reached the talkative duo. She shushed them and hit them on the shoulders. Things were kept quiet and in a certain sort of order because this older woman policed the other Muslim women in the balcony, glaring at the others, keeping them in line with her piercing gaze, and threatening to expel them if they fell too far from accepted practice. When we returned to the classroom, the women of the class talked about what we had observed. We dubbed the guard with the flailing arms “the prayer Nazi.”
Sometimes, I wonder how Palin imagines her leadership. Is she a mentor for younger women? Or is she a prayer Nazi, who on the behalf of men, keeps other women in line by threatening expulsion? In the mosque, the prayer Nazi kept you in line by threatening removal from the balcony. In evangelical communities, the prayer Nazi threatens social excommunication, either as a way to convince you that you are wrong, or so she can avoid being soiled by your aberrant behavior.
As we try to figure out who Palin is, all we have are stories of how she’s charming and tough and conservative. On occasion, she’s kicked someone out of a community. Her own “Troopergate” case scares me, because those tactics are so reminiscent of the hockey stick stabbers I knew in college. This is not the kind of person I want to be leading our country. How would she guide a nation composed largely of people who hold different beliefs than she does? What will she do to the people who agree with her on some things but disagree with her on matters she considers fundamentally incontrovertible? For now, the Republicans are offering us Palin as the person who will be a heartbeat away from the presidency. But how does John McCain know he won’t end up with a hockey stick in his back?
A certain strain of evangelicalism, the strain to which Palin’s Pentecostalism belongs, considers its greatest task on this earth to be the enforcement of the Great Commission (Mt. 28: 16-20), where Jesus charges his followers to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” My fellow conservative college students believed that this command should be fulfilled by any means necessary. Think about having someone with that view in charge of nuclear weapons.
As I moved further from conservative circles and into mainline circles, I was challenged with what Jesus said was actually the greatest commandment, to love God and to love our neighbor (Mt. 22:34-40; Mk 12:28-34; and Lk 10:25-28; also see Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18). I can only hope that, win or lose, Palin realizes that her faith is more about loving her neighbors than impaling them when they don’t agree with her.