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Reason and the Mind of Michele Bachmann

The IntersectionBy The IntersectionAugust 10, 2011 8:01 PM


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By Jon Winsor A couple weeks ago, when Chris described the Tea Party as authoritarian, I had to stop and think--how could that be? The Tea Party bills itself as libertarian. How could it be simultaneously authoritarian? How would that work? Ryan Lizza's great profile of Michele Bachmann in The New Yorker shows us. I'd encourage people to read the whole thing, but a couple key paragraphs jumped out at me. The first is Lizza's description of Bachmann's religious influences: theologian Francis Schaeffer (a very important theologian for modern evangelical activism), and a leading proponent of Schaffer's, Nancy Pearcey:

[Pearcey taught] readers how to implement Schaeffer’s idea that a Biblical world view should suffuse every aspect of one’s life. She tells her readers to be extremely cautious with ideas from non-Christians. There may “be occasions when Christians are mistaken on some point while nonbelievers get it right,” she writes in “Total Truth.” “Nevertheless, 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. Even individual truths will be seen through the distorting lens of a false world view.

Is the Bible a clearly discernible "system" that competes with all other systems? There are many ways to interpret the Bible, so who gets to say when the Bible and a "system" conflicts? The implication is that some people are continually right in some sense, and others are continually wrong, regardless of the demonstrable cases where the "right" people might be in error. A second paragraph that jumped out at me has to do with the beginning of Bachmann's political career:

Bachmann was getting interested in politics just as her party was getting interested in people like her. In the late nineteen-nineties, she began travelling throughout Minnesota, delivering lectures in churches, and writing pamphlets, on the perils of a federal education law known as School to Work, which supported vocational training, and a Minnesota education law known as Profile of Learning, which set state education standards. In one pamphlet, she wrote that federal education law “embraces a socialist, globalist worldview; loyalty to all government and not America.” In another, she warned of a “new restructuring of American society,” beginning with “workforce boards” that would tell every student the specific career options he or she could pursue, turning children into “human resources for a centrally planned economy.”

David Frum comments on this phase of Bachmann's development:

This kind of talk would sound paranoid to most of us. It emerges from a religious philosophy that rejects the federal government as an alien instrument of destruction, ripping apart a Christian society. Bachmann’s religiously grounded rejection of the American state finds a hearing with many more conventional conservatives radicalized by today’s hard economic times.

When Bachmann is asked what principle motivates her, her answer is "liberty". But Lizza notes dryly, "It is a peculiarity of the current political moment that a politician with a history of pushing sectarian religious beliefs in government has become a hero to a libertarian movement." Thinking over the above, it's helpful to distinguish two strands of American libertarianism. The first is the kind we think of with Ron Paul or Reason magazine. This view believes in the power of a free individual's reason to improve life, and it is plausibly anti-authoritarian (although arguably, it has its own authorities and ways of being absolute). The second libertarianism has to do with freedom from the federal government. This is not necessarily because you dislike authority. You might just view the federal government asa rival authority to the authority you want. With this second kind of libertarianism, "states rights" comes to mind, and also the religious homeschool movement. Michele Bachmann has this second view in spades. Not only is she a staunch disciple of Schaeffer and Pearcey, but also John Eidsmoe (who told an interviewer "it was the state [of Alabama's] 'constitutional right to secede,' and that 'Jefferson Davis and John C. Calhoun understood the Constitution better than did Abraham Lincoln...'”), and also J. Steven Wilkins ("the leading proponent of the theory that the South was an orthodox Christian nation unjustly attacked by the godless North"), and David A. Noebel (a homeschooling activist and "longtime John Birch society member whose pamphlets include... 'Communism, Hypnotism, and the Beatles.'") So while the first type of libertarianism at least has a classical liberal's respect for reason and shared facts, Bachmann's style of libertarianism seems much more Manichean, and paradoxically authoritarian (where a particular "moral" authority is very strong. Maybe calling it libertarianism is a stretch). If we're going to talk to a Michele Bachmann about just about any national policy, particularly science-related policy, right out of the gate reason and shared facts are going to have a hard time.

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