Of course, Bachmann’s campaign is about much more than motherhood, but in evoking the mother role, the congresswoman does with her gender what she has failed to do with her rhetoric: She opens up the possibility of her candidacy appealing to a broader range of voters.
Bachmann infuses religious language into political speeches on a variety of subjects, weaving the Bible into her comments like a skilled preacher on Easter Sunday. For the faithful, this is like a political B-12 shot (witness the burst of evangelical enthusiasm for George W. Bush when he called Christ his favorite political philosopher in 2000). But for those outside American evangelicalism, this rhetoric is confusing, even scary.
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.
When I was doing research for my book
Faith in the Halls of Power
, last election’s evangelical presidential candidate—former Governor Mike Huckabee—told me, “I’ve been burned so much [by the media]. When people would ask me things, I would answer in the language of Zion….It would later come back to haunt me—not because I didn’t mean it, but because they couldn’t quite understand what I was trying to communicate.”
Like Huckabee, the very rhetoric that draws evangelical voters to Bachmann repels many others. He may have won the Iowa caucuses, but his campaign never attracted moderate Republicans in large numbers. Twenty years earlier, Pat Robertson suffered the same fate. And this trend is even more challenging for Bachmann, as the economy will trump social and cultural issues in the 2012 Republican primaries, meaning she will have to woo Republican voters with strong answers on things beyond traditional culture-war issues like abortion and same-sex marriage.
This is why her Tea Party credentials will be especially important; and it is also why her unique identity as a female evangelical may turn to her advantage. The simple fact that she, as a woman, is seeking to be Commander in Chief represents female empowerment—which appeals, at least symbolically, to moderate voters. So far Bachmann is the only woman in the 2012 race; and if nothing else, her candidacy this year secures the progressive achievement of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 primary bid. Sarah Palin may have galvanized attention when she was tapped by John McCain to be his running mate, but, unlike Bachmann, she has never launched her own national campaign.
This candidacy establishes women as fixtures in the American political landscape, and Bachmann’s blend of populism, Christian motherhood and political ambition is crafting a new form of evangelical feminism, one that may actually succeed with Republican voters.