When ABC broadcasts the Miss America pageant this Sunday evening from Atlantic City, N.J., Mandy McMichael will be taking notes in Montgomery, Ala.
McMichael, assistant professor of religion at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, is a doctoral candidate at Duke University. Her dissertation topic: the intersection of beauty pageants and religion.
McMichael talks about the relationship between religion and pageants in a new Skype interview with EthicsDaily.com.
"I grew up here in the Bible Belt," says McMichael. "We like to say there are more Baptists than people."
There's also no shortage of pageants, which McMichael says "permeate" the culture, from schools to fairs to county competitions.
"How do we have both one of the most religious areas of the country," McMichael asks, "and also one of the areas where pageants are most prominent and most popular?"
McMichael notes that pageants and religion coexist even as they remain "diametrically opposed" for some, who see a disconnect between modesty, for example, and some of the competitions.
McMichael discusses several notable and relatively recent examples of the interplay between religion and pageants.
First up: Carrie Prejean, the runner-up in 2009 who answered a question on gay marriage saying she personally believed marriage was between a man and a woman.
"If you go back and look at her answer, it's really quite nuanced in some ways," says McMichael, noting that Prejean did not make a blanket condemnation, but rather offered that her own belief system made no room for gay marriage.
McMichael says the Prejean incident marked one of the first instances in which "people started paying attention a little bit to this relationship of Christians participating in pageants."
Skip forward two years to 2011, when Teresa Scanlan won the Miss America crown even though she spoke openly about her relationship with God.
"The person crowning her had a difficult time getting the crown in place because she was praising God and thanking God for that opportunity," says McMichael.
One's religious openness may work for or against, says McMichael, "but we see a consistent strain of Christians who are participating in these pageants and talking about them as a religious event."
McMichael's analysis also involves how pageant culture can deliver an evangelist's platform.
"A lot of conservative traditions that shut women out of the pulpit will gladly invite women who win pageants to come and share their testimony or to talk about God's role in their life," says McMichael. "And so, many women find this as a unique entry into those pulpits to talk about what God is doing."
Watch the entire interview with McMichael at vimeo.com/ethicsdaily/skype-mandymcmichael
Learn more about Mandy McMichael at www.huntingdon.edu/aboutProfile.aspx?id=10239
Watch other EthicsDaily.com Skype interviews at vimeo.com/ethicsdaily