TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Ryan Lizza, profiles Michele Bachmann in the current edition of the New Yorker. His article, "Leap of Faith," is in part about Bachmann's transformation from Tea Party insurgent to serious Republican Party contender in the 2012 presidential race.
The article is also about how she developed her Christian convictions and how they have shaped her right-wing politics. Lizza traveled with Bachmann in mid-June on a borrowed corporate jet she used to get to Iowa to campaign for the caucuses. Ryan Lizza is covering the presidential campaign for the New Yorker.
Ryan Lizza, welcome back to FRESH AIR. What are some of the positions that you would say define Michele Bachmann politically?
Mr. RYAN LIZZA (Washington correspondent, The New Yorker): Well, if you look at her legislative career in the state senate, the issues that she was the most well-known for were opposition to gay marriage, fighting for the display of the Ten Commandments in public places and railing against federal education policy, which she partly thought lacked rigor - that was one component of it - but also she thought it was, as she has said, anti-biblical.
She takes her Christianity very seriously. She comes out of a religious evangelical conservative movement that is very much concerned with developing a biblical worldview and applying it to all corners of one's life.
GROSS: You write that one of the things she's best known for is her habit of casting outlandish aspersions on her ideological foes and then having to reel back those statements with a ritual apology.
And you actually witnessed two examples of that when you were traveling on her campaign plane in June. What were those examples?
Mr. LIZZA: Well, I mean, the first thing I should say is, I truly don't mean this in any partisan way, but this is the fourth presidential campaign I've covered; I've been covering politics since 1997, and I've never really covered a candidate, sort of at her level, who frankly makes so many misstatements when - so many factual misstatements. She's fairly careless with the facts.
I'll just give you one example, and I think this example is quite interesting because you can sort of see a text from what - from which Michele Bachmann took a series of facts, and then you can watch her give a speech based strictly on that text, and then you can sort of compare the two.
And the story isn't that important, but she is of course a very strong candidate in Iowa, is really emphasizing her Iowa roots. She has - she was born in Iowa, and she has a long history of ancestors who were from Iowa.
And so she told a story about how her ancestors came to the United States from Norway, and she tells a series of dramatic stories about their flight from Norway to Iowa: floods, bad weather, locusts, this and that, and then they finally persevere and survive and live happy lives.
But all of the dramatic stories she told, that she told her audience happened in Iowa, actually happened in Wisconsin and South Dakota. And so I was - and her cousin actually wrote a family history, where it very clearly laid out the facts of her family moving to Wisconsin and then moving to South Dakota and these dramatic things happening in South Dakota, and then her family leaving the frontier of South Dakota for the relative safety and civilization of Iowa.
And in Bachmann's hands, this became a story of just botched facts and misstated narrative. And I'll be honest with you, that sort of blew me away when I sat there and looked at the text she took this from and how she delivered the speech. And that may seem like a trivial example, but when you're running for president, these things really do matter. That's one example.
GROSS: Did you call her on that? Did you tell her that you'd read the family history and that she got the facts wrong?
Mr. LIZZA: You know, I didn't, and I get at this a little bit in the piece. I spent four days on her campaign plane. She has a very small plane, where everyone was basically in one cabin, where I was able to sort of report and observe how she and her campaign aides interacted really up close, really frankly in a sort of unprecedented way when it comes to presidential campaigns - you don't really get to see the inner workings of a campaign like this.
And so, you know, I had some very short conversations with her onboard there. Later, though, at the end of my reporting, I did interview her. And a lot of the issues that I talk about in the piece I didn't get to because after about 20 minutes, she cut me off, and she told me that she had to go do Sean Hannity's show on Fox News, and she couldn't talk anymore, but she would get back with me.
And then later, her press secretary told me that she didn't like my line of questions. So she wasn't going to resume the interview. So some of the stuff that is talked about in the piece I didn't actually get to ask her, including the example I cited about her story about her ancestors in Iowa.
GROSS: Do you have a sense of what it was about your line of questions that she objected to?
Mr. LIZZA: You know, that's a good question. I looked over the transcript again to try and figure it out. It's probably one of two things. I did ask her - one of the important moments in her life that she's talked about with a great deal of emotion, before, is - she's used this phrase. She has said she came from a broken home.
And her parents, the reason - she lived in Iowa until she was 12 years old, and then her father and her mother separated and then divorced. And she's talked about the divorce as the most, sort of, shattering experience of her young life.
And not long after her parents divorced, she joined a prayer group, and that prayer group led her to become a born-again Christian. And she's talked very movingly and in great detail about the moment she was born again.
And it all sort of started - her sort of road to being born again - started with this sort of shattering of her family life. And one of the interesting things she's noted, at least when she spoke in front of one church audience, was how she didn't have a father. She didn't have a strong male figure in her life, but when she became born again, as she said, she then had a father.
So she's talked about this very moving experience of losing her own dad and finding God, and she's connected the two in a very clear way. And so I started to ask her a bit about that, and she didn't want to talk about it with me.
The next set of questions that I asked her were more about her intellectual influences. And she's cited, over the years, a number of people who have had a profound effect on forming her ideology. And as I started to get into the weeds of who these people are and what they believe, that's when the, sort of, the interview - it seemed like she was not as interested in talking about that.
GROSS: Let's talk about some of those people who have had a profound influence on her ideas about Christianity and how Christianity relates to politics, because Christianity, I think it's fair to say, is at the center of her political and social views, yes?
Mr. LIZZA: Without a doubt. And frankly, I think a lot of political journalists are uncomfortable in talking about someone's religious views and how they relate to their politics. You know, and often we treat religion or one's faith as, you know, a sort of box that we're - as political journalists, we shouldn't open.
GROSS: Something that's too personal.
Mr. LIZZA: Exactly, exactly. It's one's faith. No matter what they believe, it's really not relevant to their political views. But when you have someone who, at every turn, talks about how there's nothing more important in their life than their faith and how it relates to all of their politics, you know, I don't see how you could write about their thinking, their philosophy, their intellectual formation, without trying to understand how religion moves them.
So, you know, that's a lot of what the piece is about, and a lot of what I tried to do is explore the writers that she has cited as really helping form her.
GROSS: So Michele Bachmann is born again in high school. She meets her husband, Marcus, in college. They both first support Jimmy Carter...
Mr. LIZZA: Yes.
GROSS: ...who is a born-again candidate. But then she is influenced by the teachings of the evangelist and theologian Francis Schaeffer and by his film series "How Should We Then Live?"
So it sounds from the piece like you watched the film series. You describe the first five installments as being like an art history and philosophy course taught by a Puritan. Give us an overview of some of the main points that you took away from this series that you think had an impact on Michele Bachmann.
Mr. LIZZA: Yes, so Schaeffer is a fascinating figure, and he was a very important evangelical thinker in the '70s. Ralph Reed once credited - Ralph Reed, the former Christian Coalition leader, once credited Schaeffer with encouraging a whole generation of evangelicals to get involved with politics.
And so a lot of Schaeffer's philosophy was about applying a sort of Christian worldview to Western history. So Schaeffer will - in the first five episodes of his famous film series, he takes the audience through the entire history of Western culture, from Rome and then by the end of the movie, all the way up through Roe v. Wade.
And the beginning chapters of this movie are all about where Christianity took wrong turns. And for Schaeffer, it's the Enlightenment. It's the Italian Renaissance. It's Darwinism. It's secular humanism. It's any point in history where he believes that man turns away from God and turns away from putting God at the center of life to putting humankind at the center of life. That's sort of his big point.
What happened with Schaeffer, though, is he becomes completely radicalized in 1973. And his focus completely changes. So in 1973, when Roe versus Wade abortion decision comes down, Schaeffer decides that all of his philosophy and all of this history that he'd been teaching for years about the dangers of moving away from a Christ-centered world, everything he warned about is now coming to fruition with this Roe decision, that the government is becoming, in his terms, being taken over by an authoritarian elite.
And you actually see this radicalizing moment show up in his film series. The first few episodes really are about art and culture. And then the last episodes take a very conspiratorial and frankly paranoid turn, and the sort of iconic scene in the second half of the series is a government van driving around with a funny-looking guy in a fake mustache pouring chemicals in the water supply of a city as Schaeffer narrates that perhaps the government could be using, you know, psych drugs to control the population.
I mean, it really takes a completely different turn. And so I emphasize this, just to sort of show, this is the movie that Michele Bachmann says changed her life. This is the movie that got her radicalized on the abortion issue. And, you know, to understand her, I think you have to understand Schaeffer a little bit.
By the end of his life, right before he died, Schaeffer published a very influential book called "A Christian Manifesto." And in that book, by the end of that book, he is actually laying out the ground - laying down the groundwork by which Christian activists, and especially anti-abortion activists, may need to resort to the use of force.
GROSS: The use of force?
Mr. LIZZA: The use of force. I mean, literally as his son Frank, who was very close to his father and was - and carried on his father's teachings after his father died in 1984 but then eventually left the religious conservative movement and, you know, is no longer a Schaefferite, to say the least - as his son said, you know, by the end of his dad's life, his dad was calling for the violent overthrow of the U.S. government.
GROSS: Now, Bachmann was also influenced by a student of Schaeffer's, Nancy Pearcey, who was - was she a proponent of Schaeffer's view of dominionism, that really Christians...
Mr. LIZZA: Yeah.
GROSS: ...Christians had - were biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns?
Mr. LIZZA: Yeah, now Pearcey, from what I can tell, is sort of one of the leading modern proponents of Schaeffer's philosophy. Pearcey actually studied with Schaeffer in Switzerland and has sort of continued on with his line of thinking.
And the reason I brought her into the piece is that Michele Bachmann has mentioned Pearcey's book as one that was important to her. And I actually did ask her about that, and she told me it was a wonderful book.
So Pearcey wrote a book a number of years ago called "Total Truth." It's in line with the sort of Schaefferite view of taking your Christian faith and making sure that it permeates all parts of your life. The key thing here is Christians should not just be go-to-church-on-Sunday Christians. But their religion should permeate all aspects of life.
And Pearcey actually calls this the cultural mandate. She uses the same line from Genesis to rest this idea on, and again, argues that your faith needs to permeate your life.
GROSS: Well, I guess what I'm wondering is if she's saying your faith needs to permeate your life, or your faith needs to permeate the United States government.
Mr. LIZZA: Well, she would say that it needs - if you're a dentist, then you have to figure out a way to have your faith permeate your dentist practice. If you are a politician, your faith should permeate what you do as a politician, that there's really no distinction between the two and that the great problem for Christianity is that Christians separate these two things.
GROSS: So, do you think that Michele Bachmann subscribes to the view that you say Francis Schaeffer eventually subscribed to, which is that Christians are biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns?
Mr. LIZZA: She's never said that specifically, but if you look at her history, if you look at the first time she actually got involved with politics, and that is when she started a charter school in her local town of Stillwater, Minnesota -it was only a six or seven-month experiment. She got together with some parents. They started a publicly funded charter school, signed a charter that said that they were not allowed in any way to include a sectarian religious agenda at this school. And they very quickly violated that and built the school around a Christian sectarian agenda, to the point where parents started - where parents who were told that this was a school for at-risk kids became very alarmed because their children were being taught creationism, and famously, they were not allowed to watch the movie "Aladdin" because it involved magic. And, you know, and on and on and on. And were - eventually the school district stepped in and warned them they were going to lose their charter because they were violating it. And eventually Bachmann and another person who were spearheading this were forced off the board and forced off the leadership of that school.
So that's a great example of, to me, at least, Bachmann's view of what Pearcey would call the cultural mandate, sort of running head-on into the separation of church and state that exists in our schools.
GROSS: Michele Bachmann went to Oral Roberts University, and you asked her if her views were fully consistent with the prevailing ideology at Oral Roberts. What was the prevailing ideology at Oral Roberts University when she was there?
Mr. LIZZA: Well, so she was part of the first law school class at Oral Roberts. The school was actually called the Coburn School of Law. And it's a law school that taught its students biblical law, that you need to understand the Bible, you need to understand biblical law, and that's what the United States Constitution is built upon. And as a legal mind, you should understand when American law is and is not consistent with biblical law.
I actually asked one of her former professors, John Eidsmoe, someone who she was a research assistant for, you know, what does this mean? What does it mean that, you know, you're studying biblical laws? I said: You know, what happens if biblical law conflicts with American law? What do you do?
And he said, well, the first thing you would be taught at Coburn is to do everything you can to change the American law.
GROSS: So Michele Bachmann was not only a student of Professor John Eidsmoe, she was also a research assistant for him. And you asked him if he thought that her views were consistent with a book that he wrote called "Christianity and the Constitution," and he told you that he thought her views were consistent with the book. What are the views in that book?
Mr. LIZZA: Well, the book is ostensibly a explanation of how most of the founders were Christians and how their Christianity influenced their political thinking and specifically the Constitution.
And so he has, I forget how many, I think 13 chapters, one each, on 13 of the founders. And it's just his sort of excavation of their religious beliefs and how they used their religious beliefs to apply to the Constitution.
That's a big part of the book, but really by the end of the book, what Eidsmoe is talking about is how evangelic Christians need to get politically active. They need to get involved with the legal system, and they need to make sure that American law is more biblically based. I mean, that's what the book ends on. He has sort of a clarion call for his students to get involved.
And that wouldn't mean much. I mean, I've had some wacky professors in college, frankly, that I wouldn't want someone to associate with my own views today. And so I want to be careful to point out that I'm not saying that - you know, I'm not just cherry-picking this guy. This is someone that Michele Bachmann specifically, to this day, mentions as a very important influence on her, as recently as this spring in a speech in Iowa.
GROSS: Michele Bachmann describes herself as a former federal tax litigation attorney. And on her website bio, it says she spent five years as a federal tax litigation attorney working on hundreds of civil and criminal cases. That experience solidified her strong support for efforts to simplify the tax code and reduce tax burdens on families and small business budgets.
But you spoke to some of her former colleagues and they gave you a different impression of her than the one she gives.
Mr. LIZZA: Yes. I talked to six people who worked with her in this small IRS office in St. Paul, Minnesota. They all had the exact same story about her time in that office. And nothing, you know, nothing really earth-shattering. Just that she was fresh out of law school, she was young, inexperienced, not really focused on a legal career, not one of the best lawyers in the office and partly because she was new and inexperienced, but also it was a time in her life where she was much more focused on her family than a law career.
And I will say this. I think this is one of the more controversial parts of the piece because I think she was the victim to a certain extent of some sexism in that job because everyone complained to me that she wasn't in the office much because she was on maternity leave.
Mr. LIZZA: Twice. And I never really got to ask her about this because she didn't respond to questions about this. But that was the impression that she left with her colleagues there - that she wasn't around much, wasn't very experienced, and was much more focused on raising her family than on her career.
GROSS: Well, you do point out that for somebody who is so opposed to government - to some government benefits, she collected generous government benefits while she was working.
Mr. LIZZA: For someone whose ideology is really defined by a strong dislike for government, if you look at the way that she's supported herself over the years, it's mostly through the government. So after law school she goes to work for the IRS, she's there for four years, then in 1992 she starts taking in foster children and does that from '92 to '98 and is paid by the state to do that. She then works briefly for a local charter school and then she starts running for office and becomes both first an employee of the state of Minnesota and then, of course, a congresswoman, so an employee of the federal government.
On top of that, as has been well reported, her husband is a psychologist, has two counseling clinics that, of course, like any other medical professional, you know, takes lots of money from the government medical - from Medicaid and Medicare. And then on top of that, you know, has received some generous farm subsidies for a farm he owns in Wisconsin. So if you actually went through the dollar amount of income that the Bachmanns have from government sources, it would be a pretty significant.
GROSS: I think it's fair to say that a lot of your piece is kind of like the intellectual biography of Michele Bachmann, the professors that shaped her, the books that shaped her.
Mr. LIZZA: Yeah.
GROSS: And one of the books I was really surprised to read about, which I hadn't heard of before, is a biography of Robert E. Lee written by J. Steven Wilkins published in 1997. Part of it has to do with slavery. And I want to read a paragraph that you quote.
Slavery as it operated in the pervasively Christian society, which was the old South, was not an adversarial relationship founded upon racial animosity. In fact, it bred on the whole not contempt, but over time mutual respect. This produced a mutual esteem of the sort that always results when men give themselves to a common cause. The credit for this startling reality must go to the Christian faith. The unity and companionship that existed between the races in the South prior to the war was the fruit of a common faith.
Mr. LIZZA: So this one sort of blew me away, because you have to ask yourself -and first of all, let me just point out why this book is relevant. For a number of years, Michele Bachmann's personal website had a list of books that she recommended people read and it was called Michele's Must-Read List. And so I was looking over the list and noticed this biography of Lee by Wilkins. Never heard of Wilkins. Started looking into who he was, and frankly couldn't believe that she was recommending this book.
Wilkins, he's done something very unique. He's combined a Christian conservatism with neo-Confederate views and developed what is known as the theological war thesis. And this is an idea that holds the best way to understand the Civil War is actually to see it in religious terms, and that the South was an Orthodox Christian nation attacked by the godless North and that what was really lost after the Civil War was one of the pinnacles of Christian society.
And this, what I discovered is that this insane view of the Civil War has been successfully injected into some of the Christian home-schooling movement curriculums with the help of this guy Wilkins. And my guess - I don't know this for sure because I didn't get to ask Michele Bachmann - my guess is that this is how she probably encountered Wilkins at some point. Because she's not from the South. There's no history of her being interested in Southern heritage or anything else. And so I'm assuming that that's how she was introduced to it.
Either way, she recommended this book on her website for a number of years. It is an objectively pro-slavery book and to me one of the most startling things I learned about her in the reporting of this piece.
GROSS: Do you think that the kind of Christian views that were expressed in the books that helped shape her faith and that helped shape her intellectually and helped shape her view of government are being expressed by her in her campaign now?
Mr. LIZZA: You know, it depends on the audience she's speaking to. In this spring, when she was doing some of - some sort of less headline-making visits to Iowa and speaking at churches and sort of - not, I don't want to say covertly, but under the radar sort of wooing some of the religious leadership in Iowa, she knows how to speak that language and she knows how to draw on her history at Oral Roberts and her born-again experience and her story about watching Schaeffer's series of movies and how that changed her life. She knows how to tell all those stories so that an evangelical audience will, in a certain sense, bond with her. I think she did that early this year when she wasn't an announced candidate.
Most of those voters know that background and she doesn't really need to sell herself to those voters anymore, so she's transitioned and she's transitioned into a candidate that talks much, much more about debt and spending and all the sort of libertarian economic issues that are so important to the Tea Party movement right now.
GROSS: So what's your take-away from having done this profile of Michele Bachmann? What did you learn about her that you didn't know before?
Mr. LIZZA: I understand her a little bit better. I think I understand her complete confidence in her own worldview, which she believes is grounded in the Bible. I understand how sometimes she is impervious to ideas and information that are sort of outside the bubble of her worldview, I understand where that comes from now. And I understand when she says something sort of that I might've thought just outrageous and, you know, and shook my head at, I understand intellectually and philosophically a little bit better where it's coming from.
GROSS: So that imperviousness to other people's points of views that you refer to - you said you understand where that comes from now.
Mr. LIZZA: Well, you know, I don't want to say that everything that is written in a book that she recommends means that she believes it, right? You can't, you don't want to do that. What I was very careful to do is look at the thinkers that she cited as the most influential in her own life.
But there was one line from this Pearcey book that she cited as important to her...
GROSS: This is Nancy Pearcey.
Mr. LIZZA: This is Nancy Pearcey, who writes basically that believers need to be very, very careful when adopting ideas from nonbelievers. That even if once in a while - this is not an exact quote but I'm paraphrasing - even if once in a while nonbelievers get a fact wrong, it will always in some way be tainted by the non-Christian worldview it comes out of.
And I think frankly if that is what you believe, it's very hard to absorb thinking and ideas from outside your own worldview if you believe everything else is tainted if it comes from nonbelievers.
GROSS: Ryan Lizza, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. LIZZA: Thank you for having me, Terry. I really appreciate it.
GROSS: Ryan Lizza is covering the presidential campaign for The New Yorker. His profile of Michele Bachmann is in the current edition of The New Yorker. You'll find a link to it on our website, freshair.npr.org.