Why Miss America points to the sky

Some media outlets are catching on to the fact that the new Miss America was homeschooled for most of her life, so I joked earlier that perhaps the Miss America pageant would become the next National Spelling Bee competition for homeschoolers. Between bikinis and ball gowns, though, pageants are probably a far cry from spelling bees (remember this fantastic CNN interview?). Many of the media reports focused on Teresa Scanlan's age: 17, making her the youngest contestant to win since rules changed in the 1930s. It's not like it's Toddlers in Tiaras, though, so I don't know why 17 was such a newsworthy number.

I asked Mandy McMichael, Ph.D. candidate in religion at Duke University, if she thinks the media will pick up on the religion aspect of the most recent competition. McMichael, who is working on a dissertation on religion and beauty pageants, told me in an email that reporters might pick up on it soon enough.

The media gets interested in religion if there's an obvious angle given a winner's platform or the winner explicitly makes it part of her standard bio. Here, the fact that she plans to attend Patrick Henry College is all the hint I need to start making connections, but the media may not see the implications of Scanlon's college choice immediately. The exception, of course, is when a winner is not what the public wants or expects. So, there was some controversy when a Jewish woman won Miss America in 1945 and when a Muslim woman won Miss USA last year. There's also some media frenzy when folks suspect a contestant's answer or morals caused her not to win (most recently this is seen in the media's treatment of Carrie Prejean).

After reading some of the coverage, I actually found this little bullet-point article from Sara Hammel of People to be one of the more informative pieces for its length.

--She's Aiming for the White House The next Sarah Palin? Suzi Parker suggests. Who knew that so many female politicians had participated in pageants in the past?

--She Doesn't Hide her Dedication to Religion Her website is aroyalprincess.com, which could be a spin off of the phrase "royal priesthood." Her latest blog post (full of exclamation points) offers some faith-based reasoning for her decision to participate in the pageant.

That night I won the title of Miss Nebraska. From that, I know that this is exactly where God wants me to be, and He has a plan for each and every day of my life, not only this year, but every year. That was my prayer then; it has been my prayer these six months; it will be my prayer these next weeks at Miss America; and it will continue to be my prayer for the rest of my life. If I win the title of Miss America, I will know it is His will. If I do not win, and continue the next six months as Miss Nebraska, I will know it is His will. How incredibly calming it is to know that my life is in His hands!

She is the middle child of seven and was homeschooled through her junior year. I'm curious whether this was for religious reasons, educational reasons, etc. About 33 percent of homeschooling parents cited religion while 30 percent felt school had a poor learning environment, according to a 2001 U.S. Census survey.

Just before the pageant, I (tediously!) clicked through this fun little history feature from Time magazine on Miss America through the ages. Who knew that two-piece bathing suits weren't permitted until 1997? Last year, tmatt raised the issue of modesty and religion in the context of pageants, and I'll be curious to see if anyone asks the new Miss America about the question of modesty.

Scanlan chose to focus on eating disorders, a relatively noncontroversial platform, so it's unclear how her reign as Miss America will be influenced by her faith. During the Carrie Prejean news, McMichael showed examples of other women who saw the pageant as a platform for faith.

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.

If you watch the video posted above, Scanlan points to the sky several times during her crowning moment. It's a religion angle that's pretty hard to miss.

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