When the 17-year-old daughter of a Republican vice presidential candidate turns out to be pregnant and unwed, our culture-war stereotypes turn inside-out. In 2008, under the appropriate circumstances, a Christian conservative can be more tolerant of teen sex than a liberal Democrat.
"Life happens," said Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), when Bristol Palin's condition was revealed. "We appreciate the fact that the Palins addressed the issue in a straightforward manner and that they are providing loving support to the teenager and her boyfriend," commented the Concerned Women for America. "Being a Christian does not mean you’re perfect," added James Dobson. "Nor does it mean your children are perfect. But it does mean there is forgiveness and restoration when we confess our imperfections to the Lord."
Some on the left have taken the same approach. Most significantly, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) asked his supporters to "back off" from criticizing the Palin family, pointing out that his own mother had been 18 when he was born. But others have plunged gleefully into the so-called scandal. Where conservatives called for tolerance and understanding, the libs said, Where was the girl's mom?
The high-minded approach to this was to bring up the pregnancy in tandem with Gov. Sarah Palin's support for abstinence-only sex ed, thus seeming to reduce the issue to a matter of public policy. The Stranger's Dan Savage, for example, wrote this on Monday:
Yes, ordinary American families face this situation all the time. Fewer would face this situation, however, if we had comprehensive sex education in the United States, and teenagers had access to accurate information about birth control methods and contraceptives were made easily available.
It should be obvious, but apparently isn't, that virtually no one following this story has any idea what Bristol Palin and her boyfriend knew about contraception, nor whether they didn't use birth control at all, used it improperly, or used it properly but it failed. If they didn't use any birth control, we do not know why they made that decision. We do not know whether Sarah Palin (who may oppose teaching about birth control in the government's schools, but is not opposed to contraception) talked with her daughter about birth control; nor do we know what, if anything, Palin's boyfriend's parents imparted to him. We do not even know how Bristol Palin feels about "this situation." In short, we don't have the slightest idea whether comprehensive sex education would have changed the Palin family's lives one iota. I'm no fonder of abstinence education than I am of any other form of social engineering, but the efforts to turn the Palin pregnancy into a school-policy anecdote are absurd.
But at least Savage paid respect to Bristol's autonomy. ("It’s great that Bristol is choosing to keep this baby. As the adoptive parent of a child born to a pair of unwed teenagers, I’m certainly not in favor of abortion in all circumstances.") Move away from the pundits and into the ordinary conversations of Palin's ordinary opponents, and the talk gets uglier.
"Way to go," writes one Boston Globe reader. "Great example for all young girls. Get pregnant at 17." Another adds: "She cant even control her own daughter in her home, and she wants to run the country!! no way!!" At mixx.com: "if Gov. Palin can't control what happens underneath her own house roof and how would she be able 2 run the White House." At Fox News: "if she cant control her daughter AND bring her up proper, she has no business as a Vice President." A blogger called the Homosecular Gaytheist, a handle that might suggest a certain social tolerance, instead calls Bristol "the slutty alcoholic daughter of Sarah Palin" and asks, again, "How will Sarah Palin fare in running the entire country after the inevitable death of John McCain if she can’t even run her own family?" Control, control, control. Foucault would have a field day.
And no, I'm not just cherry-picking obnoxious blog comments. I'm repeating the ones that resemble arguments I've heard out here in the real world, talking to neighbors and eavesdropping in cafés. (Well, not the "slutty alcoholic" bit. That one may be sui generis.) Some of this may just be partisanship gone wild, just as some of the Republican defenses of Bristol Palin would melt away if she were an Obama. But these aren't just hardcore Blue Team cheerleaders talking. They're normal Americans working themselves into high dudgeon because Sarah Palin was an insufficient Sex Cop. It's the same burst of puritanism that greeted the pregnancy of Jamie Lynn Spears. But it's a peculiar sort of puritanism, because it's aimed at young women who plan to keep their babies. Apparently, not everyone approves of the Juno narrative.
It's easy to accuse Palin's Christian defenders of fair-weather tolerance, to suggest that they wouldn't be so sanguine if Bristol, say, decided to raise her child without a father. It's easy and, in many prominent cases, it's probably right. But that isn't the only fair-weather tolerance on display.
Jesse Walker is reason's managing editor.