Sarah Pulliam Bailey has a list of complaints with Ryan Lizza’s buzz-gathering profile of Michele Bachmann in this week’s New Yorker. Overall, the long report is a pretty impressive piece of work that blends colorful campaign diary with a deeper exploration of Bachmann’s political formation and intellectual influences. As usual, there are certain details that strike people who grew up in the evangelical movement as oversimplifications. I concur with a couple of Sarah’s nitpicks, but I’m afraid that in general she has quite seriously mischaracterized Lizza’s reporting, both by reading in implications and criticisms of Bachmann that are not in the piece, and by overlooking how often Bachmann still references many of the thinkers cited as influences. Referring to the piece as a “smear” is particularly unfortunate. Even the New Yorker‘s investigative pieces on subjects to which it is clearly ideologically opposed can never be called smears; its efforts to present the most reliable picture based on facts has earned my full respect, and are as clear in this story as any other.

First, Sarah takes issue with where Lizza places Bachmann’s views on the American political-theological spectrum. Lizza writes that Bachmann, “belongs to a generation of Christian conservatives whose views have been shaped by institutions, tracts, and leaders not commonly known to secular Americans, or even to most Christians,” and that, “Her campaign is going to be a conversation about a set of beliefs more extreme than those of any American politician of her stature, including Sarah Palin.” (Sarah’s emphasis.)

Sarah suggests that Lizza has no basis for these claims, but I find her scorn somewhat inexplicable. True, it can be difficult for people who grew up in the evangelical world to imagine that other Christians have not heard of Francis Schaeffer. But conservative evangelicals are a fraction of American Christians, and not even all of them are very familiar with Schaeffer. I grew up with other home-schooled evangelicals who never read him, and neither had most people who attended my large, conservative Southern Baptist church. And it is indisputable that only a fraction of Christians have heard of R.J. Rushdoony, David Noebel, and John Eidsmoe. Lizza’s claim is precisely correct: Bachmann has been shaped by institutions and leaders with whom even many Christians are unfamiliar. And because her conservative evangelical education—her complete immersion in the alternative universe from the ground up—is so much deeper than that of other candidates who ostensibly share her ideas, it is absolutely fair to say that her beliefs are more extreme than those of Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, et al, no matter what unhinged things the others may say.**

One of Sarah’s major contentions is that Lizza is maliciously attempting to link Bachmann with the fringe thinkers she has read, recommended and worked for in the past. Sarah calls them “attempts to prove guilt by association,” that Lizza used to “take shots.” Based on what the piece actually says and what Lizza said today on NPR, I have to say I think that’s a false charge. In his interview on NPR yesterday, Lizza repeatedly—I mean, with nearly every other breath—said that it was unfair to assume Bachmann believes everything her former mentions and influences do. He even observed that he had wacky professors he wouldn’t want to be associated with. But he correctly observes that Bachmann still references most of the people he investigated. She still says on the stump that Shaeffer’s How Shall We Then Live? changed her life, and still recommends Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth as a “wonderful book.” She has talked about Eidsmoe, who she worked for at Oral Roberts, on the campaign trail this very year, saying her taught her “foundational” things. She was his researcher while his law school published Rushdoony, and her website recommended a pro-slavery revisionist Civil War history by J. Steven Wilkins while she was running for public office. Except for an in my opinion quite justified spike of alarm at the Wilkins book, Lizza lays all of this out quite neutrally, with scarcely a noticeable judgment. I read the blocks of his prose in question over several times, and the supposed malice and unfair suggestion is just not there.

The Francis Schaeffer part of the piece will obviously be the most controversial, and here I think Sarah may be more on the right track. First off, Lizza portrays Schaeffer as fringe because he was in fact fringe. By any measure, against the Western philosophical spectrum or the American religious one, Schaeffer cannot accurately be portrayed otherwise. I’m not sure why Sarah objects there. But she may be right that Lizza’s cursory treatment makes him sound more bizarre and extreme than he was. He spent most of his decades writing dense works of theological philosophy that, while they used as intellectual building blocks by many a modern fundamentalist, are not adequately captured by Lizza’s drive-by description of the How Shall We Then Live video series. As I’ve written before, it’s pretty clear Schaeffer became a political crackpot toward the end of his life. But I’m not sure it’s accurate to characterize A Christian Manifesto as promoting “the violent overthrow of the U.S. government,” as Lizza does, rather than recommending more garden-variety civil disobedience. (I can’t really say; I never read the copy my evangelical college gave me as a gift.) But the other Shaeffer quotes Sarah mentions that contest his support for violence, and my general sense of Schaeffer’s beliefs, suggests “violent overthrow” is an exaggeration. Coupled with a few crazy lines from How Shall We Then Live, it far from gives an adequate picture of who Schaeffer was and why Bachmann likely found him attractive.

I’m all for improving the generally overblown quality of mainstream media coverage of evangelicals. But it’s a mistake to take the inevitable condensations that are a part of journalism, or even a few genuine misunderstandings, as malice. The profoundly religious character of Bachmann’s campaigns, past and present, make it unthinkable for journalists not to explore her intellectual formation. I don’t expect them all to suddenly understand decades of evangelical culture and literature, and I respect serious, evenhanded-as-possible attempts to produce information the public needs to know. They can be critiqued, and their errors corrected, without unwarranted attacks on their motives.

**Update: In a live chat today, Lizza explains exactly what I was trying to say there:

Palin did not grow up in a set of parallel religious institutions the way Bachmann did. Bachmann came of age politically during the rise of the New Right in the 1970s, and ever since she had her born-again experience in high school and saw “How Should We Then Live?” in college, she has been an activist soldier in the Christian right movement. Palin came to a lot of her ideology late in life and I don’t get the sense she understands it all as well as Bachmann does.

Also:

I was very careful to only highlight thinkers and influences that Bachmann herself has repeatedly mentioned as important to her, including in my interview with her. That doesn’t mean that Bachmann subscribes to every word ever written by Schaeffer, Eidsmoe, Wilkins, Noebel or her other intellectual mentors. But certainly if a candidate repeatedly cites specific authors as having influenced them in important ways, it’s worth knowing what those authors say and think and it’s worth trying to figure out what parts of the candidate’s ideology have been formed by those influences.

About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

0 Responses to Ryan Lizza’s Michele Bachmann “Smear” (Updated)

  1. Jeff says:

    Interesting. Thanks for this piece.

  2. Dan Allison says:

    While I’m certainly no fan of Bachmann, linking her to Noebel is as disingenuous as linking Obama to Jeremiah Wright. And I think everything about this on the web is a real disservice to Schaeffer, who showed millions of young people that you can be noth a Christian and an intellectual.

  3. Perry Granberry says:

    I think it is disgraceful to take such cheap shots at Mrs. Bachman. And about Schaeffer, I definitely agree that he was top-notch! Taking cheap shots just seems to be all some cheap people know how to do! Lisa’s piece by the title of I could be Michele Bachman….would just be dreaming, by a Post-Christian sneak!

    • Perry Granberry says:

      To make a correction, I meant what I said about the piece that Alisa (Harris) wrote. Both hers and Ryan’s are pathetic, but Alisa’s is far less professional!

  4. Bill Dolan says:

    David,
    I liked your piece and I liked Lizza’s piece also. I read New Yorker profiles all the time and I know what to expect. I think its true that it is beyond the scope of Lizza’s article to explain evangelical thought in detail. I commend him for examining Bachmann’s ideological framework. I’m torn (though not terribly troubled) over whether Lizza was trying to be unbiased. A writer can, after all, choose what to leave in and what to leave out. Those choices affect how the article and the subject is percieved. Is it his responsibility to highlight, by choosing to include, some aspects of Bachmann’s ideology that seem truly crazed? Or, what troubles me more as an evangelical Christian (who is struggling with my affiliation in that respect), are the philosophical underpinnings of her brand of Christianity really that unhinged? The revisionist slant on slavery is the most blatant example of ideology that Christian’s should repudiate but the one that got me was the insinuation that the story of David frothing at the mouth when captured by the Philistines would have some material bearing on training a lawyer on the intricacies of the insanity defense. Worse yet, would that kind of scriptural interpretation lead a current Presidential candidate to hold a view towards the insanity defense that it is suspect because the Bible does not (other than the OT story) more clearly support it? God help us.
    Thanks.
    Bill

  5. Mark Perkins says:

    Perry, “Post-Christian sneak.” Charming.

    David,

    Good piece. I pretty much agree, though I have to say I stand somewhere between you and Bailey regarding Schaeffer’s obscurity.

    I don’t want to sound terribly cynical, but most Americans wouldn’t know any major 20th-century thinkers of any reputation. It’s true that most Americans, even Christians, don’t know who Schaeffer is. But then it’s also true that the vast majority of Americans wouldn’t know almost all major 20th-century philosophers, political scientists, artists, poets, novelists, etc. I doubt that most Americans know who Russell Kirk or Cornel West or Arthur Schlesinger Jr or effing Gore Vidal are (though Vidal does the Simpsons and Family Guy and stuff like that, so maybe I should strike that).

    In other words, having views that “have been shaped by institutions, tracts, and leaders not commonly known” to most Americans sounds like it means something, but it doesn’t. At all.

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