Clifford Geertz said it first (riffing on Ryle): the difference between twitches and winks could only be accomplished by “sorting out the structures of signification” through “thick” descriptions. So there she is, winking at all of us, giving a “shout out” to third graders (no spousal dap that could be misconstrued as a “terrorist fist jab”). What, then, is the “speck of behavior” and “fleck of culture” that gives rise to Governor Palin’s winks? And what “webs of significance” have academics made from the lines spooled out in this nasty season, from the often moribund dyad “religion and politics”?

“It’s complicated.” That’s what we, scholars of religion, often say when asked to comment on challenging, possibly unsavory topics like the now over-determined public presence of Palin. We hurriedly, and rightly, remind our audiences that there exists a more modest, respectable religion, one more quotidian than those shrill voices that titillate and terrify liberal bloggers in their rush to link “Christo-fascists” to Palin. In making this point, we fall back on well-worn responses and qualifications, reflexive reminders that identities are contested and traditions diverse. Yet those winks continue. What “fleck of culture” is revealed? Is it Palin’s own, a sign of her magnetic hold on the “commentariat”? Or might it also reveal “specks” of Religious Studies behavior, some of the deepest assumptions underlying our scholarly practice?

Such questions can’t be answered by focusing on what Palin believes or endorses; her winks shouldn’t tempt scholars to indulge in a game of “gotcha!” We distance ourselves from Tina Fey’s and Keith Olbermann’s engagements with Palin’s beliefs in the efficacy of exorcism, the coexistence of humans and dinosaurs in Eden, or the justice of trickle-down economics. Yet while we are right to reject the snarky tone of such engagements, Palin’s ocular flutters reveal something of our own “structures of signification.” Palin has become the ultimate intellectual signifier, a shifting context, a dazzling surface on which manifold projections reflect back to us as confirmed truths. She is a “true feminist,” Clarence Thomas, a “sexy Puritan,” the ultimate creation of the Roveists, or, closer to home, she is a counter-sign to the “respectable” religion we in the field seek to privilege.

Kathryn Lofton, John Schmalzbauer, Randall Stephens, and others have done fine work—often on this very website—in complicating the ways in which Palin’s religiosity is misrepresented. In some ways it is unsurprising that such back and forth exchanges between journalists and professors, that mutual dance around academic “authority,” have proliferated in the wake of the GOP convention. After all, it seems almost impossible, in the years since the panicky post-election spasms of 2004, to talk about political religions without being sucked—often against one’s will—into the insider baseball haranguing about representational violence and evangelicals.

So our public qualifications of Palin-talk are also winks to ourselves about scholarly conventions, specifically proclamations (against all evidence) that the Right is dying (no, really, it’s for real this time), and assertions that, if conservatism lives on it does so as a kind of zombie category, a dead construct of an intransigent critic’s imagination, something far outnumbered by and with far less vitality than moderates and progressives (who presumably will shoot the zombie in the head, figuratively speaking). Writers like E.J. Dionne (whose mid-1990s forecast of a Progressive revival has now reinvented itself as the prediction of a resurgent religious “left”) and Alan Wolfe (who finds that most Americans want a flexible faith, one linked to tolerance and reason) surely have a point, just as the important works done since the 1980s—by George Marsden, Grant Wacker, Nathan Hatch, Mark Noll, and Randall Balmer—have surely taught us all about the complexities of evangelicalisms.

But consider the following “structures of signification.” Nancy Ammerman wrote recently (in “Telling the Old, Old Story”) that “researchers in the evangelical world have listened for a strident hellfire message and heard instead the everyday stories of people who want to be liked and don’t want to make waves, who translate their story about eternal destiny into a more visible story about kindness and honesty.” While no one would disagree with her larger point, the words “in,” “the,” and “instead” wink actively. This point about acknowledging complexity and pluralism seems to smuggle in a singularity: “the evangelical world.”  There may also be an implication that only those commentaries produced by those in this world matter. While those written by researchers outside this world would surely look different—they might not be ethnographic, for example—would they thereby be illegitimate? And what of that tricky word “instead”? No one in the study of American religions would possibly find fault with the notion that “kindness and honesty” are present in the “everyday stories” of many evangelicals. But does this really mean, as the word “instead” suggests, that these are the only qualities generated by the stories? Wouldn’t a more accurate word be “also” rather than “instead”?

There are good reasons for emphasizing stories of kindness and compassion that emerge from a culture so over-determined and frequently mocked. Ammerman, Corwin Smidt, D. Michael Lindsay, Christian Smith, and others have exposed the caricature of an evangelical monolith which is sometimes given pass in national media, seemingly undergirded by the anxiety New York Times readers feel after reading reviews of Jesus Camp. We know, of course, that evangelical identities have always been complicated, and that new evangelical voices are expressed through concerns about the environment and the economy. But there are good reasons, too, to remember that other stories still exist, powerfully nurtured in a political culture shaped by discourses of persecution and combat, and still preoccupied with the imagery of hellfire and the rhetoric of pluralism. Even if we take for granted that the words spoken to researchers are the ones that count (as if there are no back stories), “strident hellfire messages” clearly still exist and one doesn’t have to look very hard to find them. This story must be told as well, for this enduring vein of tropes and criticisms—even as we all know it does not speak for the whole of “the evangelical world”—continues to shape a shared world of politics, religion, and culture.

I am not suggesting that when Palin winks when saying “I am opposed to gay marriage,” she is alerting armies of “theocrats” to readiness. Yet our guild’s sensible point about not collapsing Palin’s policies into a “Pentecostal wink,” or locating them in some mythically antediluvian Christianity, should not lead us to look past the enduring power of conservatism (evangelical and otherwise, in all of their complexity) as a cultural, political, and religious presence. While those of us in the academy know that the gleeful snarkiness of a Salon article on faith healing is off-base as a window onto Palin’s politics, we know too that the mutual resonance of political and religious conservatism remains loud, and we ignore it to our intellectual discredit, and possibly to our political peril as well. There remains much to say about hellfire, after all, once we have all accepted—as we all have long ago—that not every evangelical speaks its language. And there remain a great many stories to tell about it, once we have all accepted—as we all should have done long ago—that not everyone who tells such a story is a Sam Harris, a Christopher Hitchens, or a Richard Dawkins.

So while I don’t necessarily disagree with what Ammerman and others have written (nor am I suggesting they’re engaged in protectionism, false consciousness, or anything of the sort), I invoke their writings as an opportunity to muse on a tendency that may have unconsciously flourished in the field. It is worth engaging in a kind of self-inventory so that, in the name of cautioning against misrepresentation, we don’t narrow our political and intellectual conventions (and integrity) until we are neutered, bland, an immobile knot of endless qualifications of what we want—but cannot bring ourselves—to say: in other words, the very caricature of the professoriat circulated by the likes of Gov. Palin.

Is there more for us to say of winking than simply, “it’s complicated.” Are there new responses that can, or should, be added to the din? Do the winks signify beyond this? If anything, they tell us that Palin represents—whatever else may be made of her “meanings”—the need for fresh narratives of religion in public life, since she vexes and unsettles conventional ways of thinking about political religions. I say this because the reactions she has generated cannot be captured simply by resorting to ideological explanations, no matter how energetically Palin stays on message. Nor is her candidacy simply another occasion to cry wolf before the inevitable triumph of theocracy or to bemoan how the incredulous masses vote against their own interests while in thrall to the passions of identity, to cite Thomas Frank’s widely-known formulation. I say this, too, because despite the evident presence of voter polarization, the ready-to-hand “culture wars” musings do little to clarify what is interesting or politically significant about Palin.

Aside from talking points and party affiliation, Palin is in some ways what I have elsewhere called, building on the work of James Scott, politically illegible. And her complicated, multifarious demonology cannot be adduced to her religious affiliation. She exists in the “viral” dimension of our mediascape as a singular concoction of politics as telegenics (the sportscaster’s zingers recast as political argument), emotional self-creation (Hockey Mom cum canine), frontier survivalist (the Alaska Independence party is almost a distant echo of Gingrich-era conservatism, when separatist militias briefly denounced “socialized” roadwork and the like), and a gifted practitioner of the erotics of fear. So while somewhere a graduate student may be contemplating a thesis comparing Palin’s charisma with Sister Aimee’s, the way she captures some of the darker impulses of our political moment strikes me as having little to do with her religiosity.

So yes, as I and others have suggested in writings about political religion, there are both normative and practical goods to be achieved by evaluating religio-political practitioners according to the policies they favor, or their specific orientations to political life. Meet them on the shared space of politics and demand accountability in political registers, rather than shrieking about the perils of theocracy. All to the good. Yet it is important to keep in mind more than one thought—that conservatism remains powerful, and that it is not ubiquitous, and that Palin’s policy positions are more important than her Pentecostalism—as we consider the opportunities and risks opened up by considerations of political religions.

While the pundits miss the point, perhaps we, the scholars, miss a different kind of point. No academic should feel obligated to criticize Gov. Palin, even if they detest her politics. But, in the name of a much-needed conceptual self-inventory, it is worth wondering if the intellectual and political integrity we seek to defend, calibrated to the lived messiness we claim to document, is well-served if we are lulled into thinking that a lone wink fits all audiences, genres, and occasions. 😉