Michelle Bachmann's Intellectual Worldview

by Jonathan Chait | August 8, 2011

A huge proportion of the reporting and commentary around Michele Bachmann has revolved around the general theme "she's crazy." Yet I've found most of it immensely dissatisfying. Inevitably, we are promised a great feast of crazy, and instead served a few dissatisfying morsels -- a historical misstatement here, a rhetorical flourish there, but nothing greatly out of character with how the other Republican presidential candidates behave.

Ryan Lizza's terrific profile of Bachmann finally delivers what we've been waiting for. And he does it by doing what nobody else has done -- examining her worldview seriously and with depth. It's difficult to summarize, but Ryan finds a massive trove of intellectual influences that are very, very radical. Bachmann emerges from a fairly coherent far-right Christian school of thought. Among other things, it lends some perspective to the way we use terms like "theocracy." Someone like Rick Perry may transform the country into the kind of place where non-Christians are a kind of second-class citizen, but Bachmann is truly a theocrat, who believes in the absolute supremacy of biblical law.

This is just one segment of the piece, but it traces the relation between what appear to be odd gaffes and her genuine belief structure:

Bachmann’s comment about slavery was not a gaffe. It is, as she would say, a world view. In “Christianity and the Constitution,” the book she worked on with Eidsmoe, her law-school mentor, he argues that John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams “expressed their abhorrence for the institution” and explains that “many Christians opposed slavery even though they owned slaves.” They didn’t free their slaves, he writes, because of their benevolence. “It might be very difficult for a freed slave to make a living in that economy; under such circumstances setting slaves free was both inhumane and irresponsible.”
While looking over Bachmann’s State Senate campaign Web site, I stumbled upon a list of book recommendations. The third book on the list, which appeared just before the Declaration of Independence and George Washington’s Farewell Address, is a 1997 biography of Robert E. Lee by J. Steven Wilkins.
Wilkins is the leading proponent of the theory that the South was an orthodox Christian nation unjustly attacked by the godless North. This revisionist take on the Civil War, known as the “theological war” thesis, had little resonance outside a small group of Southern historians until the mid-twentieth century, when Rushdoony and others began to popularize it in evangelical circles. In the book, Wilkins condemns “the radical abolitionists of New England” and writes that “most southerners strove to treat their slaves with respect and provide them with a sufficiency of goods for a comfortable, though—by modern standards—spare existence.”
African slaves brought to America, he argues, were essentially lucky: “Africa, like any other pagan country, was permeated by the cruelty and barbarism typical of unbelieving cultures.” Echoing Eidsmoe, Wilkins also approvingly cites Lee’s insistence that abolition could not come until “the sanctifying effects of Christianity” had time “to work in the black race and fit its people for freedom.”
In his chapter on race relations in the antebellum South, Wilkins writes:

Slavery, as it operated in the pervasively Christian society which was the old South, was not an adversarial relationship founded upon racial animosity. In fact, it bred on the whole, not contempt, but, over time, mutual respect. This produced a mutual esteem of the sort that always results when men give themselves to a common cause. The credit for this startling reality must go to the Christian faith. . . . The unity and companionship that existed between the races in the South prior to the war was the fruit of a common faith.

For several years, the book, which Bachmann’s campaign declined to discuss with me, was listed on her Web site, under the heading “Michele’s Must Read List."

What I love is that Ryan immediately proceeds to quote Bachmann describing her passion for "liberty." One consistent aspect of the Tea Party movement is a certain brand of Constitutional fetishism. Liberals have viewed the Constitution as a great but flawed document that pointed the way for America's broader principles but required updating and perfection over subsequent generations. The right has instead fetishized it as a perfect document. That principle, and the right's professed love f liberty, come into fairly dramatic contradiction over an issue like slavery. The argument of somebody like Wilkin's is ultimately the glue that holds those apparently contradictory positions together. How can the Constitution have been perfect and liberty the vital principle? Because slavery wasn't so bad.

Now, to be sure, Bachmann is obviously not pro-slavery. But she is the product of a worldview that comes from some very, very dark places.

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