Nation & World

As 'submissive' wife, Bachmann delicately treads Bible, modernity

WASHINGTON — In her quest for the White House, Republican hopeful Michele Bachmann has little time for subtlety.

She takes no prisoners in her attacks on President Barack Obama's policies. Her embrace of the hard-line dogma of the tea party is unequivocal.

Yet when it comes to explaining aspects of her family life, she displays a more delicate touch.

The Minnesota congresswoman and victor in last week's Iowa straw poll recently tackled questions about how the biblical teachings on the subservience of wives, which guide her family life, square with the aspirations of being an ambitious woman in the rough world of presidential politics.

In an Oval Office moment of crisis, for instance, what would she do if her husband's advice were different than what her experts were counseling?

"We often see in American politics that the language of a particular subculture — in this case, evangelicals — somehow gets out into the wider public as part of a political discussion and begins to attract controversy because it's not understood in the broader community," said John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.

If there ever was a code of conduct to make Gloria Steinem gag, it's St. Paul's 2,000-year-old teachings about marriage set down in Ephesians, chapter 5, verses 21-33:

"Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. ... Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything."

Bachmann cites it as her personal polestar. During her first race for Congress in 2006, it was her justification for going along with her husband's desire that she study tax law, even though she hated the idea.

"Why should I go and do something like that?" Bachmann told a campaign audience at a Christian outreach center at the time. "But the Lord says: Be submissive, wives. You are to be submissive to your husbands."

Yet she is running for the most powerful job in the world, a glass ceiling that no woman has ever cracked.

Asked at the Republican presidential debate in Iowa last week whether as president she would be "submissive" to her husband, Bachmann was waiting for the question.

"What submission means to us," she said, referring to her husband, Marcus, "it means respect. I respect my husband. He's a wonderful, godly man and a great father. He respects me as his wife. That's how we operate our marriage."

Bachmann is a favorite among Christian conservatives, who are pivotal in Iowa Republican politics and crucial to her success in the state's first-in-the-nation caucuses in January. Her credentials on live-wire social issues, like same-sex marriage and abortion, stand rock solid.

But inserting religion into a campaign runs the risk of subjecting a candidate to easy and misleading characterizations.

"On the upside, if candidates are able to communicate their faith and how it relates to their lives, it can have a very positive effect, first to the activists and primary voters, and then in the general election," said Democratic strategist Michael Feldman.

Bachmann's answer to the question about "submission" was politically adroit. It honored the spirit of St. Paul's teachings but spun it into modern-day reality. That's how most religion circles would see it as well, according to Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior research fellow at the Georgetown University Woodstock Theological Center.

"Many people look at that passage in the Bible and say, 'Well, it certainly doesn't make sense today for it to say that husbands are going to tell wives what to do, that wives are supposed to be submissive wimps,'" he said.

Still, he said, there is likely nervousness in more traditional evangelical quarters.

"Once you say, 'This doesn't really apply anymore,' what allows you to make a judgment about this passage without opening a Pandora's Box and having everything up for grabs?" Reese said.

The Rev. Holly McKissick, pastor of St. Andrew Christian Church, a Disciples of Christ congregation in Olathe, Kan., said biblical teachings constantly are being reinterpreted.

"When you hear the whole sweep of the scripture, what you hear is this God who is always taking us from the conscripted small narrow places, from prejudice and broken places, to a broader freedom," she said.

But what about when faith and presidential decision-making conflict?

"In every president's term, inevitably there are going to be cases where one's personal, ethical, religious conscience is challenged, or in tension with the national and international realities," said Bill Leonard, former dean of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity.

Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies at the conservative Family Research Council, said he believed that concerns over a tension between Bachmann's adherence to an ancient biblical code and her duties should she become president were misplaced.

He said that her interpretation of St. Paul rested solely with matters related to family and marriage, "not if she was elected president of the United States."

An ordained Baptist minister, Sprigg said most evangelical Christians don't believe that a husband is a "dictator," but that both he and his wife should discuss issues thoroughly and try to reach consensus.

"The idea of a wife submitting to her husband is kind of a tiebreak," he said. "Only those circumstances where they're unable to reach a consensus is it necessary for the wife to exercise this. It's maybe about as common as the vice president having to break a tie in the U.S. Senate."


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