James Dobson praised Miss California USA Carrie Prejean for preaching a sermon with her life. Miles McPherson, her pastor, compared her to Esther. Prejean claimed God chose her and trusted her to speak out. Even now that she has been stripped of her title, Prejean is on the talk show circuit talking about her beliefs. "When God is for you, no one can be against you," she told Larry King.
I've been studying religion and beauty pageants for my Ph.D. dissertation, and even I'm still trying to wrap my head around the last two months of headlines. Nobody expected Prejean's comments about gay marriage to be news, nor for American evangelical communities to promote Prejean as a pageant preacher.
The irony of the controversy is not how unique Prejean is for using the pageant to promote her Christian beliefs, but how in line with pageant tradition she is. Christians have long participated in such beauty pageants, and they quite frequently win. And not only do they have religious justifications for their participation, many frequently have Christian motivations for their participation.
Remember, for example, Miss America 2003, Erika Harold, who faced resistance over her desire to advocate abstinence during her reign. Miss America 1973, Terry Meeuwsen, Miss America 1990, Debbye Turner, and Miss America 1995, Heather Whitestone have also put their beliefs into practice through pageant participation. Indeed, they used their crowns to open doors to minister to others in unique ways, paving the way for other pageant preachers like Prejean.
But these are only some of the more prominent names. Winners of Miss USA and Miss America often herald their Christianity. In both contests, however, as well as in preliminaries and state pageants that lead to these pageants, winners receive prizes, accolades, and access to myriad public appearances. Pageant titles provide Christians a means to express their Christian beliefs to larger audiences. One need only consider how often Amazing Grace gets sung at pageants to see this belief in action. Indeed, Katie Stam, the reigning Miss America, sang Via Dolorosa to clinch her title.
(To be sure, the difference between these two pageants matters greatly to those involved in them: Miss America markets itself as a scholarship pageant and Miss USA presents itself as a beauty pageant. More specifically, Miss America contestants perform in a talent show, advocate a community service platform, and undergo a more substantial interview than Miss USA contestants.)
Many Christian pageant participants claim that participation affords them opportunities to express their religious convictions beyond the pageant runway. They see that it opens doors to be a witness through speaking in churches and working in the community. They place Bible verses on their sponsorship pages in pageant program books and claim that the support they receive from their churches provides added incentive for their participation. Some share their testimonies in pulpits as well as the public sphere. Pageant participation provides them with the opportunity to preach in a unique way.
For Carrie Prejean, one opportunity to preach took the form of her response to Perez Hilton's question about gay marriage. Her opposition to gay marriage launched her into the public spotlight, garnering the respect of many conservative Christians. James Dobson conducted an interview with Prejean that aired on May 11 and 12. Her pastor, Miles McPherson, interviewed her during services at The Rock Church in San Diego, California. She appeared as a spokesperson for the National Organization for Marriage in a television ad against gay marriage. Indeed, I'm intrigued by how quickly (and how many) Christians gravitated to her and used her for her "right" belief with little or no regard for the other "preaching" she did while on stage in Las Vegas and in her previous modeling career.