We Don't Have to Call it "Holy War": Historicizing Michelle Bachmann

Janine Giordano Drake

Is it just me, or does coverage these days of Michelle Bachmann these days sound like it was ripped right out of the journals of H.L Mencken in the hot Tennessee summer of 1925? Writes Rolling Stone Magazine this week in an article entitled, "Michelle Bachmann's Holy War,"

"Bachmann is a religious zealot whose brain is a raging electrical storm of divine visions and paranoid delusions. She believes that the Chinese are plotting to replace the dollar bill, that light bulbs are killing our dogs and cats, and that God personally chose her to become both an IRS attorney who would spend years hounding taxpayers and a raging anti-tax Tea Party crusader against big government. She kicked off her unofficial presidential campaign in New Hampshire, by mistakenly declaring it the birthplace of the American Revolution. "It's your state that fired the shot that was heard around the world!" she gushed. "You are the state of Lexington and Concord, you started the battle for liberty right here in your backyard.... And later,

Bachmann's entire political career has followed this exact same pattern of God-speaks-directly-to-me fundamentalism mixed with pathological, relentless, conscienceless lying. She's not a liar in the traditional way of politicians, who tend to lie dully, usefully and (they hope) believably, often with the aim of courting competing demographics at the same time. That's not what Bachmann's thing is. Bachmann lies because she can't help it, because it's a built-in component of both her genetics and her ideology. She is at once the most entertaining and the most dangerous kind of liar, a turbocharged cross between a born bullshit artist and a religious fanatic, for whom lying to the infidel is a kind of holy duty."

Now, I know one could argue that it is Bachmann herself who is channeling William Jennings Bryan. She is not only bold, audacious, and self-assured, but she is right when she says that she is not alone in her cultural gripes. Sure- she participated in the homeschooling and "Christian school" movement, an odd practice for the moderns of the East Coast. However, this is not such an unusual circumstance in America's heartland. She fights an unspokenly regional and religious culture war, a war about principles, a war driven by nostalgia for a world gone by. Outwardly, though, she yearns for power in Washington. Even though she doesn't make a good impression on the media, she draws crowds. She talks about God openly and confidently, maintaining an audience I'm quite sure is divided between political supporters and lovers of spectacle. We could go on and on here, especially in discussing the Third Party Politics, the struggle for Bryan's nomination to the Democratic Party in 1896, and the way jeremiads figure in American political rhetoric.

However, I am not really surprised at Bachmann for taking this approach to politics. She has learned from history that icons in the Bryan mold may not win presidencies but do have the power to reconstruct party platforms. Bryan may have spelled the end of the Populist Party, but he brought many key points of Populism to the Democratic Party, and many of those eventually came to pass.

Who I am surprised at is the contemporary, secular humanist media that has not found a way to move beyond its 1920s predecessors. H. L Mencken reported in 1925,

The Scopes trial, from the start, has been carried on in a manner exactly fitted to the anti- evolution law and the simian imbecility under it.... The rustic judge, a candidate for re-election, has postured the yokels like a clown in a ten-cent side show, and almost every word he has uttered has been an undisguised appeal to their prejudices and superstitions. The chief prosecuting attorney, beginning like a competent lawyer and a man of self-respect, ended like a convert at a Billy Sunday revival. It fell to him, finally, to make a clear and astounding statement of theory of justice prevailing under fundamentalism.

In 2011, Rolling Stone, calls Bachmann a "zealot," "pathological," and a fundamentalist. We are told that Bachmann is

crazy — crazy in the sense that she's living completely inside her own mind, frenetically pacing the hallways of a vast sand castle she's built in there, unable to meaningfully communicate with the human beings on the other side of the moat, who are all presumed to be enemies.

There is no mention of the history of Protestant Fundamentalism and its overlap with politics. No mention of the cultural and political shoulders she stands on. We are simply told to have fear. If this is all that the triumph of liberal, secular, scientific and widespread public education can show for us after 90 years of Clarence Darrows in our midst, the problem is not Michelle Bachmann.

I'd like to make Rolling Stone and other media outlets some recommendations for their news commentary. For some background on the religious and political history of Populism, perhaps starting with the works of Robert McMath, Joe Creech and Michael Kazin. Consider the history of Fundamentalism and its role in politics, perhaps starting with Joel Carpenter, George Nash, Leo Ribuffo, Darren Dochuk, and Preston Shires. For more on the politics of family within conservative Christian circles, start with Betty DeBerg, Bethany Moreton and Natasha Zaretsky.

And, I invite others to join me in naming more good books that help define the shoulders that Bachmann stands upon. Rolling Stone, has the news not reached you yet?: Even if evolution is not the law of the land in every public school in America, Science eventually won in twentieth century America. And not just the hard sciences, but the social sciences. We don't have to think of the next presidential election as a Holy War unless we want to. In fact, to call it holy war-- to accept the fight on those terms--is, if you ask me, to lose the war that is actually being waged.


Phil said…
Barry Hankins' book Jesus and Gin comes to mind. And don't forget Sutton's study of Sister Aimee.
Anonymous said…
Except there is no movement behind the Tea Party. It is a bald attempt by the rich to manipulate the poor. It isn't a thing, it is a mirage. Sometimes I think it would be better to think of the Tea Party movement as an elaborate fraud similar to the housing bubble/derivatives fraud of the last decade.

While you may have identified some kind of formal similarity between WJB and Bachmann, it doesn't mean anything without a discussion of the content of their ideas.

C'mon, Religion in American History blog. Where's your moral compass?
Oh, I never said that Bachmann and Bryan had platforms of moral equivalency! I just said they both are trying to reform major party platforms with third parties. Political machines in the 1890s also represented pretty "bald attempt(s) by the rich to manipulate the poor,"--but they, too, weren't going anywhere, so they had to be reformed by the presence of other parties. So, in my opinion, there's not so much to respect about previous eras of politics any more than our own. One proven way to command attention, then and now, is to play the "old time religion" card.
Anonymous said…
just curious..what is "the war that is actually being waged"?
Will Katerberg said…
The blog posting makes a good point in saying that there's little effort in the RS story to understand Bachman's faith and politics in historical context. But understanding that context is not incompatible with the three central points of the RS article: that Bachman is a little bit nuts, that she's something of a charlatan who believes her own nonsense, and that resentment is a significant component in both her politics and that those who support her. Those three points have been made in more subtle form by historians of fundamentalism and evangelicalism, including those with evangelical backgrounds. Marsden's classic 1980 volume on fundamentalism, for example, compares them to immigrants feeling unhomed in their own country to explain their militancy and anger.
Thank you. I certainly did not mean to leave out Marsden!! Unfortunately, he's often the only one anyone cites.

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