How Sarah Palin embodies the Christian right archetype of the Sexy Puritan.

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Sept. 26 2008 12:16 PM

The Sexy Puritan

Sarah Palin embodies a powerful new Christian right archetype. What could that mean for America?

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God knows, I'm not trying to link Palin to the Christian Nymphos; I'm only trying to locate her within the context of the great American culture war, which she seems to have single-handedly reignited during an election season that was supposed to have been dominated by other issues (and may well be again, now that Wall Street has imploded). With the selection of Palin, McCain succeeded not only in thrilling the Christian right but in scrambling the categories of the campaign. It used to be perfectly clear which ticket represented youth and change, which seemed old and boring, and which had more appeal to women voters. For a moment, at least, Palin seems to have turned these certainties into open questions.

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The right has understood for a long time that harsh social messages seem a lot more palatable coming from an attractive young woman than a glowering old man. What's most striking about Palin thus far is her reluctance to engage in explicit cultural warfare, given some of the extreme positions she's taken in the past. Her recent public statements on homosexuality and global warming are more conciliatory than one might have expected, designed to reassure socially moderate swing voters. And she's in no position to pontificate on the benefits of abstinence-only sex education. For now, her role in the culture war is mainly symbolic. Millions of Americans clearly see her as "one of us"—a devout, working-class, "Bible-believing" Christian whose values and opinions and way of speaking reflect their own—and their exhilaration at having a kindred spirit on the GOP ticket has given the McCain campaign a jolt of populist energy.

In the weeks remaining before Nov. 4, the Obama campaign faces the challenging job of restoring clarity to the election, making people look at Palin and see not just a plucky, surprisingly hot, pro-life mom who made her way from the PTA to the governor's office, but a "Young Earth" creationist who opposes abortion even in the case of rape or incest and thinks a natural-gas pipeline is an expression of God's will. In the meantime, though, she remains a perfect emblem for a stealth culture war: a sexy librarian who would be more than happy to ban a few books.

Tom Perrotta is the author of Election and Little Children. His latest novel, The Abstinence Teacher, has just been published in paperback.