Did you ever think you would see a political campaign in which liberals worried about the effects of teen pregnancy and mothers working outside the home at the same time conservatives parsed the phrase “putting lipstick on a pig” for sexist intent? Imagine the left and right switching sides on the Murphy Brown controversy of the ’90s. The culture wars have been turned upside down, and it’s largely due to one woman: Sarah Palin.
To some, Palin is a heterodox red-state feminist. To others, she’s affectionately known as a right-wing screwball. Whatever your view, she has definitely caused both her staunchest critics and most enthusiastic supporters to deviate from their normal talking points — and in some cases, defy media stereotypes.
Liberal blogs and their fellow travelers began spreading the bogus conspiracy theory that 17-year-old Bristol Palin was baby Trig’s real mother. But when Bristol did turn out to be pregnant out of wedlock with a child of her own, the “Christianists” did not condemn her or act according to the script.
James Dobson released a supportive statement, which among other things said, “Being a Christian does not mean you’re perfect. Nor does it mean your children are perfect….The media are already trying to spin this as evidence Gov. Palin is a ‘hypocrite,’ but all it really means is that she and her family are human.”
The Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins praised young Bristol for “following her mother and father’s example of choosing life in the midst of a difficult situation.” Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life alternative to EMILY’s List, also commended the Palins: “When it comes to choosing life, Sarah Palin doesn’t just talk the talk, she personally walks the walk, time and time again.” Comparing the Palins’ behavior to Obama’s “punished with a baby” remark, Dannenfelser argued, “the contrasting worldviews of the pro-life Sarah Palin and the pro-abortion Barack Obama [have] come into stark relief for American voters.”
Some of this social conservative tolerance and liberal censoriousness is undoubtedly attributable to partisan politics. If Chelsea Clinton had given birth out of wedlock a decade ago, it is unlikely that Pat Robertson would have released a statement praising her for choosing life and almost certain that no liberal would have condemned her.
But even though most pro-lifers are religious people who believe in traditional sexual morality — and a world in which their morals prevailed would be one with many fewer abortions — abortion opponents really are more interested in saving babies’ lives than policing women’s sex lives. Their rhetoric about the sanctity of life is for real.
To Slate‘s Jacob Weisberg, however, it reeks of a scary absolutism. Bristol Palin’s example ranks ahead of Hollywood and the welfare state as a threat to the two-parent family. “By vaunting their pro-life agenda over everything else,” he writes, “conservatives are abandoning one of their most valuable insights: that intact, two-parent families are best for children and for the foundation of a healthy society.”
Never mind that abortion, teen pregnancy, and illegitimacy rates often rise and fall in tandem. This must be the pro-choice conservatism that Weisberg’s Slate colleague Will Saletan wrote about a few years ago.
Leon Wieseltier complained in the New Republic that the pro-life embrace of the Palins contradicts conservative concerns about illegitimacy and fatherlessness a decade ago (even though Bristol Palin intends to marry the father of her child). He even detects the faint whiff of racism in this inconsistency, writing, “The fecundity of Bristol Palin is a windfall for Jesus, but the fecundity of black girls is the doom of the republic.”
In response to such derangement, the Atlantic‘s Ross Douthat observes that if religious conservatives had denounced the Palins for this teen pregnancy, no one would be “opining about how impressive it was that social conservatives were willing to put the good of the American family above their pro-life absolutism.” Instead, “all we’d hear is satisfied chirping about how the response to Bristol Palin’s pregnancy proves, once and for all, that social conservatives don’t give two figs about the rights of the unborn; what they really care about is controlling women’s sex lives and reinforcing patriarchal norms.”
The trends have actually gone in the opposite direction: pro-lifers have become more accepting of teen pregnancy and illegitimacy in order to persuade young women to choose abortion less frequently. It is part of the kinder, gentler social conservatism that saw Mike Huckabee go from talking about quarantining AIDS patients in the 1990s to emphasizing a “compassion agenda” today. It can be taken too far because Dan Quayle was right, but as David Frum observed, “the pro-life movement has come to terms with the sexual revolution.”
In fact, as Frum writes, “The whole world witnessed this week that the pro-life movement has accepted gender equality and leadership roles for women.”
Yet Sarah Palin doesn’t signal a truce in the culture wars. As the man who gave the famous “culture war” speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention writes, social conservatives defend Palin while social liberals attack her on Obama’s behalf for one reason only: “Because she is one of us — and he is one of them.”