Fire and Fraud: Touchdown Jesus Meets the Cult of Palin

I recalled C. G. Jung’s definition of “synchronicity” last week when two email messages, each containing a link to a religion news story, arrived to my inbox almost simultaneously. Synchronicity refers to “temporally coincident occurrences of acausal events.” In other words, synchronicity is about meaningful coincidence – two or more events or images not causally related, but connected in some significant way.

The first news item actually invoked coincidence: “We just all have to go on our faith and ask God. This cannot be a coincidence.” This was one Solid Rock Church member’s response to the destruction of the famed “Touchdown Jesus” sculpture that had long caught eyes and raised eyebrows along a stretch of Interstate 75 in southwestern Ohio.

Officially titled “King of Kings,” this massive bust of Jesus, with arms raised to heaven in the posture that suggested its nickname, was struck by lightning last Monday night and subsequently burnt down, in what some characterized as an “act of God.” News images show the gigantic sculpture engulfed in flames, while a sign at Solid Rock ensures hope in the resurrection: “He’ll be back.”

The second link brought me to a Huffington Post article calling attention to the cover image on the latest issue of Newsweek. It depicts Sarah Palin, her hands pressed together in a prayerful gesture, her lit-up face turned heavenward, and her head endowed with a Photo-shopped halo. Below this intentionally tacky image, in vintage calligraphy, are the words “Saint Sarah,” along with the tagline for Lisa Miller’s article: “What Palin’s appeal to conservative Christian women says about feminism and the future of the religious right.”

Miller’s report brings critical light to bear on Palin’s appeal to conservative Christian women. Miller emphasizes Palin’s much touted “authenticity,” as demonstrated in her book Going Rogue, where the former vice-presidential candidate talks, for example, about the unexpected pregnancy leading to the birth of her son Trig. “Nothing,” writes Miller, “makes a person, let alone a politician, appear more vulnerable, more ordinary, and more unambiguously female than a scene in a bathroom where she pees on a stick.”

The combination of sentimentality, pathos, and all-American ordinariness that constitutes Palin’s “authenticity” works hand-in-hand with her optimistic religiosity and buoyant patriotism. Miller describes Palin “wearing a rosary-like cross around her neck and a sparkly American flag lapel pin” as she spoke to over 500 women at the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, each of whom paid at least $150 for the privilege of hearing Saint Sarah speak.

Miller notes that “a certain kind of conservative, Bible-believing woman worships” Palin. One Palin zealot, Vicki Garza, owner of a Dallas-based marketing firm, established a now heavily trafficked website called Garza “believes a great cosmic battle is underway for the soul of America and that Palin has been singled out by God for leadership.” In Garza’s own words, “The anointing on [Palin] is so strong … She’s just fearless.”

But what does Saint Sarah have to do with Touchdown Jesus? What makes the coincidence of these images significant? They are connected on at least this point: Whatever else they are, both Palin and the King of Kings can be seen as forms of advertising that might be characterized as kitsch: cheaply produced, popular, and marketable art that traffics in sentimentality and often adapts imagery from cultural iconography – Jesus or saints, for example.

To suggest that Touchdown Jesus – a sculpture of fiberglass and plastic foam mounted on a simple metal skeleton – might be perceived by some to be a kitschy oddity is not to deny that for others it is a meaningful icon, a monumental focal point for faith. It also has clear evangelistic intent, and thus works, for better or worse, as a kind of marketing tool.

But whereas the loss of Touchdown Jesus provoked both sadness and guffaws, the cult of Saint Sarah leaves little room for mirth. Palin’s self-construction as ordinary and “authentic” – her everywoman, working-mom routine; her down-home idiolect; her wink-peppered performances – is, at base, an advertisement for herself. With or without the fraudulent halo, she is a kitschy image designed to sell a particular brand of religio-political entertainment.

Cheaply produced (if sometimes expensive to consume), Palin is above all a popular commodity whose religious salability is evidenced and abetted by the merchandise generated around her. Newsweek highlights the commercial aspect of Palin’s enterprise in a photo slideshow entitled “Cult of Palin.” Here you find images of Palin alarm clocks, Palin burlesque shows, Palin coloring books, and Palin shirts emblazoned with the slogan “God, Guns, Guts.” As an image, Palin is the patron saint of a form of commercialism in which religion, politics, and entertainment are collapsed.

Cheap and marketable: these terms may describe both Touchdown Jesus and Saint Sarah. But one suspects that human will, and not an act of God, will be required to dispel the cult of Palin.

The Huffington Post calls attention to the “Saint Sarah” Newsweek cover here.
Lisa Miller’s Newsweek article, followed by a link to the “Cult of Palin” slideshow, can be found here.
For information on kitsch, go here.

Republished from Sightings with permission of the University of Chicago Divinity School.