Lizza on Bachmann

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Ryan Lizza’s profile of Michelle Bachmann in the latest New Yorker focuses correctly on the candidate’s ideological formation within the Christian Right, not least through her exposure to the works of Francis Schaeffer, the Switzerland-based writer who almost single-handedly made opposition to abortion the centerpiece of the political project of American evangelicals. In his final paragraphs, Lizza conjures with the apparent irony of an evangelical warrior leading the “libertarian” Tea Party.

Liberty is the concept–or at least the word–most resonant with the
Republican Party’s Tea Party faction, which Bachmann’s Presidential
aspirations depend upon. It is a peculiarity of the current political
moment that a politician with a history of pushing sectarian religious
beliefs in government has become a hero to a libertarian movement. But
Bachmann’s merger of these two strands of ideology is not unique. In
fact, the Pew Research Center, in its recent quadrennial study of the
American electorate, noted that “the most visible shift in the political
landscape” since 2005 “is the emergence of a single bloc of
across-the-board conservatives. The long-standing divide between
economic, pro-business conservatives and social conservatives has

The two wings are now united by the simplest and most
enduring strain of conservative ideology: a dislike and distrust of
government. Religious and fiscal conservatives have been moving toward
this kind of unity for decades, and Bachmann, in her crusades against
abortion, education standards, gay marriage–as well as in her passionate
opposition to raising the debt ceiling–has always cast government as
the villain, often using terms that echo Schaeffer’s post-Roe warning
that America risked falling into the hands of “a manipulative and
authoritarian élite.”

Bachmann and her political consultants also
know that her inoffensive ode to liberty is necessary because many
voters don’t respond well to religious language. The more Bachmann talks
about God, the more she is likely to be asked about Schaeffer, Eidsmoe,
Noebel, and some of the other exotic influences on her thinking. The
success of her campaign will rest partly on her ability to keep these
influences, which she has talked about for years, out of the public
discussion. As I started getting deeper into a conversation with her
about Schaeffer, she abruptly ended the interview. She said she had to
leave for an appearance on “Hannity” but would try to set up another
time to talk. I didn’t hear from her again. Her press secretary later
told me that Bachmann “wasn’t comfortable with the line of questions,
and that’s why there wasn’t a follow-up conversation.”

I’d put the history somewhat differently: Since its inception at the dawn of the Reagan presidency, the religious right has trafficked in small-government, anti-tax ideology. And such few true libertarians as are out there (e.g. Ron and Rand Paul) learn very quickly that if they expect to be elected, they need to take the pledge on abortion and same-sex marriage.

What’s most interesting in Lizza’s peroration is his exposure of Bachmann & Co.’s recognition that, to succeed on the national stage, they have to go light on the religion thing–viz. where she goes to church. Ever since 2006, the country has shown itself wary of overzealous evangelicals. The great achievement of the Tea Party has been to provide many of them with an undercover way to continue to pursue the old agenda. But now that the presidential cycle is fully under way and reporters are taking a closer look, the American people no longer have to view them through a glass darkly.