In a recent Newsweek article, “Saint Sarah,” Lisa Miller chronicles Sarah Palin’s iconic status among evangelical Christian women in the United States, noting that Palin blends talk of politics and faith in a way that resonates among her “mama grizzly” followers. Miller points out that although Palin’s theological message is “generic,” it is the way Palin tells her story, and the way that story gets interpreted biblically by evangelical Christian women, that accounts, at least in part, for her meteoric rise. Palin is able to connect her life story (told as a kind of everywoman’s life story) to stories of other women who stood up and sacrificed for their children and their people. At a Women of Joy prayer breakfast in Louisville, KY, Miller recounts how Palin, “connected herself with Esther. She was explaining the meaning of the Jewish queen’s heroism to her 9-year-old daughter Piper, she said. ‘[Esther] was out there on the stage, wondering if she’d have the opportunity to be chosen to really help change the world.’”
What I find fascinating in the “Saint Sarah” piece, and what I will explore over the summer in this blog, is the ways that the stories we tell—about self, nation, human rights, and the other things we hold dear—often reveal a complicated intermingling of the things once characterized as distinctly separate: church and state, religion and politics, spirituality and human rights.
This blurring of boundaries is not only true among evangelical Christians. Although in the past the feminist movement has been reticent to talk about religion, in my own work with international women’s human rights activists I have noticed a resurging interest in partnering with religious organizations and understanding the multiple roles that religion and spirituality play in women’s lives. Additionally, many of the progressive Christian women’s rights activists I am working with narrate their desire to “walk the walk” of social justice by telling Biblical stories of powerful and courageous women who guide and inspire their political action and social justice activism. Stories of women like Queen Esther.
While Palin’s followers and the women I work with might disagree politically and theologically, they both use the medium of storytelling to get their political/religious messages across. These stories, like all stories, are performed and told for a particular reason and in a particular context. Not only do they help us to understand and name the realities in which we live, they also help to shape and create these realities. As an SSRC DPDF fellow in the After Secularization group, my goal for summer research is to begin to pay attention to the ways that certain stories are told, particularly among women’s human rights activists and survivors of gender-based violence. What are the stories being told? Who is telling these stories and why? What worlds and problems do these stories attempt to explain or understand? And perhaps most importantly, what worlds do these stories begin to create?