Perry’s Challenge to Bachmann for Religious Right Vote

In the afterglow of The Response, Rick Perry has indicated that he’s going to announce his intention to run for president—in South Carolina, as the big Republican event, the Ames straw poll, is taking place in Iowa. Surely he wants to suck all the air out of Michele Bachmann’s air-conditioned tent.

With Bachmann generating the most excitement among voters in Iowa, Perry appears to be her primary rival for the coveted conservative Christian vote. And that raises the question: aside from his prayerfest, wildly well-received by the evangelical punditry, what does he have that she doesn’t?

The big buzz today—apart from Perry’s anticipated announcement—is Ryan Lizza’s profile of Bachmann in the New Yorker. Some of it will not be news to regular RD readers; for example, he goes into some detail about her legal education at Oral Roberts University, which I delved into for a feature we published last month. Lizza’s probing of Bachmann herself about how Francis Schaeffer’s films and writings influenced her is telling and interesting; he misses a few crucial things, though, in his discussion of ORU. For example, Lizza writes:

Among the professors were Herbert W. Titus, a Vice-Presidential candidate of the far-right U.S. Taxpayers Party (now called the Constitution Party), and John Whitehead, who started the Rutherford Institute, a conservative legal-advocacy group. The law review published essays by Schaeffer and Rousas John Rushdoony, a prominent Dominionist who has called for a pure Christian theocracy in which Old Testament law—execution for adulterers and homosexuals, for example—would be instituted. In a 1982 essay in the law review, Rushdoony condemned the secularization of public schools and declared, “With the coming collapse of humanistic statism, the Christian must prepare to take over, he must prepare for victory.”

When I interviewed him for my piece, Titus, who was (by his own telling) one of the driving forces in creating the law school, told me that he had already moved on by the time Bachmann enrolled there. While Lizza focused on Bachmann’s affection for professor John Eidsmoe (a topic Michelle Goldberg explored in a piece for the Daily Beast in June), particularly his role in promoting homeschooling, Lizza gives short shrift to Rushdoony, who is not only a “prominent Dominionist,” as Lizza describes him, but the founder of Christian Reconstructionism and Titus’ inspiration. And, as Julie Ingersoll has detailed on numerous occasions, “Christian Reconstructionist founder Rousas John Rushudoony is often called the father of the Christian homeschooling movement and convention lectures are frequently informed by Reconstructionist readings of the bible, in which the Old and New Testaments are a continuous narrative, and in which Biblical Law provides the basis for understanding our obligation to obedience, the exercise of dominion, and the purpose and significance of history.” And “Rushdoony laid the philosophical/theological grounding for these movements in the late 1950s and early 1960s, served as an expert witness in the trials establishing them as a legal alternative to public schooling in the 1970s and 1980s, and was the impetus for much of the homeschooling curriculum still in use today.”

It’s crucial here to understand, as Julie has explained so often and so well, Christian Reconstructionism as a source for the anti-government positioning of the religious right and the Tea Party:

As Reconstructionists see it, there are three spheres of institutional authority established by God: the family, the church and that civil government. Each of the institutions has specific responsibilities and when “men” look to the State to meet needs the State was not intended to meet, they are looking to the State for salvation and making the State God.

This is the source of their views on helping the poor (it’s the responsibility of families and churches) and education (a family responsibility). For them the civil government has no legitimate role in either function so they advocate dismantling the welfare system, eliminating the Department of Education, and ultimately “replacing” public schools.

It is also the reason they give for opposing taxation in an amount greater than the tithe (‘he” who has authority to exact the most money has the most authority.) The state makes itself God when it takes more that God requires.

To understand Bachmann’s view of government (i.e., that it really shouldn’t do much of anything), it’s important to understand its religious source: Rushdoony’s “spheres of institutional authority.” That, and the peculiar Christian Reconstructionist understanding of the Constitution, inform her views on gun ownership, “Obamacare,” and what it means to be a “real” American.

Back to Perry. Bachmann’s biography—steeped in inspiration from Francis Schaffer, Rushdoony, and, as I reported earlier this year, “Christian worldview” and anti-communism conspiracist David Noebel—is the product of, as Titus told me, “one of our major purposes, which was to train people in such a way so as to make an impact in the leadership of the country.” Bachmann, in other words, is a product of the religious right’s deliberate efforts to “raise up” soldiers to exercise a “dominion mandate;” she is, organically, one of them. Perry’s effort Saturday, on the other hand, was a staged attempt to convince them that he is committed to their worldview. It’s not clear that he has internalized it like Bachmann has, which may make him more Zelig-like and attractive to non-religious voters in states like New Hampshire, or might make him look like a pandering interloper to everyone. One thing is clear, though: the dominionism that we chroniclers of the religious right have talked about for years is now becoming a mainstream topic of scrutiny and conversation. Finally.

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