Sarah Palin as Queen Esther? Alaska's soon-to-be-gone-governor as a Hebrew heroine from 2,500 years ago?
But over at the Daily Dish
Andrew Sullivan made the connection -- with some help from the New Wineskins
blogger -- after musing on Palin's seemingly fatalistic pronouncement in early June, a full month before her surprise resignation.
"If I die, I die," Palin said during a rambling (what else?) introduction
for Ronald Reagan's son, Michael, who was headlining an event at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts. Was Palin subtly signaling her political fate to those with ears to hear?
Perhaps. More likely she was just channeling one of the favorite biblical role models for conservative Christian women, especially the beauty queens, which Palin once was (and still is, if that Runner's World spread
is anything to go by).
There's also a chance Palin read our May 26 piece
on Esther's appeal to prominent Christian women. Either way, Palin's self-identification with Esther is not unusual, and isn't associated so much with surrender as it is with triumph, and triumph of a very feminine variety.
In the Book of Esther
, King Ahasuerus summons his wife, Vashti, to show off her beauty (perhaps in the buff, according to a popular tradition) at a drunken banquet. The proud Vashti refused, and was removed as queen. (Some traditions say she was killed or banished.) Ahasuerus then held a beauty contest to audition for replacements. Esther won, though she hid her Jewish identity. Then Esther's cousin, Mordechai, offends the king's prime minister, the evil Haman (hiss-s-s-s-s), who retaliates by hatching a plot to wipe out all the Jews in Persia. Mordechai presses Esther to intervene with the king to avert the disaster, and Esther finally agrees, uttering the now-famous words, "If I die, I die!"
After various twists -- and a couple of lavish banquets during which Esther butters up Ahasuerus -- the queen reveals that she herself is Jewish and would die at Haman's hands if the plan is carried out. Ahasuerus is furious, and it is Haman who dies on the gallows while Mordechai is named the new prime minister. (Interestingly, Esther is the one book of the Bible that does not mention God and was such an oddity that it was a late entry into the canon.)
Contemporary Christians, especially conservatives, love that story. As Nancy Ammerman, a sociologist of religion at Boston University, told me, Esther represents "a willingness to risk everything on behalf of something greater than yourself, something you believe in." Hence the popularity of Esther's other well-known declaration, "I was born for such a time as this." Esther's words convey a powerful sense of vocation, Ammerman says, "the notion that there is a hand in history that brings a person to a particular place in which their particular gifts have meaning and have an opportunity to make a difference." The Esther story is also ideal for a Christian Right that sees itself as a besieged minority, as the Jews of Esther's day were. The vindication of the Jews, who then vanquished their foes, is also a gratifying scenario for today's believers.
Little wonder that when Palin exploded onto the political scene last year -- accompanied by catcalls from the media elites -- she was fitted for Esther's crown. "She's our Queen Esther," Martha Mota told a Texas newspaper at a debate party as Palin prepared to square off against Joe Biden. "She's going to save our whole country." A full two years earlier, in 2006, when Palin became governor, she called her pastor and asked for a biblical example of a great leader. The Rev. Paul E. Riley
told her to read up on Esther.
This spring, at the Miss USA pageant, it was Carrie Prejean's turn. Following criticism of her for denouncing gay marriage as unbiblical, Prejean was held up by Focus on the Family and other evangelicals as a "modern Queen Esther," who uses her good looks to witness for her faith and rescue God's people. Before that, Katherine Harris, the controversial Florida state official embroiled in the 2000 presidential recount, also liked to quote Esther's big line (in the King James Version), "If I perish, I perish." (Hillary Clinton has also cited Esther as her favorite biblical character.)
There are many reasons Palin and her tribe would like Esther. For one thing, the story of Esther allows conservatives to mediate -- or accommodate -- conflicting feelings about sex and purity, women and power. It's also a good fit for a Bible Belt culture that has eschewed dancing and drinking yet glories in female beauty, as long as it stays within bounds. (Although Carrie Prejean seems to have busted some of those boundaries with news of her pre-pageant breast enhancements and the racy photos
But let's continue the exegesis with Palin: Does her invocation of Esther mean she figures on triumphing over her enemies? That seems increasingly like a long shot.
Perhaps Palin would do better to emulate Vashti, the king's first queen, who refused to be paraded about like a, well, beauty queen. She was lost to history, but kept her dignity.