Secular leaps of faith

Campaign 2012

I'm willing to cut Ryan Lizza some slack. His profile of Michelle Bachmann in The New Yorker charts a four-day bus trip through Iowa with the presidential hopeful and Tea Party belle, but the broader context is the journey of a bewildered lib in the fields of evangelicalism. He gives at least the appearance of trying to be fair, so I'll try to be fair. Presumably he's a busy man; as a writer I'm often juggling three or four projects against multiple deadlines, and I understand how disorienting that can be. Also, he's entering a world that he knows little about and (presumably) has little sympathy for. Still, he had a month to put this long (18-page) piece together, and he could have used that time to look up a few things.

His thesis: "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." He goes on to name names-Francis Schaeffer, Nancy Pearcey, and Steve Wilkins-and construct a group portrait meant to disturb the sleep of Mr. and Mrs. Mainstream American. While never explicitly linking Bachmann's name with the word "theocracy," he lets that shadow hover over her like a sinister cloud.

But Lizza betrays his lack of investigative vigor more than once, and sometimes laughably. For instance, writing about Bachmann's summer at an Israeli kibbutz in 1974: "The trip gave her a connection to Israel, a state whose creation, many American evangelicals believe, is prophesied in the Bible. (St. Paul, in the Letter to the Romans, says that Jews will one day gather again in their homeland. . . .)" Paul, of course, was writing before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Diaspora, and the passage is concerned with spiritual Israel. It's just a few chapters (9-11), three pages max, that wouldn't have taken that long to read.

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About Pearcey, whose Total Truth is a Bachmann favorite, his most damning indictment is that the book "teaches readers how to implement Schaeffer's idea that a Biblical world view should suffuse every aspect of one's life." Well, yes. That's what a worldview does. Lizza also quotes Pearcey's judgment that "the overall systems of thought constructed by nonbelievers will be false-for if the system is not built on Biblical truth, then it will be built on some other ultimate principle." Again, yes. While he makes no explicit comment, he's apparently troubled by the idea of Christians determining that some systems of thought are false. As if every human being in the world doesn't do that.

Schaeffer comes in for the heaviest scrutiny-five long paragraphs-but also the shoddiest research. The main point Lizza wants to make, later emphasized in a National Public Radio interview with Terry Gross, is this: "In 1981, three years before he died, Schaeffer published 'A Christian Manifesto,' a guide for Christian activism, in which he argues for the violent overthrow of the government if Roe v. Wade isn't reversed." Really? I didn't recall any such recommendation in the Manifesto. Where did Lizza get such an idea?

He doesn't say, but it most likely comes from Frank Schaeffer. In 2008, on the Hufflington Post, Frank quoted a passage from his father's work:

"There does come a time when force, even physical force, is appropriate. . . . A true Christian in Hitler's Germany and in the occupied countries should have defied the false and counterfeit state. This brings us to a current issue that is crucial for the future of the church in the United States, the issue of abortion. . . . It is time we consciously realize that when any office commands what is contrary to God's law it abrogates it's [sic] authority. And our loyalty to the God who gave this law then requires that we make the appropriate response in that situation. . . ."

But a comparison with the original Manifesto reveals that Frank cut and pasted sentences, omitting the qualifiers, and leaving the distinct impression that his father advocated violent resistance in certain circumstances. His problems with his father make a sad story too long to recount here. But that's no excuse for Lizza to neglect Francis Schaeffer's own words, or conflate Schaeffer's idea of Dominionism with R.J. Rushdoony's Christian Reconstructionism, or to give secular author Sara Diamond the last word as to what these men are really saying-that "Christians, and Christians alone, are biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns."

All this is calculated to make mainstream readers run screaming for the exits at the thought of Michele Bachmann as president. Ryan Lizza's alarm at the prospect is no doubt sincere: He really believes this stuff. He probably thinks he's doing investigative reporting, but a closer look betrays his own leaps of faith.


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