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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Give us a robust public square

Campaign 2008 | And one where a few household rules apply

Issue: "Northern light," Sept. 20, 2008

Too much has been said about Gov. Sarah Palin's candidacy. And somehow not enough. After the American public had been knocked silly by the polemic force of the only woman in the 2008 campaign, along comes another, a vice presidential candidate with a family apparently troubled enough to win a prime-time slot on Showtime and religiously conservative enough to earn an ACLU-sponsored boycott for it. A woman whose political record recalls Jeane Kirkpatrick and other bygone women for its unabashed conservatism, while her delivery at the Republican National Convention rivaled Tina Fey for timing.

Sarah Palin heading into her upcoming debate with Democratic opponent Joe Biden may continue for a time at center stage, but she will be hardly alone. Throughout this overlong campaign, religious conservatives have alternately negotiated, whined, and begged for a candidate who is "one of us." They have one now, and one they never in their wildest Iowa winter dreams thought would come as a running mate to John McCain, nor in the combination of "feisty energy and femininity" that our Alaska-bound reporter Mark Bergin says Palin displays.

So while the spotlight is on Palin, it also falls over what it means to be evangelical. This comes at a time when evangelicals themselves are debating who they are. The much-talked-about Evangelical Manifesto released last spring decried what it called "the mistake of politicizing faith" and declared "it would be no improvement to respond to a weakening of the religious right with a rejuvenation of the religious left." But its definition of "politicized faith" left many evangelicals wondering what that looks like: Is mega-pastor Joel Hunter's involvement in drafting language for the Democratic platform that calls for "reducing the number of unplanned pregnancies" while continuing support for Roe v. Wade a politicized faith? Or is it politicized only when pro-life Republicans chant, "Sarah! Sarah!" as they did at a Crowne Plaza event in Minnesota?

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The Manifesto calls for evangelicals to engage not a naked public square or a sacred public square, but "a civil public square." This too is a good goal, but possibly insufficient, suggesting what Baptist commentator Al Mohler called "a Gnostic form of political engagement." It is wonderfully prophetic, notes Mohler, "but it never explains how civility can survive a policy conclusion."

And I don't believe Palin would go for it. Palin is "a feminist not in the Yale Gender Studies sense but the How Do I Reload This Thang way," to quote columnist Peggy Noonan. She'd likely prefer a robust public square, and so would I, one where adult supervision and occasional brawls-for sport but not for blood-are allowed.

In this odyssey of a presidential campaign we've had our petty brawls. Conservative religious leaders feuded over Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee and sequestered themselves to discuss a third-party candidacy. Liberal religious voters sided with the pragmatism of Hillary Clinton before pretzeling themselves into Barack Obama idealists. Neither side gained much for all that, frankly.

Now comes the big brawl, and it looks like time for a few household rules. For that a working mom may prove pivotal. In my house when the office door is shut, my kids know only two circumstances may open it: The house must be on fire, or someone must be bleeding. This tends to end a lot of vague unhappiness with the world, empty pleas for attention, and to usher in undreamed of forms of self-reliance. Isn't this what we want for our fellow Americans?

But when compassion is needed, moms no matter how busy know that only true compassion will do. Words must be clear, and involve subjects, verbs, and hopefully direct objects. If Palin has injected anything into this campaign so far, it is the art of the straightforward sentence. And the knowledge that life is, not overall but daily and nearly every minute, messy. "From the inside, no family ever seems typical," said Palin at the convention. Neither does this campaign, which in the short life left of it may become less typical, more messy than we've yet seen.

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