Michele Bachmann, evangelical feminist?
June 27th, 2011
06:09 PM ET

Michele Bachmann, evangelical feminist?

By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor

(CNN) - If Hillary Clinton, the woman who came closest to becoming a major party presidential nominee, is a feminist icon, could something similar be said of Michele Bachmann, who officially launched her presidential campaign on Monday?

Bachmann is seldom described in those terms; the conservative Minnesota congresswoman and Tea Party darling might cringe at the feminist label.

But some religion and politics experts say that she exemplifies an evangelical feminism that is producing more female leaders in Christian nonprofits, businesses, and education and politics, even as more traditional gender roles prevail in evangelical homes and churches.

“It’s not that evangelical feminism is entirely new,” says R. Marie Griffith, director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. “But this lack of fear going into top positions of power is new and astonishing and exciting for this segment of the population.”

Though evangelical women have long been involved in political activism, including helping to lead the temperance movement and campaigning for and against women's right to vote, seeking the White House is a more recent and dramatic step.

“It’s a trend that was started by Sarah Palin,” Griffith said, referring to the former Alaska governor, who was the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2008.

D. Michael Lindsay, a scholar who has studied evangelical leaders, says that evangelical feminism largely followed the trend in secular feminism, even if it was delayed by a decade or so.

“Evangelicals are not traditionally the innovators in gender roles, so they’re not going to be at the vanguard,” says Lindsay, who was recently appointed president at Gordon College and who wrote the book Faith in the Halls of Power. “But they also don’t trail too far behind.”

Lindsay says that evangelical feminism took off in the 1980s, pointing to Ronald Reagan tapping Elizabeth Dole, a Christian with strong connections in the evangelical world, to be his secretary of transportation as one example.

George W. Bush, meanwhile, appointed evangelical women to top roles in his presidential administration, including Karen Hughes as a top adviser and Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state.

At the same time, there are distinctions between evangelical and secular feminism. Many female evangelical leaders, for instance, talk of being called by God to pursue professional careers.

“This idea of women being out in the world when they’re doing God’s work – that’s the key,” says Griffith, who is author of God's Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission. “You have to be called.”

Bachmann, an evangelical Lutheran, has talked of being called to run for president.

“When I pray, I pray believing that God will speak to me and give me an answer to that prayer, and so that’s what a calling is,” she told CBS News on Sunday, explaining that she had prayed about her decision to seek the presidency. “If I pray, a calling means that I have a sense from God which direction I’m supposed to go.”

Another difference between some evangelical and secular feminists is a public emphasis on motherhood. Bachmann’s political identity is constructed largely around her role as a mother of five kids and her experience of taking in 23 foster children.

Palin, who was raised in the Pentecostal tradition, has also emphasized her role as mother, frequently discussing her children and famously using the term “mama grizzlies” to describe female political candidates for whom she campaigns.

Lindsay says that the motherhood angle could be refreshing to evangelical voters, who constitute a majority of the Republican electorate in early states like Iowa and South Carolina.

“A lot of male evangelical politicians have trumpeted family values, but we’ve seen time after time how many break their marriage vows and have tense relationships with their kids,” he says.

“When you’re the mother of four or five kids up there talking about how their commitment to politics stems from your commitment to kids, which is true for both Palin and Bachmann, that resonates with people who are skeptical of American politics.”

The emphasis that some women evangelical leaders place on motherhood appears to be connected to women taking on more prominent roles in the antiabortion movement, which is closely tied to the evangelical subculture.

“There were a lot of women who were representing the old guard abortion center feminism and there were very few pro-life women who were credentialed in state legislatures and running at the federal level,” says Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the antiabortion group Susan B. Anthony List, describing the organization’s founding 20 years ago.

Dannenfelser’s group works to elect women candidates who oppose abortion rights, raising roughly $11 million in the 2010 election cycle.

“The constant line from Jane Fonda and Barbara Boxer on abortion was ‘You can’t possibly know how a woman feels - how dare you speak on an issue you have no knowledge of,'” says Dannenfelser, referring to the pro-abortion rights actress and U.S. senator.

“Now we have women communicating the truth of the matter, which is that abortion is really destroying a lot of women,” she says.

Though Bachmann is widely considered to be a long shot for the GOP nomination, a weekend poll from The Des Moines Register had her running second only to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney among likely Republican caucus-goers, with 22% support.

Even as more evangelical women pursue top jobs in politics, there is little sign that they will be invited into similar roles in evangelical churches, which continue to be led by men, with some exceptions. Some evangelical denominations, including Southern Baptists, have recently moved to put more restrictions on women serving as pastors.

“It seems to me that most evangelical congregations make a sharp divide between the sacred and secular realms,” says Lindsay, “so that church is the last context where you’ll see women in ordained roles.”


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Filed under: Politics • Sarah Palin

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  8. mouse

    SOOOO.....god called Michele Bachmann AND Sarah Palin??? Geez he's more confused than we are...perhaps it's because he's a figment of MAN'S imagination.....

    July 18, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
  9. asphlex

    The cynicism of our age of political discourse is horrifying. It is obvious that Bachmann and at least some of the rest of her family are seriously religious people. They may be cult members, they may be breathren of the truly righteous or the worst sort of social and religious bigots God's influence on humanity has yet produced. But the equation, politically, of whatever seed of doubt or opportunistic jest inspired the candidate to change faiths, to likely something far more apocalyptically evangelical and with a bankroll that can paint not just Catholics, but all otherwise supporters of spiritual equality as the anti-Christ. 2012 is going to be a blood-thirsty campaign, a nest of vipers or hydras snapping one another's heads off and leaving a staggering and compromised last person standing to slump their way into a terminally broken office. This is the age that we live in, comparing the insanity of so many organized churches' teachings with the crazy things that come out of the very candidates' mouths. The Republican credo, it would seem, is no longer seeking to avoid their degree of guilt in the massacre that has been our democracy since the middle 1950s, correspondant, CNN, with the dawn of the television age and the advancement of Nazi-style propaganda into the world of advertising. They were called 'lobbyists,' these commercial advertisers, as in they waited in the expansive lobbies of excutive suites in order to offer a investment opportunity to the important people making power. No, the Republicans are now like a smug sibling pointing out that the other guy is every bit as guilty and therefore anything flies.

    Get ready for bloodsport–!

    July 17, 2011 at 12:56 am |
  10. Buddy

    Michelle Bachman deserves a place in history: last place.

    July 11, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
  11. Terry P

    MB is a clear and presnt danger to the US

    July 2, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
  12. Marie Kidman


    July 1, 2011 at 10:54 am |
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  13. Asabe Shehu Yar'Adua

    Michelle Bechmann, is not a threat to President Barrack Obama, time will tell if indeed she is called of God as she has claimed. Or may be the vision is for an appointed time.

    June 30, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  14. Bob Reeves

    She will be thrown out of office with the rest of her greedy republicans trying to kill us non-Believers. Its the crusades all over again, we all know what happened with that. Not enough believers.

    June 30, 2011 at 3:02 am |
  15. MadCityBabe

    begone ... evil witch....begone

    June 29, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
  16. Zelda

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    June 29, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
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  17. The Woof

    God doesn't play at politics. And as for Mrs. Bachmann being evangelical is concerned. What has spreading the Word of the Gospel has to do with politics? The two are in total opposition to each other.

    June 29, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      I’m not sure they are total opposites. They are both concerned with collecting money and controlling the plebs through fear. They also suppress science, learning and advancement pretty consistently. And saying that God is not concerned with politics is double-speak. If you believe in God, then you believe that he is omnipotent. If he is responsible for the fall of every sparrow, then you have to concede that he governs the governing as well.

      June 29, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.