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.

p>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.