This piece is part of a roundtable with Post columnist Steven Pearlstein and three of our On Leadership expert contributors — Theresa Amato, D. Michael Lindsay and Carol Kinsey Goman — about Michele Bachmann’s leadership credentials and challenges.
Thanks to a surprisingly strong performance in last week’s debate in New Hampshire, Michele Bachmann’s star appears to be rising. Pundits are already predicting her to win in the Iowa caucuses, not only because she was born in the Hawkeye State but also because her populist rhetoric and evangelical background will play extremely well in the nation’s first official GOP contest for the White House.
D. Michael Lindsay is a sociologist at Rice University and the president-elect of Gordon College, one of the nation’s most prominent Christian colleges. He is also the author of “Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite.”
Drew Faust, an American historian and the president of Harvard University, on what the Civil War teaches us about the human tendency to resist change.
No Republican has captured the White House in modern history without strong support from evangelical voters. After all, evangelicals are the most organized constituency of the Republican Party, and an authentic, compelling story of one’s faith journey (or “Christian testimony” in the evangelical vernacular) is vital to winning their trust. This is where Bachmann shines. Like other evangelicals, she talks about her conversion to Christianity as a teenager and about the education she received from an evangelical university. Her husband of 33 years directs a Christian counseling center in the Twin Cities, and Dr. James Dobson (formerly of Focus on the Family) endorsed her first bid for elected office when she ran for Minnesota’s state senate.
And yet, there is one significant difference between Bachmann and many other evangelical political contenders that have come before her—her gender. Evangelicals tend to follow traditional gender roles at home, so it is unusual that Bachmann, a woman of conservative Christian faith, is not only running for the White House but also receiving considerable evangelical support for it. Observers unfamiliar with evangelicalism may wonder then how Bachmann, who couldn’t even serve in formal leadership roles in many evangelical churches, can receive evangelicals’ blessing for something much grander: the nation’s highest office.
The reality is that evangelicals today have crafted a notion of what feminist scholar Marie Griffith calls “practical Christian womanhood,” whereby adherents hold seemingly contradictory notions regarding authority and gender ideals.
Even in her bid for the Oval Office, Bachmann—who has five children of her own and has cared for twenty-three foster children—describes herself as “first and foremost a mother.” This, actually, is political genius. It humanizes her and differentiates her from the rest of the Republican field. Bachmann invokes the mothering motif all the time; she mentioned it three different times in last week’s debate alone. In fact, motherhood is what Bachmann says brought her into politics. She first sought elected office out of a desire to shape Minnesota’s education policy to be more in line with her concerns as a mother. And she often speaks of her political career as a “calling,” which provides additional justification to evangelical voters that her political ambitions merit their support.