Decoding Christine O'Donnell
It's too easy to make Christine O'Donnell jokes. If you're not part of her intended audience of conservative voters, you can just dismiss as wacko her talk of treating masturbation like adultery, dabbling in witchcraft, and welcoming "a season of constitutional repentance." And you'll be doing her a favor—all the mockery may not broaden O'Donnell's appeal in her sober state of Delaware, but it makes her committed supporters double down. It's a lesson Sarah Palin teaches: Make fun of the down-home woman (who happens to be hot) for her quirks of speech, and you also insult all the people who identify with her.
So we will have no fun here. O'Donnell is a Republican candidate for senator. Let's give her statements the close reading they deserve. I thought we should try to figure out why O'Donnell has chosen her particular phrasings. Often she dwells on liberty and its place in the Constitution and then on wrapping the Constitution in the Bible—making it her touchstone by making it holy. O'Donnell's choice of words taps into larger patterns of speech, in the Tea Party and beyond it. She's going beyond the old generic conservative idea that America should be a Christian nation. But how, exactly? Hanna, this has long been your line of inquiry: What's she reaching for and where do her ideas come from? Is she narrowcasting, or does she go broader when she brings in C.S. Lewis—a master of hidden Christian meanings—and the Narnia books, in which he embedded a Jesus parable. Here's a bit of her speech from last week at the Value Voters Summit:
It reminds me of the C.S. Lewis Narnia books, where the little girl asks someone about Aslan the lion, who represents God. She says, "I'm a little concerned over such a fearsome lion. Is he safe?" And her friend says, "Safe, who said anything about safe? Of course he isn't safe. But he's good." Well, that's what's happening in America today with this grassroots groundswell, this revolution of reason, this love affair with liberty. It isn't tame, but boy, it sure is good.
And what do you both make of this image knitting the Constitution to the Bible, again from the same speech?
The Constitution is making a comeback. It's simply unprecedented in my lifetime. I think it's a little like the chosen people of Israel and the Hebrew scriptures, who cycle through periods of blessing and suffering and then return to the divine principles in their darker days. It's almost as if we're in a season of constitutional repentance. When our country's on the wrong track, we search back to our first covenant, our founding documents, and the bold and inspired values on which they were based.
Maybe the idea is to plot the Bible and the Constitution on one indelible, teleological line of history. Like the exhibitions on state property that display the Ten Commandments along with the Declaration of Independence and other documents from America's foundation and history. (If you're in Texas, you throw in a plaque commemorating the war with Mexico, children, and a tribute to the Texans lost at Pearl Harbor. Among many other things. And the Supreme Court says your monument can stay.) The Constitution becomes worth revering not for its own sake but because it reflects a Judeo-Christian heritage.
Dahlia, once you've helped start us getting all of that sorted out, take a look at this next quote, from her interview last night with Sean Hannity and tell us, does O'Donnell have her own Terri Schiavo? *
I fell behind on my mortgage. I had a pro bono client that to me was very important. I worked 18 hours a day. It was a disabled woman who the courts ruled to remove her feeding tube, so it was truly a life or death case. So when her father came to me he said "I can't pay you but will you help me save her life?' And you can't say no to that.
And, last thing, what do you make of all the mommy talk O'Donnell has pulled from Palin? She's not married, and she doesn't have kids. But she's got the Mama Grizzly tough talk down. At the Values Voters Summit, she used, to great comic effect, the lines "You're not the boss of me" and "It's when the wheels fall off that the grownups have to step in and stand up. And that's what happening in America today. The grownups are taking away the keys." And, also, about passing along the national debt to our children: "Folks, this is not good parenting." Is she showing us that you don't have to be a mom to invoke the authority parenthood brings to a female candidate?
Correction, Sept. 22, 2010: This article originally mispelled Terri Schiavo's first name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family, and kids. Her forthcoming book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Empathy and Character. Find her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook or Twitter.