Michele Bachmann and evangelicals: Can a woman really be accepted as a leader?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
June 30 2011 6:17 PM

Hail to the Housewife

Can Michele Bachmann be the leader of the free world and still obey her husband like a good evangelical?

Michele Bachmann. Click image to expand.
Can Michele Bachmann square her evangelical beliefs and her political drive?

In a speech at a mega-church in the Minneapolis area back in 2006, Michele Bachmann explained her decision to pursue tax law. It wasn't her choice, exactly. God had already told her to go to law school; God had also told her to marry a fellow named Marcus Bachmann. Now Marcus told her "to go and get a post-doctorate degree in tax law." This was not a particular desire of Michele's ("Tax law? I hate taxes!"), but she was certain God was speaking through her husband.

"Why should I go and do something like that?" she recalled thinking. "But the Lord says, 'Be submissive wives; you are to be submissive to your husbands.'"

For non-evangelical Christians, this sounds ludicrous:  How can a woman who believes in submitting to her husband's will aspire to be president of the United States?  Is she going to have to ask Marcus' permission every time she wants to throw a state dinner? 

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This apparent contradiction—how you can be leader of the free world and yet subordinate to some guy —has proved no less confusing to the nation's conservative evangelicals. For them, the justification for a Bachmann presidential run lies in a very careful, some would say tortured, theological interpretation that emerged during Sarah Palin's vice-presidential candidacy in 2008.

The solution to the "Palin Predicament," as it's been called, is laid out on the website of the influential Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. The council, which was established in 1987 to fight "the growing movement of feminist egalitarianism," espouses something called complementarianism—the idea that while men and women are equal they nevertheless must play different (read: unequal) parts. Men are destined to occupy leadership roles at home and at church, while women are obliged to "grow in willing, joyful submission to their husbands' leadership." But the civic sphere is distinct from home and church and governed by different rules, these evangelicals reasoned, and if the Bible didn't explicitly "prohibit [women] from exercising leadership in secular political fields," neither would they. 

Still, the compromise was an uneasy one. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said that while he liked Palin's political views, he worried about the effect of her candidacy on her domestic priorities. "It would be hypocritical of me to suggest that I would be perfectly happy to have Christian young women believe that being Vice President of the United States is more important than being a wife and mother," he wrote two months before the 2008 election. And several more patriarchal-minded evangelicals opposed Palin's candidacy outright, suggesting that "her political career violates her calling to be a wife, mother, and keeper at home," and even calling a vote for her ticket "a vote for a curse."

If anything, Bachmann makes these knotty issues more prominent than Palin's vice-presidential candidacy ever did. For one thing, Bachmann is running for the highest office in the land, not the second-highest. And so far as I can tell, Palin has never spoken about the righteousness of being subservient to her husband. (Not many prominent politicians have in recent years. Notable exceptions are Christine O'Donnell, the former U.S. Senate candidate from Delaware, and former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.)

Then there is the Palin marriage, on display since 2008 during campaign stops, in interviews, and on reality television. For as much as her political views and demeanor have incensed liberals, Sarah Palin's relationship with Todd appears to be an egalitarian one, in which Todd cooks, does the dishes, buys groceries, and often cares for the children while his wife is at work. Bachmann, meanwhile, has called quitting work to be a stay-at-home mother her "dream." She's made much of the fact that she is running for president after completing the raising of her five children and 23 foster children. "Sometimes you just need to have patience and wait to do certain things in your life," she told Ralph Reed recently, in what sounded an awful lot like a jab at Palin.

It's hard to tell what, exactly, the notion of wifely submission means in marriages where the wife in question has a high-powered career outside of the home. Last year's New York Times Magazine piece on female evangelical leaders described these unions as enacting a "soft patriarchalism." The article focused on an evangelical Bible teacher named Priscilla Shirer, who defers to her husband in some decisions (their son's name, for instance), even as her husband does housework and travels to support her career. It's tempting to think that these evangelicals have merely found their way, in roundabout fashion, to a view of gender that feminists reached a long time ago.

Except they haven't. Soft patriarchalism and feminism are incompatible, even when they look similar. Moderate evangelical and ethicist David Gushee pointed out this fundamental hypocrisy during the debate over the Palin Predicament: If his fellow Christians supported a woman in a position of civic leadership, they should logically support the notion of women exercising leadership in church and at home—but most of them don't. And Bachmann has explicitly rejected the title of feminist, calling herself an "empowered American." (Palin, meanwhile, has called herself a feminist, and even if you think this description impossibly wrongheaded, it suggests a certain engagement with the idea of female equality.)

Bachmann's description of herself as "pro-woman and pro-man" suggests a contentment with the status quo, as far as gender goes. Indeed, it may imply something more—that as a woman who defers to her husband, she believes herself to be more liberated than secular feminists are. According to Karen Seat, a religious studies professor at the University of Arizona, some conservative evangelicals argue that women's deference is itself empowering, because it's what God intends, and because it is the fullest expression of womanhood. In this world of opposites, submission is strength and inequity is proof of equality. It's quite possible that a President Bachmann would primarily define herself not as the first female president of the United States, but as a wife and mother. And she would not see that as anything less than progress.

Libby Copeland is a writer in New York and a Slate contributor. She was previously a Washington Post reporter and editor for 11 years. She can be reached at libbycopeland@gmail.com.

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