Over at RealClearPolitics, there’s video from last night’s Republican debate in which she is asked by a debate moderator, “as President, would you be submissive to your husband?” Now, this was not a question out of the blue–when she was running for congress in 2006, she made a comment on the record that she only studied tax law because her husband told her to, and that she found the strength to do this by reviewing her biblical principles, explaining that “the Lord said, be submissive. Wives, you are to be submissive to your husbands.” Here’s her answer, in which she sidesteps the question entirely by giving a completely implausible definition of “submission” as the equivalent of “respect:”
“Marcus and I will be married for 33 years this Sept. 10,” she responded. “I’m in love with him. I’m so proud of him, and both he and I — what submission means to us, if that’s what your question is, it means respect. I respect my husband. He’s a wonderful godly man and a great father. And he respects me as his wife. That’s how we operate our marriage. We respect each other, we love each other, and I’ve been so grateful that we’ve been able to build a home together. We have five wonderful children, and 23 foster children. We built a business together and a life together, and I’m very proud of him.”
Now, that’s a fine definition of a companionate marriage, the kind of marriage that most Americans believe in. It’s not at all a definition of wifely submission. There is in fact a large evangelical literature out there by both women and men that defines wifely submission as something totally different from respect, let alone an egalitarian marriage, but I’m sure that Bachmann is right to be confident that the secular media won’t bother to do their research and the Christian media will give her a free pass on this one.
Interestingly, if you go to the video, there’s a strong chorus of jeers and boos after the moderator asked this question–as though it were an inappropriate question. I don’t think it’s at all inappropriate to ask her this, because presidential candidates have had to answer questions about the nature of their loyalties throughout history. John F. Kennedy famously delivered a speech in Texas in which he explained that American Catholics do not in fact get their orders in the mail from the Pope. I’m quite certain that the first viable Jewish presidential candidate will be drilled on hir loyalty and ties to Israel. And of course, right wingers have made a cottage industry about President Obama’s Kenyan father and his supposed (in the words of another presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich) “Kenyan, anti-colonial mindset.”
Is it necessarily a sexist line of questioning or an unfair standard applied only to conservative women? I don’t see it that way. Some of Hillary Clinton’s most ardent opponents in 2008 insisted that her candidacy meant that “Billary” was gunning for the White House again. Furthermore, you can say a lot of things about Sarah Palin’s politics and public persona, but “submissive” is not one of them. Bachmann on the other hand opened the door herself to this line of questioning in ways that Clinton and Palin never did.
Does that mean that Michele Bachmann’s presidential candidacy is a mere stalking horse for her husband’s political ambitions, and that he would be the true power behind the throne? No. This seems to me like just another example of the rhetorical and moral flexibility of some evangelical Christians who think that biblical and moral rules only apply to the little people, and that Great Leaders whose salvation is utterly assured can indulge in the very things they rail against because, well, they know they’re saved. Frank Schaeffer has written and talked about this in the context of his own family, whose spiritual leadership and teachings were very influential in Bachmann’s life, according to this intellectual biography of her by Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker this week. These evangelicals can claim moral and spiritual solidarity with the “little people” whose votes they need, while in fact organizing their personal lives and political agendas very differently. And it’s all good, because it’s in the service of God.
Like the Church Lady used to say: isn’t that convEEEENient? I’m starting to have more sympathy with John Winthrop’s point of view when he kicked some antinomian a$$es out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony back in 1638. What do Kelly Baker and my other friends over at Religion in American History have to say about this? (They’re the experts, after all–but they’ve been pretty busy covering Rick Perry’s prayer meeting this week.)