Michele Bachmann was once committed to bigotry. Or so claims The Atlantic’s Joshua Green in what seems to be an attempt at the classic “gotcha” article. (Republicans had attacked Barack Obama for his pastor’s rants, and now one of their own has been embarrassed by her religion.) Green doesn’t get her, but she still needs to explain herself, because even the finer points of a candidate’s theology matter, though even religious politicans don't want to admit it.
As most readers will know, she was until recently a member of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, one of whose doctrinal statements declares that “the Papacy is the Antichrist.”
Green writes as if this association will damage her, since her political hopes depend upon winning Catholic votes. It won’t do that, because most Catholics just don’t care. Bachman was a Lutheran? Lutherans don’t think much of the pope? Well, who’da thought? So what about those Red Sox? Most Catholics long ago adjusted themselves to the theological peculiarities of Protestant politicians.
Green gamely claims that her association with the Wisconsin Synod has “alarmed prominent Catholics,” but identifies only one, Bill Donohue, who is not exactly representative, and who in any case says something rather mild. Bachmann, he says, is not a bigot—here Green’s “gotcha” deflates with a sharp hiss—though she has to answer for the statement, as Barack Obama had to answer for Jeremiah Wright and John McCain for John Hagee.
She does, but not because she has to defend herself from the charge of bigotry, or of associating herself with bigots. She has to answer for it because as a candidate for office, she owes us an explanation of what she believes, not just about the debt ceiling and Iraq and health care, but about the universe. As G. K. Chesterton wrote in his early book Heretics (it is a passage William James quoted approvingly in the opening paragraph of the first lecture in his Pragmatism, in case you’re interested):
There are some people—and I am one of them—who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe. We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy. We think that for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy's numbers, but still more important to know the enemy's philosophy. We think the question is not whether the theory of the cosmos affects matters, but whether in the long run anything else affects them.
This philosophy includes even small questions, like whether the pope is really the Antichrist. Many people, Christians as much as anyone else, will argue that politicians can’t be expected to speak on theological questions, some because they think of politics as purely practical and others because they think of it as purely secular, and many (Christians and secularists alike) because they feel or fear that religion is sectarian and divisive. As a result, their conception of politics is fundamentally secular.
To insist that candidates must not answer for their theology is to say that theology does not matter. It is to say that the revealed content of religion has no relevance to public affairs. This destroys any right that religious people have to participate in the public square as religious people, that is, as people who believe that man has been given a word from outside, has been told something the world needs to know to order itself well and thereby to increase human happiness in this world, never mind the next.
This requires of politicians more than they are used to saying, and a great deal more than they want to say. The observant Christian, Jew, and Muslim believe they have been told something about the world others do not know, and that this knowledge has consequences for public life. The alert ones know that what they know comes to them in a complex and interdependent form, so that its insights can’t easily be divided into “relevant to politics” and “irrelevant,” which generally means “deals with selected moral questions” (sexual for conservatives, economic for liberals) and “everything else.”
The question of the papacy, for example, is not just a matter of a 500-year-old conflict over applying Scripture to then-current events. It is a matter of how Divine instructions are mediated to fallen men living in history, and for us, it is the question of whether we ought to follow Benedict. Some of these instructions address how people live together. It is therefore an intensely political question, though you wouldn’t think so at first glance.
The country does not need religous politicians to collaborate in removing religious doctrine from the public square. We need politicians who lay out their theology and explain how it both binds and directs them, and that theology includes finer points generally considered politically irrelevant. And we need this from secular politicians, who also have a theology, or if they prefer a philosophy, as much as from religious ones.
Not that we will get such disclosures. Religious candidates are happy to argue fiercely about cutting taxes or regulating banks or increasing social spending, but not about anything they can segregate out as “religious” or “theological.” The closest conservatives come is to speak of “family values” or “traditional values,” while avoiding answering the question of what justifies those values and why they should bind anyone else. The closest liberals come is to invoke compassion and concern for the poor without explaining how this justifies their policies.
Bachmann's campaign website, for example, is as free of theology as any secularist could wish. Its biography does not mention her religious commitments at all, and the five “issues” it lists are all economic and political. It does not mention the Wisconsin Synod anywhere. She would do American political life some good if, even in response to a manufactured controversy, she explained what, if anything, she once believed about the papacy.
Religious politicians (on the left and right) are happy to appeal to the religious voter, and many are happy to appeal to culture war divisions, and some to imply that God is on their side without quite saying so. But they want to stay as far away as possible from what Chesterton called philosophy and I’ve called theology, because the clearer they are about their principles and commitments, the less room they have to compromise them. We want to know what they believe, so that we’ll have some idea what they’ll do.
David Mills is Executive Editor of First Things. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
Joshua Green’s Michele Bachman’s Church Says the Pope is the Antichrist.
The WELS Statement on the Antichrist.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church on the papacy (see numbers 880 to 896).
G. K. Chesterton’s Heretics, chapter one (the quote appears in the fifth paragraph).
Lars Walker’s At the Bottom of the Bachman-WELS Flap.
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