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.
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.
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.
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.