Michele Bachmann reflects a changing conservative Christianity


Republican presidential candidate, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., right, and South Carolina Christian Chamber of Commerce member Bruce Snell, left, pray after she spoke at the Christ Central Ministries in Columbia, S.C., Monday, July 19, 2011. (BRETT FLASHNICK/AP)
July 29, 2011

Griffith writes as part of our roundtable on Christian women’s leadership, an expert discussion featured in parallel with On Faith’s Lisa Miller’s debut column, “Evangelical women rise as new ‘feminists .’” On Faith asks, “How do modern evangelicals understand biblical teachings on women’s roles? How would a President Bachmann balance biblical submission and political leadership?” Read Christian writer Margaret Feinberg on The Proverbs 31 politician, and the Conerned Women for America’s Janice Shaw Crouse on Biblical submission and servant leadership.

“The Lord says: Be submissive, wives. You are to be submissive to your husbands,” Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) told a church audience in 2006 . By all accounts, she means this and lives it. Which raises the question: Can a President Bachmann balance female submission with the power necessary to lead the United States of America?

To her many fans, the answer will seem obvious: of course she can. As a matter of fact, balancing subservience with authority is something that evangelical Christian women have been working on for a very long time. For those who hold theological views similar to Michele Bachmann’s, submission to the will of God--and to God’s earthly (male) representatives--is precisely the mindset that justifies the exercise of godly power on earth. And when power is “godly” (as opposed to greedy and self-focused), it may be channeled equally by men and by women, both sexes being potential vessels of Divine will.

In fact, to hear many conservative Christians tell it today, this is a moment when God has especially called women to transform the world. Cindy Jacobs, possibly the most influential neo-Pentecostal Christian woman you’ve never heard of, organized the “ Deborah Company ” after what she describes as a visitation from the angel Gabriel. In the vision, Jacobs says, “I was wearing armor and carried a sword,” as Gabriel told her that godly women across the earth were to “march across the planet, preaching the gospel, doing miracles, and transforming the nations.” Citing Psalm 68:11, Jacobs proclaims, “The Lord has shown me that there are women, both young and old, who will change the nations of the earth through following the call of God on their lives.” The group, an “apostolic network of women leaders committed to empowering others to transform nations and release kingdom of God principles into the earth,” posts on its Web site, making clear that Deborah women are ready to seize and utilize their God-given power.

Michele Bachmann receives a glowing mention in a prayer guide found on one of Cindy Jacobs’s other sites, Generals International; but more importantly, it’s clear that she is precisely the sort of Deborah woman Jacobs et al., are promoting as ideal leaders. Submission to husbands is no longer emphasized in these materials; the meaning of “submission” is, first and foremost, surrender to God’s will, for men no less than for women. And when Bachmann says, as she has on numerous occasions, “we are the head and not the tail” (a direct reference to Deuteronomy 28:13 ), this phrase clearly associates her with the power of national political leadership, a role she plainly believes God has called her to fill. Her husband, it turns out, is merely the messenger.

So long as they pay lip service to wifely submission--and so long as they balance feminine beauty with steel force--women like Michele Bachmann are now thoroughly accepted as public authorities in extremely conservative Christian circles. This is undeniably a sea change in conservative gender norms, a transformation that owes an enormous debt to the feminist movement that religious conservatives despise. Liberal feminists, of course, hardly want credit for the numerical growth of women whose politics are farther right than Phyllis Schlafly’s and whose role models look more like Barbie than Hillary. For some, it feels deeply ironic to see the political gap between conservative and liberal women wider than ever before. Many view women like Bachmann as sell-outs, or duped pawns of the patriarchal establishment. For those of us who cannot imagine any but an equal relationship with our spouse or partner, it can be very difficult to respect a woman’s ostensible choice to submit to her husband.

Success for Bachmann will depend in part on how shrewdly she balances the conflicted ideals of femininity and female toughness, compliance and resilience, vulnerability and strength, that have long permeated American culture. These remain especially difficult waters to navigate in conservative religious circles, but not only there. Word to the wise: focus on her politics, not her makeup or her clothes, her false eyelashes or her shoes. When undecideds, especially women, believe that Bachmann’s views are finally taken seriously, and find that she has been accorded respect as a woman, they can refocus their attention on her message. And-surprise, surprise-they may not like what they hear.

Marie Griffith, PhD , is director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. Her next book is titled, Christians, Sex and Politics: An American History .

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