The Iowa Straw Poll is pointless. Or is it? On the one hand, it distributes no delegates for a party’s Presidential nomination, its voter involvement encompasses less than twenty thousand persons, and the entire event is seen as a glorified fundraiser for the Iowa GOP. On the other hand, the Iowa Straw Poll does matter. It tests the enthusiasm and organizational skill of the participating candidates. It can pull the plug on a struggling campaign, as it did for former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. And though it rarely represents an accurate sample of Iowa voters, it does constitute the first quasi-real voting of the Presidential campaign.
Therefore, Michele Bachmann’s narrow victory in this year’s Straw Poll is far from meaningless. Bachmann has carved a real space for herself within the Republican electorate. She possesses significant political skills as an orator as well as in the face-to-face discussions which dominate the early campaign trail. For the time being, she stands as the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, who is currently viewed as the more moderate, establishment candidate.
Bachmann’s growing position has garnered increasing media coverage, including extended profiles in Newsweek and The New Yorker. The latter puts special focus on Bachmann’s Evangelical Christianity, which is seen as a driving force in her life and in her politics. The piece itself is slyly negative, using Bachmann’s Christianity as one tool to make her appear less serious and more extreme. The New Yorker’s take on Bachmann raises hard questions about how Christians view and treat each other. Indeed, our reactions to Bachmann may have a significant effect on how the outside world sees Christian community.
There is little room to doubt the genuineness of Bachmann’s faith. Coming from a broken home where the abandonment of her father caused emotional and financial hardship, her conversion story is especially touching. She states that upon believing in Christ:
That didn’t mean that I woke and all of a sudden I had money, all of a sudden I had position, all of a sudden I had education. It didn’t. But what it meant was that all of a sudden I had a father.
She speaks about how God “is the Lord of all of life” covering all areas of thought and action. She and her husband were foster parents to twenty-three children, many of them girls suffering from eating disorders. Bachmann says a specific reason for being a foster parent was in order that “young people could come to know Jesus at an early age, the earlier the better.”
Even so, different strands of Christianity may find aspects of her Christianity objectionable. Bachmann questions the validity of evolution, for example, and she attended Oral Roberts University, whose past tendencies toward the “Health and Wealth Gospel” as well as certain forms of fundamentalism could rile some in the Church. She is outspokenly conservative, opposing gay marriage and abortion while believing that those stances stem from faithfulness to the Bible. Furthermore, she uses rhetoric typical of the current highly charged political environment, attacking political opponents with verve and frequency.
So, given this information, how should fellow Christians view Michele Bachmann? Two struggles come to mind. The first struggle regards distinguishing diverse identities within the Body of Christ. We too often combine political affiliation with a person’s identity in Christ. Sometimes this can be explicit, leading to attacks on other Christians because their political views do not align with our own. But we are seasoned sinners, and frequently the problem manifests itself more subtly. During a Bible study, for example, could someone who vigorously disagreed with Bachmann’s view of the debt ceiling listen openly to her thoughts about a Scriptural passage? Could the same person pray with her genuinely for a fellow congregant suffering from cancer? This person might say the right thing about politics not dividing Christian community but can he make the distinction between Christian and political identity in his heart?
Doing so is easier said than done. We can place great weight on identities other than ours in Christ, identities that are often diverse and in tension with one another. These will not go away. We will hold differing political ideologies, ones we may strongly believe to be true. But we must realize these differences exist within a hierarchy; some should rule others. In our case, our identity in Christ, realized in Christian community, should govern the way our other differences are expressed. One of my favorite memories from the summer I worked in Washington, DC, was watching a believer from the opposite political persuasion join the church we both attended. Our unity in Christ was real even as our political disagreements persisted. When I have become enraged by the arguments of my political opponents, I retreat to this experience. It does not bring me into agreement with Christians of the political Left but it does help cement my Christ-centered community with them.
The second struggle regards theological purity. Bachmann’s views on the basic tenets of Christianity appear sound. She seems to genuinely love Christ and seek to glorify Him in the world. But any Christian, myself included, could find points of disagreement with her beliefs. We too often do not give those we disagree with the relational love that acknowledges difference while maintaining community. When these criticisms are aimed at those in public places, the charity seems even more wanting. We seem to demand a purity of life and perfection of theology in such believers that we would not demand of our fellow church members, family, and ourselves. I have seen too many Christians turn cynical toward professing public officials who do not achieve such perfection. Such attacks regularly come from the public official’s own political camp, the result of ideology decimating prudence and purity killing understanding. This cynicism, expressed in large amounts of sarcasm, too often paints us, not as a loving community, but as wolves devouring our own instead.
As the 2012 campaign heats up, a candidate like Michele Bachmann presents an opportunity to practice Christian community. Can we truly look on her and those Christians who support her as fellow parts of Christ’s body, regardless of political opinion? Furthermore, can we really welcome believers in public places despite important but non-essential differences and imperfections? Such attitudes will help foster true Christian community. They will also show that community to a skeptical world.