By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country
The evangelical movement's eye-popping numbers (new megachurches are opening as mainline churches shrink), cultural power (think The Purpose Driven Life or crossover hits from Christian radio), and political success (George W. Bush, Mike Huckabee, Tim Pawlenty, etc.) makes it easy to forget that evangelical Christianity is very much a countercultural phenomenon.
Even as it adapts to the contemporary American cultural landscape—look at Rick Warren's Hawaiian shirts or the number of megachurches that now boast coffee shops—the American evangelical movement nonetheless defines itself as separate from the rest of the country.
"Religions that grow are the ones that are hard-core in some way—they have something that differs sharply from the culture in which they operate," Stephen Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University, told me recently. "That's the problem with mainline Protestantism: It's not different enough from mainstream America. Evangelicals have been able to pitch themselves as the alternative to mainstream culture."
Indeed, evangelicals read self-consciously evangelical magazines, go on church mission trips, and demonstrate remarkable political cohesion; a Pew survey out today finds that 71 percent of white evangelicals think abortion should be illegal, compared to 44 percent of the rest of the country.
In fact, nowhere is the evangelical countercultural impulse more evident than in politics. At the recent Values Voter Summit in Washington, more than one speaker compared the Christian right's role in politics today to the biblical story of David and Goliath.
And no politician embodies that embattled evangelical mentality more than Sarah Palin. She's an outsider's outsider.
During last year's campaign, the Republican vice presidential nominee portrayed herself as fighting not only the liberal media elite but the McCain campaign itself and the broader GOP establishment.
Palin has reportedly modeled her leadership on the biblical Queen Esther, who pulled off a long-shot gambit to save the Jews from an oppressive king. When she stepped down as Alaska's governor this year, Palin quoted Esther directly in reference to her own political future: "If I die, I die."
Palin's much anticipated memoir, to be released next month, is poised to solidify her appeal to the embattled evangelical psyche. Just look at the title: Going Rogue. With the book already in the No. 1 slot on Amazon, the pitch seems to be resonating.