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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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- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Politics • Sarah Palin

soundoff (3,401 Responses)
  1. Janice

    Whoever writes articles for CNN needs to look at the definition of what feminist means. It means that you support equal treatment of women under the law in society. Bachman does not support that – so how can she be a feminist. She doesn't believe in equal pay for equal work, she doesn't believe in a women's right to control her own body when she's pregnant. Also, I would argue that since she does not want to see people in this country have universal health care (in spite of taking thousands of taxpaper dollars to care for her foster childrens' care) – she may not be a Christian – except when it comes to taking state dollars for herself and her concerns. Calling yourself a feminist or a Christian doesn't make you one. Evangelical women who worked on the temperance movement were concerned about abuse and poverty of women and children, while Bachman would cut funding for anything the government does period in terms of social justice.

    June 28, 2011 at 9:21 am |
  2. Larry

    I hope she shares her favorite toll house cookie recipes.

    June 28, 2011 at 9:21 am |
  3. Objective Thinker

    I find the left leaning comments to this article standard evidence of the hypocricy of the left. Liberals scream every day about how open minded, non-judgemental and inclusive they are but, whenever responding to people they disagree with, they degrade, invalidate or most often, disrespect them by hurling insults. Your position is that if you don't agree with me, you must be ignorant.

    That is why, despite my left leaning social views, I cannot allow myself to be called left, progressive or liberal. You are too intolerant, closed-minded and uncivilized.

    June 28, 2011 at 9:21 am |
    • Dennis

      Maybe they are following your example.

      June 28, 2011 at 9:25 am |
    • JW

      Right, the name says "objective thinker" but the words don't quite match.

      June 28, 2011 at 9:26 am |
    • asrael

      Actually, the behavior you decry seems to be common among "thinkers" on all sides of the political spectrum, including those who can and cannot spell "hypocrisy". Interesting that you have chosen to flay only the liberal-minded...

      June 28, 2011 at 9:31 am |
  4. JW

    It would be nice if we had a candidate that wasn't dividing and conquering. One that sought unity for the nation. A real leader that led and tried to get the people to work together to accomplish things, rather than fear their own shadow and their neighbor who might just be a terrorist. Someone that can overcome differences, and not demonize someone that thinks or acts or looks differently. Someone without so much bitterness in their hearts. Someone who has religion, but doesn't force it on everyone else. Someone that didn't speak evil of their fellow man behind their backs, and then smile to their faces. One that brought out the best in the people, versus bringing out the worst. Just look at how divided we are in these comments. Your own fears that America won't "succeed" will only become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    June 28, 2011 at 9:20 am |
  5. JC

    As if the republicans haven't offered up enough whack jobs, now we have this one. The only thing that scares me more than Obama getting re-elected in 2012, is Obama losing in 2012.

    June 28, 2011 at 9:19 am |
    • GOP hypocrisy

      Best post on the thread

      June 28, 2011 at 9:21 am |
    • rich

      How true!

      June 28, 2011 at 9:26 am |
    • GreMoor

      Where Clinton's mantra was "It's the economoy stupid", Obama continues to lean on "It's Bush's fault stupid". He has accomplished too much to damage our country and possibly drive it to bancrupcy. I'm taking my chances and voting for the opponent no matter who that might be.

      June 28, 2011 at 9:58 am |
  6. Kenneth the VI of Minneapolis

    Michele Bachmann has been receiving government handouts (welfare) most of her adult life.......(foster kids, farm subsidies, charter schools, and government paychecks)......

    June 28, 2011 at 9:19 am |
    • Dennis

      Interesting how she is a partner for her FIL's farm and says she's never seen a penny of those subsidies.

      So why is she a partner? To avoid taxes?

      June 28, 2011 at 9:28 am |
    • AB

      Can I get an AMEN?!

      June 28, 2011 at 9:37 am |
  7. Norm

    An evangelical is worse than a morman for president.

    June 28, 2011 at 9:19 am |
  8. Mappy

    Evangelical Feminist = 'its not just a man's role, anymore, to repress the liberties of women and minorities'

    June 28, 2011 at 9:19 am |
  9. Happy go Lucky

    Comedians of the World: Rejoice!

    June 28, 2011 at 9:19 am |
    • asrael

      I'm smiling...

      June 28, 2011 at 9:34 am |
  10. IbanezBassist

    Evangelical Feminist A.K.A. Crazy Lady.

    June 28, 2011 at 9:19 am |
    • tallulah13

      I used to have an Ibanez Bass. It was very sweet.

      June 28, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  11. bachmanntwit

    Michelle Bachmann believes that the earth is only 6,000 years old . She believes that early man rode dinosaurs to church every Sunday.

    June 28, 2011 at 9:18 am |
  12. Jim

    Interesting that this so called TeaBagger who is so anti Government has spent her life on it's payroll (IRS employee, Tax Attorney, COngressperson). But that is what most TBs do.
    ALso how can a Christian be in favor of removing the possibility of 40 Million people having access to healthcare coverage?

    June 28, 2011 at 9:18 am |
  13. ShiningLight

    Well, she may not be too bright, but she sure is obnoxious. And that hair! Molded plastic over BumpIt?

    June 28, 2011 at 9:18 am |
  14. Greg Gilbert

    Order for democratic headquarters: If republicans get a woman in the executive branch first it will put us in a 20 year lull of being able to count on woman as a democrat guarantee vote. Demonize all republican woman canidates. That is all.

    June 28, 2011 at 9:17 am |
    • Greg Gilbert

      Orders from*

      June 28, 2011 at 9:19 am |
  15. demetri

    This article is all over the place. I could not grasp the topic reading the article. Elizabeth Dole, Karen Huges, and Condelessa Rice although Protestanats were not Evangelical Femenist Christians. People assumed they were, but look back at their history. Palin did not start nor does she lead the Evangelical Femenist Christians. She and Bachman are an insult to the Female Evangelical Christians.

    June 28, 2011 at 9:17 am |
  16. GARY

    To all candidates,
    Answer the question whatever it may be. If it is a yes or no question then answer accordingly. The country is in a shambles. Disturbingly high rate of unemployment. We are involved in 2 wars. Our veterens are unattended to when they return. We lag behind in education and what do we do ? We layoff teachers. And there are plenty more difficulties ahead. So to all the candidates what will you do to right the wrongs ? How long will it take? And be honest and upfront. The last statement will eliminate most candidates .

    June 28, 2011 at 9:16 am |
    • rich

      agree...to further our aim, we need to cut federal expenditure and increase taxable revenues...maybe then we can have a balance budget.

      June 28, 2011 at 9:19 am |
  17. Kendall H.

    Whatever Bachmann may be, she is not a Christian. It's offensive that so many of these right wing politicians use religion to help them win votes. Jesus would never support tax cuts for the wealthy or subsidies for oil companies, and he would never fight against healthcare for all.

    June 28, 2011 at 9:16 am |
    • Katie

      Only God knows what HE would do, not man.

      June 28, 2011 at 9:18 am |
  18. Greenspam

    What does it matter whether she is Christian? I don't care if she's Mulsim, Mormom.. what have you? We are living in the 21st century, no?

    June 28, 2011 at 9:16 am |
    • Dennis

      Because she's a fundamentalist. She makes bad choices because she doesn't trust science and instead trusts the voices in her head. She's a creationist. She's very clear about this.

      June 28, 2011 at 9:21 am |
  19. heerobya

    George W Bush was "compelled by his faith" and brought us to unsustainable wars, crushing debt/deficits, expansions of Federal power, deregulation of our financial system, and butchering our public education.

    Bachmann might as well have a campaign slogan of "four more years!" as far as I'm concerned.

    June 28, 2011 at 9:16 am |
  20. Alpharius

    Just what we need, someone leading the country who can't tell the difference between mythology (religion) and reality. She also appears to be experiencing hallucinations (speaking to a god?!), so I have serious reservations about her ability to make the right decisions.

    June 28, 2011 at 9:16 am |
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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.