Miss (Christian) America

By John W. Kennedy

Before she began her senior year at the University of Illinois in 2001, Erika Harold experienced a crisis of faith. She not only had lost the Miss Illinois title twice, but she felt that her outspoken views on her chosen platform—sexual abstinence before marriage—had cost her scholarships in competition. Harold wanted to attend law school after graduation, but the lack of funds made her pessimistic about her prospects.

"I felt as though every time I stood up for my faith I not only wasn't being rewarded, I was losing things as a result," she says. "I didn't feel God's presence in my life the way I thought I would."

Harold turned to her dad, who helped address the litany of questions she had about the Bible. Her pastor at the Urbana First Assembly of God also gave her books by Charles Colson and C.S. Lewis to help answer faith questions. Ultimately, God confirmed his existence to Harold when she earnestly sought him in prayer and realized that faith requires being secure in God's omniscience despite times of adversity, confusion, and doubt.

"God told Job he wasn't going to give him all the answers and he didn't have the right to demand them," Harold says. After she became Miss America 2003 last September, Harold, now 23, began to understand God's timing. She says if she had won the Miss America title at 19 when she first entered the Miss Illinois pageant, her shaky faith would not have enabled her to survive the rigors of public scrutiny. But because of perseverance through many difficult circumstances, including sexual and racial harassment as a teenager, Harold (whose father is white and mother is black and American Indian) is no longer easily rattled.

In fact, Harold's perseverance was quickly put to the test just a few weeks after winning the national pageant when, in a widely publicized moment, the Miss America organization attempted to silence her public promotion of teen abstinence. However, pageant officials soon discovered that their newly crowned queen was not about to be muzzled when it came to sharing her beliefs. Harold has something to say, and she was willing to take a stand and live with the fallout of her convictions.

The Miss America pageant allows young women to gain incredible exposure without sacrificing their values.Born-again beauties

Erika Harold's experience was not a unique one. Every year, the Miss America pageant attracts an inordinate number of born-again Christian women vying for the title. A check of the biographies of the Miss America winners on the organization's website (www.missamerica.org) and links to personal pages shows that a full third of the women from the past three decades have overt Christian references, testimonies, or invitations to accept Christ. And that's just the winners.

Why do evangelical women seek fame through a secular organization in which they must parade onstage in a swimsuit? Many are motivated by the chance to win enough money to finance their education. By winning the crown, Harold received more than $80,000 in scholarship assistance, which she'll use to pay tuition at Harvard Law School. Some also see it as the opportunity to launch a career that would be otherwise unattainable. Harold, for instance, aspires to high political office.

"The Miss America pageant is one of the few platforms available for young Christian women to win significant educational scholarships while gaining incredible exposure to realize their dreams without compromising their beliefs," says 1973 Miss America Terry Meeuwsen, who remains one of the most visible winners because of daily appearances on cable television. For Meeuwsen (and many others), the title served as a springboard for her career, which she originally thought would be singing and acting. Eventually she realized that the yearlong reign and its almost daily speaking engagements around the country prepared her for her current role as co-host of CBN's 700 Club.

Tara Dawn Holland Christensen, Miss America 1997, says the pageant winner is watched not only for a year but for a lifetime. "No other program gives such a voice to a woman," Christensen says. "When I was at the pageant I cared nothing about the crown, the money, the glitz or the glamour. I realized this was my opportunity to make a difference for everything from literacy to abstinence. There is something about the crown that makes people listen to what you have to say."

Debbye Turner, Miss America in 1990, says she competed in order to earn funds for veterinary school. After seven years of seeking to enter the national pageant, she finally qualified in her last year of eligibility at age 24. As she received the national crown, Turner looked toward heaven and thanked the Lord. "It all happened in God's timing," she says. "I wouldn't have been ready if I had won sooner."

Erin Moss, the current Miss Michigan, says she competed to gain speaking opportunities. Moss, the daughter of a Church of God pastor, eventually wants to become a motivational speaker through a parachurch ministry. Traveling around Michigan has enabled her to speak before numerous Christian groups and churches.

"God brought me to this point to do more than just talk about something everybody agrees with."
—Erika Harold, 2003

College scholarships motivated current Miss Indiana Tangra Riggle, the oldest of 11 children, to appear in beauty pageants. She has received $20,000 to help with college expenses, including $4,000 for winning the talent competition at last September's Miss America contest with her vocal rendition of "God Bless America."

The state title also has helped Riggle secure money for computers for at-risk youth in low-income areas. "The Miss America organization opened doors to do things I care about," Riggle says. "I always had a voice, but now because of the state crown I have a microphone. Miss Indiana is a platform to effectively minister to many."

Nicole Johnson, Miss America 1999, says the scholarships that accompanied her title financed her bachelor's and master's degrees. Johnson, who has Type I diabetes, has used her fame to write books about the disease. "Where else in the world can a 24-year-old woman have her voice heard on such vital matters?" she asks.

The road to the national title is rewarding, but it can be arduous. More than 12,000 women participate in local and state pageants annually, making the competition fierce. By the time she won Miss Illinois last June, Harold had devoted hundreds of hours to preparing for the pageants.

Harold says she experienced incredible peace the night of her final state pageant. "Sometimes we have a tendency to pray 'Thy will be done,' when we really mean 'if it's my will,'" she says. "But that night I prayed I would be able to accept whatever God had planned for my life. If I didn't win the money to pay for school that night, I knew that God would provide it some other way."

A culture war of her own

Within the first week of her reign, Harold appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman, The O'Reilly Factor, Good Morning America, Live with Regis and Kelly, and CBS's The Early Show, where contributor Debbye Turner interviewed her. Later in 2002 she appeared on The Hollywood Squares plus sang the national anthem at Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears football games.

Because she has been a youth advocate speaker since age 18, Harold is accustomed to extensive traveling, early wake-up calls, and late-night appearances. She will travel approximately 20,000 miles each month during her time in office.

However, Harold is not as accustomed to having her every word monitored. Although she won the Miss Illinois title with an abstinence platform, state pageant officials last year required contestants to sign a contract that if they advanced to the national level they would adopt the cause of youth violence prevention. Harold agreed, figuring that her firsthand experience with racial and sexual harassment made such a platform a natural fit. But she also determined that a message of saying no to sex before marriage could be incorporated into youth violence prevention talks.

"There is something about the crown that makes people listen to what you have to say."
#8212;Tara Dawn Holland Christensen, 1997

Miss America officials, who five years ago lauded Miss America Kate Shindle for promoting condom distribution in schools and needle exchange programs as her causes, didn't applaud Harold's idea. At an October appearance before the National Press Club, they ordered her not to mention abstinence. Harold objected, saying she wouldn't be true to her beliefs if she neglected to counsel during talks to school groups that waiting for sex until marriage is best. Harold believes her words can save lives by keeping young people from contracting AIDS.

Harold calls the showdown a life-defining moment. "God really laid it upon my heart that he brought me to this point to do something more than to just talk about something everybody agrees with," Harold says. "If I say, 'I don't think we should bully others,' there's not a soul who's going to say, 'I think we should harass people.' But if I say, 'I think people should wait until marriage to have sex,' some people want to challenge that."

The tiff between a biblically conservative beauty queen and the 82-year-old liberal-leaning Atlantic City organization caused a national firestorm. Pro-family organizations and conservative publications rallied to her side, including an editorial in The Wall Street Journal and a front-page article in The Washington Times. Christians cheered her tenacity.

After two days, the Miss America organization relented, agreeing to allow Harold to include abstinence as a part of an expanded violence platform. But the incident put a strain on Harold's relationship with pageant officials.

Turner says in 1990 Miss America officials placed no restrictions on what she brought up in remarks. She talked about prayer and trusting in the Lord in public school appearances and even sang Christian rap songs in classrooms. Complaints to pageant officials and threats of lawsuits didn't stop her. "I wasn't going to be ashamed of my beliefs," she says. "I told them I lived in a country where I could express my views freely."

Christensen, who now speaks and sings around the country through her non-profit ministry Cross & Crown, says she only encountered one instance where pageant officials tried to censor her. It was after she mentioned on a talk show that she would someday like to marry a Christian. After discussions, Christensen says she realized her appearances should not be used for such means.

"I wasn't going to be ashamed of my beliefs. I told them I lived in a country where I could express my views freely."
—Debbye Turner, 1990

Johnson wove her spiritual commitment naturally into talking about diabetes in all 300 speeches she gave during her reign. "When interviewed on the telecast, I was able to talk about how my initial anger at God over having diabetes was a big mistake," she says.

Opening the door for faith

Miss America pageants haven't always been a forum to evangelize. In fact, in 1965 Vonda Van Dyke Scoates became just the first winner to speak about her faith publicly—34 years after the pageant started. She prayed that the Lord would allow her to testify about her beliefs through the interview portion of the show.

"Back then we all had to sign a contract agreeing that we wouldn't talk about religion or politics," Scoates recalls. An information sheet supplied to judges asked applicants if they had brought a good-luck charm with them to the pageant. Scoates answered that she didn't possess a good-luck charm, but she did bring a Bible. Emcee Bert Parks asked her on the air if her Bible served as a good-luck charm.

"I do not consider my Bible a good-luck charm," Scoates replied. "But I always carry a Bible with me. It is the most important book I own. I would not classify my relationship to Jesus Christ as a religion but rather as a faith. I trust him completely." The audience burst into applause.

Immediately after the telecast, Miss America officials accused Scoates of breaking the contract because she mentioned Christianity. Scoates responded that Parks had raised the subject and therefore voided the agreement. Nevertheless, she consented not to bring up religion during the year unless first asked. Usually her faith became the first question in appearances. Soon churches inundated the organization with requests for Scoates to speak. Seeing that discussing religious views on the air actually created favorable publicity, the Miss America organization eventually dropped its objections.

"Our culture has changed a lot in 30 years. It's much less friendly to biblical values."
—Terry Meeuwsen, 1973

"It was so out of the context for the day," says Scoates, the only Miss America also to win the congeniality contest at the event. "No one mixed the secular and religious in conversations back then." Hundreds of people sent Bibles to Scoates in gratitude for her stance. In effect, she opened the door for future Christian contestants to be more outspoken about their beliefs.

Scoates believes the Miss America pageant attracts a large number of Christians because of its format. "Kids raised in churches have many opportunities to perform in front of people," says Scoates, who used ventriloquism as her onstage talent. "What better place is there to tell about your faith than the Miss America pageant?"

The fact that participants now readily proclaim their faith also is an indication of how the lines between sacred and secular in society are more clearly delineated. In 2001, first runner-up Abbie Rabine (a.k.a. Miss Massachusetts) recalls that all five finalists professed to be committed Christians, and she estimates that 30 of the 50 women that year held Christian convictions. Contestants these days quickly determine how public they will be with their faith during the preliminary events before the telecast, which have stretched to 17 days now compared to five days when Terry Meeuwsen participated.

Meeuwsen recalls all contestants gathering for prayer every night before the competition back in 1972. Erin Moss estimates that one-third of last September's contestants professed to be evangelical Christians. Each day, the Christian competitors met for prayer and Bible studies.

Thirty years ago Meeuwsen had an opportunity to evangelize the moment after being crowned. Because the show ran short that year, Bert Parks asked her what being Miss America meant to her. Meeuwsen proceeded to talk about Jesus' parable of the loaves and fishes. During the next year she spoke in churches about twice a month.

Meeuwsen remembers only one request to tone down her rhetoric. One of the organization's sponsors asked her to not mention Jesus but instead talk about God. Meeuwsen refused.

"I had perfect freedom to say whatever I wanted," says Meeuwsen, who began her reign before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion throughout the country. "But our culture has changed a lot in 30 years. It's much less friendly to biblical values."

"Where else can a 24-year-old woman have her voice heard on such vital matters?"
—Nicole Johnson, 1999
The sensual sideshow

As Miss America changes with the times, the "swimsuit fitness" portion of the program has become more revealing. In Meeuwsen's day, all the women wore one-piece bathing outfits. Today, women don both one-piece and two-piece swimsuits for the nationally televised pageant.

Tangra Riggle says she struggled with the swimsuit competition but reasoned that it only counted for 10 percent of the score. "It didn't violate my morals and I figured the benefits—scholarship dollars—outweighed the costs," she says.

Moss calls the swimsuit segment the most difficult part of the event for her, especially because of her ministry plans. "I came to the conclusion that the judges are looking for physical fitness and muscle tone," she says.

Harold had no qualms. "Christians swim and they wear swimsuits," she says. "The outfits worn in the competition are far more modest than ones at the beach."

Some Christians are opposed to the entire concept of a beauty pageant, yet Harold draws a parallel to Esther in the Old Testament. While humans picked Esther as queen because of her physical attributes resulting from six months of beauty treatments, God designated her to stand up for virtue in a hostile society. "I am under no illusion that I won because of beauty or talent," Harold says. "God has creative ways of using people to make a difference. We should never limit him to the traditional ways we conceive of ministry."

Staying the course

The Miss America organization has vast control in determining Harold's schedule until she relinquishes her crown, but she strives to attend events that are important to her, especially where young people are present. As she continues her reign, Harold is trying to ignore the criticisms about her beliefs and focus on helping young people.

"Certainly there are going to be people who disagree with me on every issue," the future law-school student reasons. "If I get sidetracked debating and trying to change opinions, then I become less effective. But I won't endorse agendas that run counter to my belief system."

Harold has found her newfound fame to be a tremendous training ground for political life, noting the daily interaction with media and being subjected to public examination. But for the moment, she's enjoying the national spotlight and the opportunity to boldly proclaim her Christian values.

"If you're a Christian it needs to be manifest in every aspect of your life," she says. "If you encounter any adversity in life, God can use it."

A Christian Reader original article. John W. Kennedy is a writer and editor based in Springfield, Missouri.Christian Miss Americas Through the Decades

Vonda Van Dyke Scoates, 1965

She was the first Miss America to speak about her faith on national television. An accomplished singer and speaker, her first book, That Girl in Your Mirror, sold over 1 million copies. Her late husband, David Tyler Scoates, was a well-known minister in Southern California.

Terry Meeuwsen, 1973
Today this wife and mother of four is best known as co-host of Pat Robertson's 700 Club. "We need to share [God's] light with gusto," she says, "understanding that the opportunity is a privilege."

Cheryl Prewitt Salem, 1980
At age 11, Salem's face was scarred and her left leg crushed in a near-fatal car accident. Doctors said she would never walk again, but she was miraculously healed five years later after attending a revival meeting. An inspiration to many, she has written several books, including Mourning to Morning, which deals with the loss of her 5-year-old daughter who died of a brain tumor in 1999. She now travels and speaks extensively with the Salem Family Ministry, an evangelical outreach.

Heather Whitestone McCallum, 1995
Profoundly deaf since she was 18 months old, McCallum was the first woman with a disability to be crowned Miss America. Today she says the biggest handicap in the world is negative thinking, as she shares her message of faith and inspiration. Last year, she received a cochlear implant, which she hopes will restore some of her hearing. Her latest book is Let God Surprise You.

Erika Harold's message on sexual abstinence places her in a long-standing Christian traditon. For a quick history of the abstinence message in the church, click here.

Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today International/Today's Christian magazine.
Click here for reprint information.