Research support for this article was provided by the Puffin Foundation Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
Pat O’Hara, a journalist who served on the Wasilla school board for twelve years, remembers how the religious right made her feel like a stranger in her own community. The Mat-Su Valley, which includes the neighboring towns of Wasilla and Palmer, had once been a libertarian sort of place, full of blue-collar individualists who didn’t fit in elsewhere. “I had the dog team in the woods, the cabin in the woods. My friends were teachers, farmers, construction workers,” she said as she stood with about 1,500 demonstrators at a September 13 anti-Sarah Palin rally in Anchorage. “It was kind of a working, very much Democratic community. And then it changed.”
The Valley, Alaska’s fastest-growing region, is a spectacular area of lakes and birch and spruce forests, surrounded by granite-colored snowcapped mountains that poke through the clouds. Palmer has a community core, a walkable few blocks with a lively coffee shop, Vagabond Blues. Wasilla, though, has developed as a sprawl of strip malls containing a mix of pawnshops, gun shops and chain stores–and, incongruously, a decent sushi place, with a Korean chef from California. It is a little piece of the American South near the North Pole, rough-hewn but slowly upscaling.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that local churches like the Wasilla Assembly of God, which Palin grew up attending, became aggressively political. A few years before Palin became mayor, a group of preachers confronted the school board with questions about social issues that had never before surfaced in local politics, according to O’Hara, who wrote first for the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman and then for the Anchorage Daily News. “They started asking me, ‘Would you allow a homosexual to teach in schools?’ and ‘Do you favor abortion?'” she said. “At the time, I didn’t know what was coming. I said, ‘This is not a school board issue. We have overcrowding. We have funding problems.'” The last time O’Hara ran, conservative pastors mounted an effort to defeat her, saying she favored hiring homosexuals, but they failed. Nevertheless, in 1996, feeling increasingly alienated in a place she’d lived for twenty-five years, she quit the school board and moved to more liberal Anchorage.
“The whole community changed,” she said. “It became extremely rigid and intolerant, and you can see that in every election since.” Palin, said O’Hara, “represents the worst of those values. She feels that because she’s a member of the right church, she’s chosen by God to inflict her values on everyone.”
With her vice presidential nomination, Sarah Palin has become the ultimate religious-right success story. Ever since the Christian Coalition was formed using the infrastructure of Pat Robertson’s 1988 presidential run, the movement has focused on building power from the ground up, turning conservative churches into little political machines. “I would rather have a thousand school board members than one president and no school board members,” Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed said in 1996. Palin, who got her start in a local church-backed political struggle, is very much the product of Reed’s strategy.