Bachmann and Religion:
It’s Complicated

More than three months ago, I predicted that Michele Bachmann could win the Iowa caucuses but not the Republican nomination, and that her ascent in Iowa would be owed in large part to her appeal to religious conservatives. Now that she has surged ahead of the rest of the GOP field, the media has focused more intense attention on her record, her health, and naturally, her religion. Although Bachmann became known to America as a tea partier, for anyone who had followed her career, her religion has always been at the fore.

I’ve written about Bachmann’s religion, or at least the religious views that she’s been exposed to in her education and political life, most recently, in my piece about the “biblical” perspective used at the law school she attended. This is but one “worldview” influence on Bachmann; an important one, to be sure, but there are other influences and Bachmann, like anyone else, would draw on elements of some influences, and reject others.

Because Bachmann is a religious conservative, the press looks for the crazy. First, there was rampant speculation that Bachmann thinks the Pope is the Antichrist and is therefore anti-Catholic. As Sarah Morice Brubacker has so ably demonstrated, Bachmann’s former denomination, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, believes that the office of the papacy is anti-Christ, or anti-Christian. As Mollie Hemingway chimed in, this is not a remarkable or new revelation about Lutherans; after all, Martin Luther, well, you know the rest.

As it turns out, before launching her campaign, Bachmann officially left that church. Because the faith statement about the papacy had been made a news story, even though it wasn’t news, all the speculation is that she left to avoid a “Catholic problem” because those Lutherans are so wacky! (We’ve never had a Lutheran president, though.) But, despite all the attempts to portray WELS as a co-conspirator in a Left Behind movie, it’s really just a very conservative Protestant denomination. I went to a service at Salem Lutheran Church, where the Bachmanns used to attend, in June. And it couldn’t be further from an apocalyptic, rapture-ready evangelical church. In fact, it was pretty dull— too dull, I thought, for the more expressive Bachmann I’d covered in the past. The family in the pew behind me boasted a daughter who planned to volunteer for Bachmann’s campaign; they told me Bachmann hadn’t come to Salem for quite some time, but that they were still big fans.

But, ah, even if Bachmann doesn’t think the Pope is the Antichrist, she can’t wait for the apocalypse, can she? That’s the conclusion at Think Progress, which jumped on audio of Bachmann praying at crazy anti-gay pastor Bradlee Dean’s church. Now, to be absolutely clear, Dean is truly a wacky anti-gay zealot, and Bachmann absolutely deserves criticism for associating with him (as do other Minnesota Republicans). But the piece of Bachmann’s prayer that Think Progress zeroes in on is this:

In it, Bachmann predicts, “We are in the last days,” and says, “The harvest is at hand” — a Biblical allusion to the Rapture when some believe God will take saved Christians from the earth and leave the non-believers to face several years of torment and tribulation before the second coming of Christ. . . . As Weigel noted, it’s not terribly surprising that Bachmann is among those evangelical Christians who believe the end of the world is imminent. But it’s still disconcerting that someone campaigning to lead America into the future believes that its days are numbered and millions of its citizens are doomed. Bachmann has toned down her religious rhetoric considerably since hitting the campaign trail.

Also jarring is Bachmann’s belief that “nothing is more important than” converting people before the world ends. As she weighs in on critical debates like whether or not to let the U.S. default on its obligations, it’s troubling that Bachmann is rooting for the apocalypse.

Bachmann’s prayer — or at least that part of it — was standard fare for many evangelicals. I would hazard a guess that most of them wouldn’t even blink at the notion that nothing is more important than making new converts before the end of days, or that the end of days are “at hand.” To most of them, it doesn’t mean tomorrow; it means it could happen any time. The audio of Bachmann is from 2006; she predicted the end of the world! It hasn’t happened yet! She must be crazy.

Sure, through the ages, end-times predictions have been used to snooker people into forking over money to televangelists, or to mistakenly prepare themselves for something that isn’t actually happening imminently (see, most recently, Harold Camping, whose prediction of a May 21 rapture was widely derided in conservative evangelical circles). But in that audio Bachmann is offering up something pretty boilerplate. Her views on the debt ceiling are more likely influenced by another strand of religious or quasi-religious thought (or a strand of economic thought driven by a sort of religious fervor rather than actual economics), not because she’s “rooting for the apocalypse.” I’d be more concerned if she brought up the end-times in the context of, oh, say, attacking Iran.

On another religious front, Tim Murphy reports that because the Home School Legal Defense Association has positive things to say about Bachmann, she’ll have a home school army at her disposal for getting out the vote. But while Bachmann is a strong advocate for home schooling, as Julie has previously reported, even an endorsement from the HSLDA is hardly a lock on the entire homeschool movement. Case in point: in 2007, the HSLDA endorsed Mike Huckabee, which, among other reasons led to the defection of Ned Ryun, who ran its (youth-oriented) Generation Joshua, and is now with the conservative activist group American Majority. Ryun’s departure, and complaints about the HSLDA and its president, Michael Farris, were widely discussed on homeschooling blogs, many of which were anti-Huckabee. “Is Huckabee the one who supports homeschooling most fervently?” asked homeschooling activist Mary Pride. “No,” she wrote, “that would be Ron Paul.” Many of the bloggers, like Ryun, were some combination of irritated and mystified that the press was reporting that Huckabee was the favorite of homeschoolers, just because Farris had endorsed him.

Is that to say that Bachmann doesn’t have the support of homeschoolers? She may have a lot of support from them. But so might another candidate, especially Paul.

In covering both the 2008 and 2012 GOP primaries, Bachmann, more than any of the others, seems to be the result of the blending of different strands of religious thought within the religious right. Many people think of the religious right as a theologically homogenous, lock-step group; it is not (even though the range within which dissent takes place is pretty narrow), and that’s why explaining Bachmann’s religion in any concrete, definitive way is so difficult. (The same was true of Sarah Palin, but I think to a lesser extent.) In 2008, Huckabee, for example, was more explicit about his Southern Baptist roots and his transition to being a “Bapti-costal;” other candidates let themselves be defined by their church attendance or adherence to anti-LGBT and anti-choice orthodoxy. But Bachmann is more of a mishmash: a Lutheran moved by Francis Schaeffer to get involved in conservative politics, who attended a law school founded by a Pentecostal and a Christian Reconstructionist; an alumna of the “Christian worldview” education that teaches that Christianity is on a collision course with other “worldviews,” including secularism, Islam, and post-modernism; an anti-public school activist who homeschooled her own children; an anti-gay rights activist; and now, a crusader against the “tyranny” of “big government” and “socialism.” She’s a product of all of those strands of church, political activism, and “worldview” training; she’s like a crucible of the religious right zeitgeist. And that’s why an ex-Lutheran-turned-we’re-not-sure-what can speak at an Assemblies of God church while running for president and wow the people in the pews. Or not. Because it’s complicated.

CORRECTION: This post originally read that the HSLDA is “getting behind Bachmann.” It has been corrected because neither the organization nor its president, Michael Farris, has issued an endorsement of her candidacy.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email