In a country with 70 million Catholics, belonging to a church that believes the Pope is the Antichrist would seem like a lliability for any presidential aspirant. But the revelation last week that Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) belonged to the a church affiliated with the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) until she resigned her membership last year doesn’t seem to have had much of an impact yet. WELS says in its Doctrinal Statement on the Antichrist that “it is Scripture which reveals that the Papacy is the Antichrist.” (In essence, WELS sticks carefully to Martin Luther’s teachings and interprets the notion that the Pope is God’s voice in the world as an Antichrist-like attempt to assume the place of Christ.)
Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League—which The Atlantic’s Joshua Green, who broke the story, refers to with the overly generous description of a “a national organization devoted to protecting Catholic civil rights”—showed a lot of Christian forgiveness towards Bachmann regarding her membership in WELS. “We never went after Obama for sitting there for twenty years listening to Rev. ‘Goddam America’ Wright. I don’t want to give him a pass, but I saw no bigotry on Obama’s part,” Donohue told Green. “Similarly, I have see [sic] none on Bachmann’s part. But it’s clear that the [synod]’s teachings are noxious and it’s important for her to speak to the issue.” That’s a non sequitur. Rev. Wright wasn’t anti-Catholic, so his statements weren’t in the Catholic League’s purview. But the Catholic League is not really a Catholic civil rights organization, it’s a politically conservative group that seems to exist primarily to get Donohue on Fox News where he can fight the War for Christmas and other ridiculous battles. Viewed in that light, Donohue’s statement should be seen for what it is: a politically hackish attempt to point out that President Obama had a radical black pastor who might make them uncomfortable.
Donohue is faithfully playing his role in the alliance that has developed between conservative Catholics and Protestants. While they once viewed each other with suspicion, in recent years the groups have cooperated over opposition to abortion rights and gay rights. And no one outdoes Bachmann when it comes to opposition to gay rights.
“A lot of things have changed between evangelicals and catholics in last twenty to thirty years,” says Michael Cromartie, who directs the Evangelicals in Civic Life Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Whereas conservative white Protestants used to persecute Catholics and Jews, since the 1970s they have made common cause with them politically if not theologically. “The new culture war is conservative Jews, Catholics and Protestants against liberal Jews, Catholics and Protestants,” says Cromartie. “Even Jerry Falwell said that the Moral Majority means that conservatives of different faiths can work together.”
Cromartie predicts that it will take “about one meeting with conservative Catholics to clarify what her thoughts are on the Church. She may have to give a speech like Obama did in Philadelphia [about Rev. Wright]. But it may not go that far. If she meets with leading Catholics in Iowa and New Hampshire and says ‘We are together on the issues,’ that solves it.”
There are, in fact, quite a few Catholics in New Hampshire. But Catholic pride as such is unlikely to cause major problems for Bachmann there. That’s because New Hampshire Catholics are not intensely religious. If anything, ventures Andy Smith, director of the Granite State poll at the University of New Hampshire, New Hampshire voters are more likely to be turned off by Bachmann’s religious extremism than the anti-Catholic views of her former Church. “Even though there are a lot of people in New Hampshire who identify as Catholic, they’re what my wife’s family calls ‘cafeteria Catholics,’” Smith explains. “They pick and choose what they believe and church attendance is very low.” In New Hampshire, according to Granite State poll data, 28 percent of residents identify as Catholic, but only 33 percent of them go to church once per week or more, with 49 percent attending a few times a year or never.
Bachmann may also be given a pass by conservative Catholics because she was unaware of her former church’s doctrine on the papacy. When her membership in WELS first became an issue in 2004 she flatly, and incorrectly, denied the facts of what her church doctrine holds, saying “my church does not believe that the pope is the Antichrist, that’s absolutely false.” According to Cromartie it’s entirely possible that Bachmann really didn’t know about her church’s doctrine because most lay evangelicals who, like Bachmann, converted to evangelicalism as adults are not well-versed on the finer points of theology. “These people know the faith and politics,” says Cromartie, “but they didn’t go to seminary.”
And so, in the primaries at least, Bachmann’s curious religious history is likely to buffered on the right side by what Cromartie calls the “ecumenism of the trenches” of the culture war and on her left by apathy about obscure theological matters.