This morning, in her address to Liberty University students at the mandatory convocation in the school’s basketball arena, Michele Bachmann did something far more explictly than she has on the campaign trail before: weaving her own personal salvation story into the mythology of the Christian nation, freedom, and American exceptionalism.
The overarching theme of Bachmann’s speech was “don’t settle” — on its face, a rather pabulum campaign slogan. But Bachmann’s twist was this: don’t settle, because God has a plan for you. Don’t settle, because God has a plan for this country. Don’t settle, because then you won’t really know Jesus. Don’t settle, because if you really don’t know Jesus we might end up with Obamacare and socialism.
Bachmann told an extended salvation story, her testimony peppered with details about how the “gospel went right over my head” in her childhood Lutheran church, how until she made “that heart connection” with Jesus she wasn’t really a Christian. “Clean me out, make me new,” Bachmann recalled praying. Then, “something has changed inside of me… I radically abandoned myself to Jesus Christ,” telling him, “take me, I’m yours.”
Bachmann recounted how she bagan “feasting in the word of God.” She added, “I didn’t settle. I wanted to know Jesus Christ, in his fullness, every part of him.”
That all demonstrated just how well Bachmann knows to play to an evangelical audience, to let them know not just I’m one of you, but Jesus has consumed me.
Then, Bachmann pivoted, a segue I hadn’t seen her use before. She said that while in law school, God gave her a “life verse,” 2 Corinthians 3:17 (Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.) And she used that “life verse” to wrap her own salvation story into an Christian American exceptionalism narrative.
Liberty, said Bachmann “is the great animating principle of this nation.” Jesus, she went on, “came to set the captives free.” That, she went on, “is the essence of the founding of this nation.”
Bachmann has used the John Winthrop “shining city on a hill” story before– something pioneered by Reagan and used by numerous Republicans in speeches to evangelical audiences. As Brian Kaylor writes in his book, Presidential Campaign Rhetoric in an Age of Confessional Politics, Reagan used it to emphasize “his belief that God had divinely created and blessed America and that America’s founders — as he did — trusted in God to lead the new nation.” But at Liberty, Bachmann went beyond gauzy narratives of the shining city. She wrapped a radical Jesus around the idea of “liberty:” that only by “not settling,” by knowing Jesus Christ “in his fullness” can someone be truly free, free in the way that Jesus intended when he “set captives free” by the founding of the country.
It’s all wrong, of course, historically, constitutionally. But Bachmann found the precise sweet spot where testimony and Christian American exceptionalism mythology intersect.
Bachmann took her speech even further, invoking the biblical story of Joshua and Caleb, who led a younger generation into the promised land, after the Israelites wandered 40 years in the desert. God sent Joshua and Caleb after spies he sent to the promised land claimed they lacked the power to defeat political enemies. Because Joshua and Caleb believed in God, they could go into the promised land and conquer enemies and possess the land.
That promised land, that liberty, is where Bachmann will vanquish “Obamacare,” where she, who won’t settle, will “stand up to the federal government taking over private companies.” Fully knowing Jesus is liberty; Jesus defends capitalism; knowing Jesus “in his fullness, every part of him” gives you the power to defeat Obama and his crypto-socialism.
God has a plan for you, Bachmann reminded the university students. “That is greatness, fulfilling his plan for you. That’s how we define greatness.”
It’s probably not enough to save her floundering presidential campaign, but Bachmann today set a new standard for Republican speeches to evangelical audiences.
UPDATE: C-SPAN has the video: