Sarah Palin electrified the Republican National Convention last week. The Democrats are still smarting from her one-liners, and senior McCain advisors have to be concerned that, while she excites the party’s base, she also outshines the candidate. They will, no doubt, continue using her as the campaign’s “attack dog,” but there’s another aspect of her rhetoric worth thinking about. Consider the following section from her acceptance speech in St. Paul:
…Politics isn’t just a game of clashing parties and competing interests. The right reason [for political involvement] is to challenge the status quo, to serve the common good, and to leave this nation better than we found it. No one expects us all to agree on everything, but we are expected to govern with integrity, and goodwill, and clear convictions, and a servant’s heart.
Palin offered these same lines in Dayton, Ohio, on the day she was tapped to be McCain’s running mate. Why would a person seeking the country’s second most powerful office talk about governing with a “servant’s heart,” and more importantly, why would she repeat such an odd phrase in the biggest speech of her life?
Quite simply, it is one of her main assignments–to mobilize fellow evangelicals for the religiously unmusical John McCain. Up until two weeks ago, 2008 was looking an awful lot like 1996 for the Republicans. Most evangelicals were going to vote for McCain, but they weren’t that excited about it. Their support was tepid at best. That is no way to win the White House, especially with the Democrats’ surging enthusiasm over the Obama-Biden ticket.
John McCain has many advantages for a year when Republicans are so unpopular, but he has been plagued by not being able to connect with evangelical voters. No matter how many times he recounts the story of the cross on the ground in the Hanoi Hilton, the Episcopalian-turned-Baptist cannot speak the evangelical vernacular like a native.
If there is one political lesson McCain learned from George W. Bush, it is that a Republican has to signal his allegiance to evangelicals early and often. However, it must be done with a measure of subtlety. To be truly effective, the politician has to communicate to evangelicals “I’m one of you” without being explicit. Once you know what to look for, though, one can see that public figures broadcast these signals all the time. As I showed in my book, Faith in the Halls of Power (Oxford, 2007), entertainers who are Christians signal their faith commitments as often as politicians. For example, the cover of U2’s album All That You Can’t Leave Behind features an airport sign with “J33-3?,” alluding to Jeremiah 33:3. In his 2006 co-authored book, Bono explained the signal as a reference to the Bible: “That’s Jeremiah 33:3. The Scripture is ‘Call unto me, and I will answer you.’ It’s celestial telephony.”
When Sarah Palin referred to governing with a “servant’s heart,” the phrase resonated with millions of American evangelicals who have heard that phrase all of their lives. It is a shorthand for the humble leadership Jesus admonished in the Gospel of Mark, and the term is so prevalent among evangelicals that it has become a punch line for sermon jokes.
Politicians signal messages to all kinds of audiences when they are speaking to large, diverse crowds. Signaling allows the speaker to communicate certain messages subtly without risking full disclosure. When overt reference is inappropriate or might draw unwanted attention, evangelicals use signaling to reveal their faith allegiances without even mentioning God or Jesus. The effect is blunted when, as Barack Obama did in concluding his acceptance speech, the speaker explicitly states “in the words of scripture…”
And it happens not just with biblical allusions. Seemingly secular phrases can be endowed with religious significance for evangelical audiences. That is what made Sarah Palin’s reference to the “common good” even more intriguing. After John Kerry lost the 2004 election, Mara Vanderslice, Kerry’s religious outreach adviser, established Common Good Strategies, a political consulting firm for Democrats interested in connecting with people of faith. Within a few years, “common good” had become the mantra of left-of-center believers. The slogan for Faith in Public Life, an initiative housed at the Center for American Progress, is “a resource center for justice and the common good.” Bill Clinton lectured at Georgetown on the topic in 2006, and devout Democrats such as Senator Bob Casey regularly incorporate the rhetoric in speeches and on the campaign trail. In fact, BBC News noted in 2006 that Casey mentioned the phrase 29 times in a single talk.
Could it be that Sarah Palin’s use of the phrase is coincidental, that it was not intended to tap these religious sensibilities? Not likely. The same person who helped President George W. Bush master the art of signaling to the faithful–Matthew Scully–wrote most of Palin’s speech. Moreover, the address was vetted extremely carefully; it was, after all, her national introduction before 37 million Americans. McCain advisors knew enough to realize she was far more fluent in the evangelical vernacular than the Arizona senator.
Critics may claim these are only rhetorical flourishes. Nothing guarantees that signals translate into votes. That may be so, but politics is largely about symbols. Political symbols mobilize the masses. No Republican has won the White House in modern history without the staunch support of evangelical voters. When John McCain began his bid for the Oval Office, observers thought he didn’t have a prayer of winning their support. With this “Hail Mary pass” of enlisting the Alaskan governor as his running mate, John McCain’s political savior may just turn out to be a pit bull with lipstick.
D. Michael Lindsay is a sociologist at Rice University and is the author of Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite (Oxford), which is being released in paperback next month.