How evangelicals remade the Midwestern right

By Sean Scallon

“It’s a free country,” said Tim Pawlenty, shrugging when asked about fellow Minnesotan Michele Bachmann’s potential candidacy in the 2012 presidential race. “Anyone can run who is over the age of 35. I have respect for Michele Bachmann. I’ve had a cordial and positive relationship with her.”

But Pawlenty couldn’t shrug off the fact that Bachmann’s trial balloon got into the press at the same time he began a nationwide book tour and pre-campaign for 2012. Nor can the former Minnesota governor ignore that Bachmann’s foray into presidential politics has kept the state’s GOP congressional delegation from uniting behind him. Bachmann would have been a formidable ally and could have promoted Pawlenty to thousands of religious right voters through her nationwide network. Instead, she may spurn her fellow Minnesotan and strike out on her own.

A Bachmann candidacy would not only be an inconvenience for Pawlenty but also a shot across the bow of another politician, one whose career loosely resembles Bachmann’s—Sarah Palin. Why won’t Bachmann be one of Palin’s “Mama Grizzlies,” working to generate support for the former Republican vice-presidential nominee and Alaska governor in GOP strongholds in the Midwest? Does Bachmann believe the polls that suggest Palin’s chances of winning the White House aren’t all that high—and see herself as a more credible alternative? The congresswoman from Minnesota is acting as if she does. Not only is she speaking to audiences in Iowa, but in January she gave a Tea Party response to President Obama’s State of the Union speech, an alternative to the official Republican reply by fellow Midwesterner Rep. Paul Ryan.

Minnesotans who know Bachmann will tell you that she’s ambitious and a presidential run would be par for the course. She acts according to what she believes is God’s will, after considerable prayer and fasting with her husband and family of five children and numerous foster kids. She is often motivated by the rejection of her colleagues: in 2006, after she was stripped of her party leadership duties in the Minnesota Senate, she went ahead and ran for a U.S. House seat. In the wake of the Republican triumph at the polls in 2010, she defied colleagues in the House who told her not to bother campaigning for GOP Conference chair, a post she coveted as a representative of the Tea Party caucus. If Bachmann’s past is any indication, she might respond to the next snub by launching a presidential bid.

Bachmann doesn’t need to drop hints of a White House run or barnstorm Iowa to get attention. Her habit of making incendiary statements about political foes already draws the cameras. Bachmann’s reputation as a bomb thrower makes her easy to caricature as a partisan of the right. Her sometimes careless statements (she once referred to the “Hoot-Smally Tariff”) and actions (who can forget her big smooch of George W. Bush at the 2007 State of the Union?) open her to ridicule.

But she shouldn’t be written off as insignificant—the way Rick Santorum is, for example—because her career has been shaped by Midwestern political and cultural forces bigger than herself. These confluences have evolved into an ideology and transformed the GOP in much of the region. If modern politics is a study in the power of narrative to influence voters, Bachmann’s story of how she came to Washington is compelling. It gives her something real to talk about, which is more than most presidential aspirants can say.

Carter Evangelicals

In the Midwest it is still considered bad form to talk politics or religion in polite company. The region’s religious, ethnic, and political diversity makes it sensible to keep one’s views a private matter—or at least between family and good friends—lest one start a quarrel with the neighbors. But since the mid-1970s Michele Bachmann and others like her have been smashing these polite traditions to pieces. She cannot separate religion and politics in her worldview: doing so would leave her faith incomplete and her life along with it. There is no “wall of separation” or compartmentalization. Bachmann would not be who she is without her faith driving her politics—and there are many others who feel the same way.

Bachmann tells a story about her conversion from Democrat to Republican—how it was all due to Gore Vidal’s novel Burr, so outrageously disrespectful to the Founding Fathers that she broke with liberalism. But an alternative tale might be more plausible: A young woman named Michele Amble grew up in a Norwegian Lutheran family in Waterloo, Iowa. When her parents divorced, she went to live with her mother in the Twin Cities suburb of Anoka. During the 1970s, she attended and matriculated from Anoka High School and Winona State University. Looking for certainty, comfort, and direction in the religious and cultural turmoil of the time, she became “born again” into the Christian faith. She converted along with her husband, Marcus Bachmann. Then another born-again evangelical, Jimmy Carter, ran for president, and Bachmann worked for his election. But evangelicals like the Bachmanns quickly became disillusioned with Carter’s liberal positions on social questions when they conflicted with conservative evangelical teachings—especially over abortion.

Carter-era evangelicals were profoundly influenced by the Christian writer Francis Schaeffer. His articles, books, and lectures convinced many Protestants who were living separate cultural and political lives to join the fray and get involved in the culture war. Organizations like the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and the Family Research Council would not have emerged without Francis Schaeffer encouraging people like the Bachmanns to engage with secular politics and culture. Schaeffer was particularly influential in changing the attitudes of evangelicals towards abortion.

Schaffer challenged new evangelicals to action through his documentary film “How Should We Then Live?” The Bachmanns became pro-life activists, demonstrating outside abortion clinics and undertaking sidewalk interventions. When the Republican Party in 1980 added a pro-life plank to its platform and nominated a foe of abortion, Ronald Reagan, for president, millions of evangelicals like the Bachmanns became reliable GOP voters. This experience as part of a generational transformation among evangelicals gives Bachmann an edge with a constituency one would think a Mike Huckabee or Sarah Palin would automatically dominate. Huckabee is a preacher, but he comes from the already well-established Baptist Church. Palin is a Pentecostal, but religious activism has never been the driving force behind her career. And for some religion-centered voters, there’s nothing more compelling than a conversion story and a life of faith-centered action.

Bachmann’s social activism continued through law school and her career as a tax-law attorney for the Treasury Department, as well as her time as a homemaker in the St. Croix River community of Stillwater, Minnesota. She continued to protest at abortion clinics and tried her hand at running a charter school, until the local school district dumped her from the board in 1993 after complaints about the religious nature of the curriculum. In 2000, with her first run for office, the network of personal connections she made through her activism helped her to upset a longtime incumbent state senator at the Republican Party convention and go on to win the GOP-leaning district. Bachmann would never have been as successful in her first run for office if other party-switchers and political evangelicals like her had not decided they were going to challenge the GOP leadership—and ultimately replace them.

Turning Minnesota Red

Conservative Republicans in Minnesota after 1938 were a minority of a minority. In the elections of that year Harold Stassen won the first of three terms as governor, ushering in the dominance of the internationalist, cosmopolitan, progressive, and ultimately “moderate” wing of the Republican Party. His victory foreshadowed the presidential candidacies of Wendell Willkie, Thomas Dewey, Dwight Eisenhower, and Nelson Rockefeller. Indeed, Stassen was an enthusiastic supporter of Willkie in 1940 before running for president himself 11 times between 1944 and 2000. For most of the postwar era, there were at least as many social conservatives in the rival Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. An indication of the Stassen wing’s control over the GOP was the change of the state party’s name to Independent Republicans during the Watergate scandal. For 40 years, conservatives in the Minnesota Republican Party included old Robert Taft supporters like August Andersen, China Lobby stalwarts like Walter Judd, Goldwater-movement types like Tom Hagedorn and Arlan Stangeland, and such Reaganites as Vin Weber. But a congressman here and there could not influence the party on the state level, where it remained moderate.

The landscape began to change in the 1980s, largely due to signature Bachmann concerns like religion and abortion. In 1984 election, Minnesota Concerned Citizens for Life coordinated their campaign with the state’s Republicans, producing a Republican majority in the state House of Representatives for the first time since the early 20th century and nearly carrying Walter Mondale’s home state for Reagan. Within six years, social conservatives had taken control of the state party machinery, nominating candidates for governor like Jon Grunseth (whose 1990 campaign was derailed by a sex scandal) and Allen Quist (who won the party’s endorsement over sitting Republican governor Arne Carlson in 1994). Like Bachmann, these GOP voters were in many cases ex-Democrats dismayed by the party’s left turn on social issues or evangelicals jolted out of their apathy by figures like Francis Schaeffer.

Midwesterners seeking the certainty and stability of faith, as it seems Bachmann was in the 1970s, continued their rise in the 1980s. The economic tumult of the late ’70s and early ’80s hit the region hard. Factories shut down, mines closed, farmers went bankrupt, and businesses that supported the local economy went belly up. The countryside was depopulated through economic and cultural shifts. Social maladies increased—drugs and an unheard of spike in the teen-pregnancy rate, for example. Religion, particularly the evangelical variety, became the catch basin for all the Iowans, Kansans, Ohioans, Missourians, and Michiganders trying to find means to cope with these tough times. But soon the prosperity arrived in the suburbs around Midwestern metro areas like the Twin Cities, creating new bedroom communities with neighbors looking to reach out to others within the cul-de-sacs and subdivisions. That’s how Tim Pawlenty, who grew up in a Croatian Catholic household in the industrial suburb of South St. Paul, became a member of an evangelical megachurch in the more upscale suburb of Eagan and subsequently entered public life. With the rise of the Christian Coalition in the late ’80s and early ’90s, new activists marched into the millennium.

Minnesota was just one battleground of a broader intra-party struggle that transformed Republican politics across the Midwest. In 1988, Pat Robertson’s presidential campaign mobilized Christians in Michigan and Iowa, making the evangelical vote an important constituency in the Hawkeye State, particularly in its heavily Protestant west. The Wichita Summer abortion protests and civil disobedience of 1991 helped create a powerful evangelical wing in the formerly progressive Kansas Republican Party, as detailed in Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter With Kansas, and laid the groundwork for Governor Sam Brownback’s career. Voters thought to be on the far right in the late ’80s and early ’90s became the party’s mainstream, and indeed its leadership after 2000, the year Bachmann first held office.

Ordinary politicians saw this shift at the grassroots and began changing their tune. Former U.S. Senator Rudy Boschwitz, a Minnesota Republican, is an example of someone who started his career as a social moderate and became as conservative as Jesse Helms when running in 1996 against liberal icon Paul Wellstone. Kansan Bob Dole also started emphasizing social issues when running for president that same year. Politicians who did not adjust were left behind. Go across the Midwest, state by state, and youfind the “moderate” wing of the party has shrunk to insignificance. No Republican could get signatures on a ballot petition, let alone win a primary, as a supporter of abortion rights. That wasn’t true just over a decade ago. And the nearly forgotten Ford-Dole ticket of two famed Midwestern Republicans in 1976 wouldn’t elicit much support from GOP voters in the region today.

Bachmann’s Tea Party?

Abortion and religious evangelicalism aren’t the only bedrock issues of Bachmann Country. Bachmann’s seat, Minnesota’s 6th District, was once held by Charles Lindbergh Sr., back when it centered around the German-Catholic Stearns County and ran all the way north to the Canadian border. The 6th still includes Stearns but now dives to the southeast and ends at Bachmann’s Stillwater home. It includes nearly all of the northern Twin City suburbs and exurbs, megachurches and McMansions included. The people who live in these communities are not keen on paying for Minnesota’s extensive welfare state. Disappointment in the George W. Bush era nationally, and the Pawlenty era locally, has fueled the Tea Party movement in Bachmann’s territory. Minnesota activists sent five delegates for Ron Paul to the Republican National Convention in St. Paul in 2008, helped to beat the party establishment in nominating Tom Emmer for governor in 2010, and provided the muscle to enable the GOP to win control of the entire state legislature for the first time in recent history. Tea Party fervor helped defeat even pro-life Democrats like Rep. Jim Oberstar.

All this grassroots activity didn’t escape Bachmann’s notice. Seeing Ron Paul supporters across Minnesota in ’07 and ’08 must have prompted her to attend Paul-sponsored meetings about monetary policy. She read Meltdown by Thomas E. Woods and soon was even introducing Congressman Paul at a Young Americans for Liberty conference at the University of Minnesota. While some issues she campaigned on when she first came to Congress in 2006, such as abortion restrictions and a constitutional amendment to ban homosexual marriage, lost momentum toward the end of the Bush presidency, by 2009 she had jumped onto the Tea Party bandwagon in favor of small government and fiscal responsibility. Instead of winning a plurality of the vote in a three-way race as in 2006 and 2008—anti-Bachmann Republicans in the 6th District who can’t stomach the Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidate vote for the Independence Party—in 2010 she swamped her opponents with 52 percent of the vote.

Bachmann is trying to unite the Tea Partiers with her socially conservative base by keeping a foot in both camps. She wants to be the bridge between them and believes that whoever can bring these factions together will win the GOP nomination next year. Her network of support was established nationally during her 2008 re-election campaign; after an appearance on “Hardball,” her comments about investigating un-American activity in Congress raised lots of money for her opponents, but also drew activists and donors looking for a hero who would stand apart. This allowed Michele Bachmann to survive while much of the GOP in the Midwest was buried under the Obama landslide. Whether she can span the gap between social conservatives and Tea Partiers on a national stage, when there will be other candidates vying for each, remains to be seen. But she’s already done it in Bachmann Country.

Sean Scallon is a freelance writer living in Arkansaw, Wisconsin.

The American Conservative needs the support of readers. Please subscribe or make a contribution today.