Not a Witch but a What
Shannon L. Smith
No political candidate received more media coverage during the midterm
election season than Christine O’Donnell. According to a study conducted by
the Pew Research Center, between January 1 and October 31, the Republican
candidate for senator from Delaware was the focus of 160 stories, nearly
twice the number devoted to Meg Whitman, her opposite number in California,
who came in second.
Although Tea Party support propelled her to the nomination, it was not Tea
Party ideology that put her in the limelight. It was the social agenda of
the religious right.
An attractive young woman who had made a small name for herself as a
champion of sexual purity, O’Donnell took a path to a U.S. Senate nomination
that was anything but typical.
She grew up in Moorestown, New Jersey, not far from Philadelphia, the second
youngest of six children. The O’Donnells were Catholic, but Christine would
later tell reporters her parents were “not strict.”
She attended Fairleigh Dickinson University, and though she was present for
graduation in 1993 did not manage to procure her degree until last
September. Having become a conservative Republican in college, she first
went to work at an anti-pornography group in Washington, D.C., called Enough
is Enough. Then it was on to the Republican National Committee and Concerned
Women of America, the well-established conservative lobby run by Beverley
a year as CWA press secretary, O’Donnell moved to Los Angeles, where she
established and ran The Savior’s Alliance for Lifting the Truth (The SALT),
a nonprofit dedicated to educating teens on the dangers of drugs and
premarital sex, from 1996 until 2003.
By the late 90s, she had succeeded in parlaying her experience as a values
advocate into regular guest appearances on Bill Maher’s “Politically
Incorrect,” serving as the voice of Puritanism in discussions of everything
from condoms to psychics. She also appeared on MTV and Fox News.
O’Donnell was one of a number of conservative women to achieve some
prominence on the religious right since the emergence of the movement at the
end of the 1970s. As a family values activist she stood out for never
managing to acquire a family of her own.
What she did have was an appetite for celebrity.
In 2003, she moved to Wilmington, Delaware, to work as director of
communications and public affairs for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute
(ISI), a conservative educational foundation dedicated to reaching college
students. But after 11 months she was fired for “operating a for-profit
business with ISI’s time and resources,” according to the organization. Her
response was to sue the company for gender discrimination and wrongful
termination. (She would drop the suit in 2008, claiming she could no longer
afford to pursue it.)
The case attracted the attention of the Wilmington News Journal,
which on April 14, 2004, ran a profile of her that remains the most
comprehensive account of her career. Under the headline “Fired up over
rights,” reporter Julie Shaw presented O’Donnell as “animated, humorous and
refined—reminding one of Elaine on ‘Seinfeld.’ Having kicked off her heels,
she reveals toenails polished in pink.”
O’Donnell said her hobbies were “cooking, attending wine tastings and
learning about wine, and hosting parties.” She talked about admiring Donald
Trump, whom she called “a man of integrity,” and Bill Maher, for being
“always open to arguments.”
She talked openly about how her college years had been filled with alcohol
and casual sex before she rediscovered her faith and chose to live a life of
chastity. She spoke of the importance of educating teens and young women
about the importance of abstinence. “I know what it’s like to live a life
without principle,” she said. As for her lawsuit against ISI, she expressed
the hope that it would change “the conservative movement’s attitude toward
2006, O’Donnell decided to focus her ambition on political office, running
in the Republican primary for the opportunity to unseat U.S. Sen. Thomas
Carper. It was in a September 5 candidates’ debate that she commented that
China had a “carefully thought out and strategic plan to take over America.”
(Asked to elaborate further, she claimed she was privy to “classified
information.”) Later in the campaign, she expressed her belief that gays and
lesbians suffered from an “identity disorder.”
Though finishing third, she decided to wage a write-in campaign for the
general election, and picked up a not insubstantial 11,127 votes. (Carper
won with 170,567.) Motivated by the support, she began contemplating a run
against Joe Biden two years later. “I’m really praying about it,” she told
the News Journal November 19. “I think I did as well as I did because
God wanted me to do this. But if I get out ahead and don’t listen, I could
In 2008, O’Donnell received the votes of 60 percent of the delegates to the
state convention and secured the GOP nomination without a primary. During
the campaign, she expressed her frustration that Sen. Biden, who was also
campaigning with Barack Obama as the Vice Presidential candidate, had
“refused” to debate her.
As she told Larry King at the end of August, “If they vote for Joe…you don’t
know what you’re getting. And you’re also allowing him to…thumb his nose at
democracy. He’s not debating me.”
Biden nonetheless won the race handily with 65 percent of the vote, leaving
it up to outgoing Delaware governor Ruth Ann Minner to name his long-time
chief of staff, Ted Kaufman, to fill the position for two years. After
Kaufman announced that he would not run in 2010 to serve the balance of the
term, the seat seemed tailor-made for the most popular Republican politician
in the state, nine-term congressman Mike Castle.
But O’Donnell caught the Tea Party wave perfectly. In her March 10 campaign
announcement, she spoke of the need to “stand up to Washington elites…and
fight back against a Congress and White House who is content on saddling us
with reckless spending, unbearable taxes, and unfair policies that weigh
down future generations with a debt that will shackle us for the rest of our
lives.” With the help of Sarah Palin’s endorsement, and channeling some of
the Palin mystique, she succeeded in defeating Castle by a comfortable 53-47
margin in the September 14 primary.
It was only then that her past began to catch up with her. On primary night,
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow aired a clip of O’Donnell crusading against
masturbation in a 1996 MTV special titled “Sex in the 90s.” And three days
later, Bill Maher released the now-infamous 1999 clip from “Politically
Incorrect” in which she described how she had “dabbled into witchcraft” as a
O’Donnell tried to laugh off the comments. “I was in high school, how many
of you didn’t hang out with questionable folks in high school?” she asked
Fox News’ Kimberly Schwandt September 19. “But no, there’s been no
But the damage had been done: O’Donnell had become a certified laughingstock
in American popular culture. And then she doubled down.
In the first week of October, her campaign released a 30-second ad in which
she appeared in close-up, wearing a string of pearls and a black v-necked
dress reminiscent of Morticia in the “Adams Family” TV show.
“I’m not a witch,” she began. “I’m nothing you’ve heard. I’m you!” The ad
was a target of many auto-tune renditions as well as a widely viewed
“Saturday Night Live” spoof. “Isn’t that what the people of Delaware first
and foremost deserve—a candidate who promises she’s not a witch?” says
actress Kristen Wiig. “That’s the kind of candidate Delaware hasn’t had
What sealed O’Donnell’s fate was her debate with Democratic opponent Chris
Coons at the Widener School of Law October 19. In a heated exchange, Coons
stated his belief that teaching creationism in public schools would violate
the separation of church and state.
It immediately became apparent that O’Donnell thought she had him trapped.
“Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?” she
asked, and later: “Let me just clarify. You’re telling me that the
separation of church and state is found in the First Amendment?”
“The government shall make no establishment of religion,” Coons replied,
paraphrasing the first clause of the First Amendment. “That’s in the First
Amendment,” says O’Donnell, smiling at the audience and pretending to
scribble a note on her pad.
It is an article of faith on the religious right that the Constitution does
not provide for separation of church and state—because nowhere in the
Constitution does the phrase “separation of church and state” occur. The
exchange made clear not so much that O’Donnell didn’t consider the
Establishment Clause to separate church and state as that she’d never
encountered the clause at all.
In the end, she lost badly, winning only 40 percent of the votes to Coons’
57 percent. She will be remembered as one of the Tea Party’s eccentric
candidates—Sharron Angle, who ran against Sen. Harry Reid in Nevada, was
another—who kept the GOP from recapturing the Senate in the 2010 midterm
elections. But before she passes into the history books, it’s worth
considering her religio-political identity.
For all her background as a family values conservative, she herself remained
religiously ambiguous. She had grown up a Catholic but in 2004 seemed to
have her feet in both the Catholic and evangelical Protestant camps. Asked
by the News Journal’s Julie Shaw if she considered herself a
born-again Christian, she responded, “Also a Catholic. I go to both the
Catholic church and the Protestant one.”
“She’s a dabbler,” Bill Maher told Mark Leibovich of the New York Times
October 1. “Everyone focused on the witchcraft part of that statement, but I
keep thinking of the dabbling.”
Yet O’Donnell was hardly the only religious dabbler in her party.
In 2010, another Tea Party favorite, Marco Rubio of Florida, played both
sides of the Catholic-evangelical street as well. As Mark Oppenheimer
pointed out in a November 26 New York Times article, while Mr.
Rubio’s spokesman called him a “devout Roman Catholic,” he was also known to
worship at an evangelical megachurch affiliated with the Southern Baptist
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who converted to Catholicism from his native
Hinduism as a teenager, has likewise made an effort to create a
quasi-evangelical identity for himself. An August 30, 2009 article by
Michelle Millhollon of The Advocate Capitol News Bureau, titled
“Governor’s Sunday travels have come at taxpayers’ expense,” tracked the
many evangelical churches that Jindal had made a practice of visiting. After
hearing him speak at North Monroe Baptist Church Oachita, the pastor, Rev.
Bill Dye, said Jindal’s appearance had made clear that “a practicing
Catholic can be an outspoken evangelical.”
During the 2008 presidential primaries, candidate John McCain’s religious
beliefs came under scrutiny when he told listeners at a rally that he
considered himself a Baptist. “I was raised in an Episcopal church and
attended high school at a high school called Episcopal High School. I have
attended North Phoenix Baptist Church for many years, and the most important
thing is that I’m a Christian,” he said, according to an ABC News article by
Bret Hovell. Hovell noted that the McCain campaign had prior to an August 5
debate identified his religion as “Episcopalian” in an ABC news
Meeting with leading evangelical ministers in late 2007 during his campaign
for the Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney used classic
evangelical language to suggest that his Christianity was not so different
from theirs. “When I say Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior, I realize that
means something different to you than it does to me,” he allowed, going on
to stress that he shared their faith that Jesus was born of a virgin, and
was crucified and rose after three days.
With evangelicals constituting such a substantial part of the Republican
base, it is not exactly surprising that non-evangelicals should want to cozy
up to them. What’s more curious is that even bona fide Republican
evangelicals like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin have been studiously vague
about their religious commitments.
Through his time in the White House, Bush limited himself to recounting a
(disputed) version of his own conversion story. He had virtually nothing to
say about his religious beliefs or his membership in a Methodist church.
Palin has been even more circumspect, refusing so much as to identify
herself as having grown up and spent most of her life in an Assembly of God
But as usual in American society, it may be that the evangelicals have their
fingers on the pulse. Outside a few small denominations, the only growth in
American Christianity these days is among those who identify as
“non-denominational Christians” or “just Christians,” according to the 2008
Trinity American Religious Identification Survey. Moreover, some 40 percent
of mainline Protestants and 18 percent of Catholics say they are evangelical
or born again.
So there was nothing anomalous about Christine O’Donnell calling herself an
“evangelical Catholic.” Just don’t call her a witch.