If you vote for Michele Bachmann are you really voting for her husband, Marcus, the pray-away-the-gay psychologist? After all, in 2006 she said she took a degree in tax law, despite hating everything to do with taxes, because he told her to. “The Lord said, ‘Be submissive. Wives, you are to be submissive to your husbands,’” she told the crowd at a Minnesota megachurch. At the recent GOP debate in Iowa, her supporters in the audience booed when the Washington Examiner’s Byron York reminded her of this episode and asked if she would be submissive to Marcus as president. But it was a perfectly reasonable question: people have a right to know who would really be calling the shots in a Bachmann administration. I can hear it now: “Darling, can you believe Paul Ryan wants Grover Norquist on the Supreme Court? Oh, well… If you really think so…” Nor was the question sexist, as some said. During a 2008 debate, Mike Huckabee was asked about an ad he signed supporting the Southern Baptist Convention’s doctrine that wives should “graciously submit” to their husbands. Much like Bachmann, who answered by saying she has a wonderful marriage and that “submission” means “respect,” Huckabee said it was really all about mutual love.
Let me go out on a limb here and say that Michele Bachmann is not going to become president. After all, as recently as 2007 some 30 percent of Republicans believed in evolution, so there must still be a few members of the reality-based community in there. Against much evidence, I continue to believe that the American people are not insane. But just in case I’m wrong, let me be the first to say it: only in America would the first female president be a woman who has promised to obey her man as Christ’s representative on earth—and only in America would there be a debate about whether a such a woman can be a feminist. Yes, we are that screwed up. Naomi Wolf, for example, claims that reactionaries like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann are the real feminists today. “The core of feminism is individual choice and freedom,” she wrote recently, “and it is these strains that are being sounded now more by the Tea Party movement than by the left.” Take that, Gloria Steinem! If it’s hard to square “individual choice and freedom” with banning abortion, as Palin and Bachmann would like (and think how big a nanny state you’d need to accomplish that!), it’s even harder to square feminism with wifely obedience to a husband as God’s mouthpiece.
Liberal Christians have various ways of reinterpreting Ephesians 5:22, which exhorts women to “submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.” They note that St. Paul also enjoins husbands to love their wives, and may not have even written the passage, and is not, as Bachmann seems to think, “the Lord.” But unfortunately, there are numerous other passages that support wifely submission: Colossians 3, Titus 2:5 and I Peter 3:1. “To love,” anyway, is not parallel with “to submit,” any more than “respect” is a synonym for “submission.” And then there is that pesky business of identifying men with Christ and women with the church, i.e., Christ’s worshipers, those lowly mortals he came to redeem from sin. I just don’t see how you can get to equality from there.
And that, for Bachmann’s hard-core supporters, may be the point. Michelle Goldberg, Sarah Posner and others have argued that Bachmann has ties to Christian dominionism, an extreme fundamentalism holding that the United States should be governed along strict and literal biblical principles. In The New Yorker, Ryan Lizza pointed out her admiration for Francis Schaeffer, another father of Christian theocratic ideology, and her promotion of J. Steven Wilkins’s biography of Robert E. Lee, which describes slavery “in the pervasively Christian society which was the old South” as a benevolent relationship of “mutual respect” (that word again!).
If the media were to take Bachmann’s religion seriously, most Americans would be repelled. (But that’s a big if, because when it comes to religion, the press tends to chuckle benevolently.) It’s one thing to say men and women play different roles in the family or that a wife should make her husband feel like he’s in charge even if he’s not. Many still hold such old-fashioned views. But extremists take it further—a lot further. There are wives who think God commands them to ask their husbands for permission to call the plumber. There are Christians who think women shouldn’t teach male students past the age of 12, run for office or even vote. “God has designed men to exercise authority in the home, in the church, in society and in government,” says Bryan Fischer, radio host and director of issues analysis at the American Family Association, an organization that believes “a culture based on biblical truth best serves the well-being of our nation and our families.” So how can Bachmann run for president? Well, sometimes, Fischer explains, if God can’t find a man, “he’ll send a woman to do a man’s job” as a last resort. (And besides, her husband told her to run, so there.)
“Wifely submission is a boundary marker,” explains Julie Ingersoll, associate professor of religious studies at the University of North Florida and an expert on Christian fundamentalism, who spoke with me by phone. In other words, it’s a quick way for true believers to identify one another. “Michele Bachmann is caught in a quandary, because if she keeps talking about submission she’ll look increasingly weird, but if she gives it up she’ll lose her base.”
To a lot of people, her submission to Marcus isn’t the only way Bachmann looks weird, so it won’t be surprising if her fans move to Rick Perry as the better bet. He has the same extreme Christian ideology—he called on Texans to pray for rain (it didn’t work), and on August 6 he hosted an American Family Association–funded prayer meeting of 30,000 at a stadium in Houston. Does he believe in wifely submission? Given his close ties to the AFA, it’s very likely, but not to worry: since he’s a man, the question of whether he’d defer to Anita on matters of state won’t come up.