What I find most fascinating about Michele Bachmann — and there are many, many more where she came from — is that she presents herself as a godly woman, humbly devoted to her Christian faith. I’d like to meet that god, and I’d like to understand that Christianity.
Does it call for smearing people on the basis of flimsy conspiracy theories? That’s what Bachmann just did to Huma Abedin, an aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, by essentially suggesting she might be a mole for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Does it endorse scaring young women away from immunizations that could spare them serious illness? Bachmann did that during her memorable presidential campaign, when she blithely drew an unsubstantiated link between a vaccine for the human papillomavirus and mental retardation.
Does it encourage gratuitously divisive condemnations of Barack Obama as “anti-American,” one of many incendiary phrases in her attacks against him in 2008? And does it compel a war against homosexuality waged with the language and illogic she uses?
She has said that gay men and lesbians are dysfunctional products of abuse and agents of “sexual anarchy,” and when the singer and songwriter Melissa Etheridge was battling breast cancer years ago, Bachmann helpfully chimed in: “This may be an opportunity for her now to be open to some spiritual things, now that she is suffering with that physical disease. She is a lesbian.”
Bachmann’s concept of Christian love brims with hate, and she has a deep satchel of stones to throw. From what kind of messiah did she learn that?
Over recent days she has drawn attention for the letter that she and four other Republican lawmakers sent to federal intelligence and security agencies last month. It expressed fears that the Muslim Brotherhood might be infiltrating the government, and it mentioned Abedin. She’s Muslim, after all.
My aim here isn’t to re-litigate Bachmann’s crimes against reason and decency, all widely documented.
It’s to wonder why we accept her descriptions of herself, and in turn describe her, as a deeply religious woman. That grants too much credence to her particular, peculiar and highly selective definition of piety. And it offends the many admirable people of faith whose understanding and practice of religion aren’t, like hers, confrontational and small-minded.
Bachmann is an evangelical, and has spoken rhapsodically about the experience of being born again. After that moment, she said, “I absolutely understood sin, and I wanted no part of it.” She plunged into politics nonetheless.
We routinely place her in the “religious right,” a phrase that frustrates me, tidily linking a certain set of political beliefs with profound devotion. We talk much less frequently of any “religious left,” and that disparity implies that a seriously faithful person is most likely to land on just one end of the political spectrum.
Tell that to the Nuns on the Bus, who rolled across the country last month focusing on social welfare and expressing alarm about the impact that cuts in federal spending might have on struggling Americans. Their politics line up more neatly with liberal than conservative policies, but the nuns reflect a Catholicism no less true or widespread than that of the bishops carrying on about gay marriage and birth control.
Speaking of gay marriage, both the Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism in this country have embraced it, and the Episcopal Church in the United States has developed a special blessing for same-sex couples. Leaders of these denominations would tell you not that they’re flouting Judeo-Christian tradition but that they’re doing full justice to their faiths, which hinge on more than reflexive fidelity to chosen passages from ancient writings. They hinge on the human intellect and its ability to filter timeless values through modern understanding.
Because he’s a social liberal, Cory Booker, the Newark mayor, is seldom mentioned in terms of religion, but it turns out that he’s made a study of the Bible, as well as other sacred texts, and given considerable thought to faith. On his Facebook page a few months ago, he mused thusly:
“Before you speak to me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people. Before you tell me how much you love your God, show me in how much you love all His children.”
I know many progressive, big-hearted Christians who rise to that challenge, and it’s wrong for a single Christian label — without asterisk or annotation — to be attached both to them and to the likes of Bachmann.
So maybe it’s time for annotations. Most of us distinguish, rightly, between Muslim extremists and other followers of Islam. Perhaps we should start noting the difference between Christians of real compassion and those of exclusionary spite.
Bachmann’s on to something: dangerous fundamentalists have indeed set up camp deep inside the capital. She can find one in her office. She need only look in the mirror.