Ryan Lizza's Michele Bachmann "Smear"

Sarah Pulliam Bailey has a list of complaints with Ryan Lizza’s buzz-gathering profile of Michele Bachmann in this week’s New Yorker. Overall, the long report is a pretty impressive piece of work that blends colorful campaign diary with a deeper exploration of Bachmann’s political formation and intellectual influences. As usual, there are certain details that strike people who grew up in the evangelical movement as oversimplifications. I concur with a couple of Sarah’s nitpicks, but I’m afraid that in general she has quite seriously mischaracterized Lizza’s reporting, both by reading in implications and criticisms of Bachmann that are not in the piece, and by overlooking how often Bachmann still references many of the thinkers cited as influences. Referring to the piece as a “smear” is particularly unfortunate. Even the New Yorker‘s investigative pieces on subjects to which it is clearly ideologically opposed can never be called smears; its efforts to present the most reliable picture based on facts has earned my full respect, and are as clear in this story as any other.

First, Sarah takes issue with where Lizza places Bachmann’s views on the American political-theological spectrum. Lizza writes that 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,“ and that, “Her campaign is going to be a conversation about a set of beliefs more extreme than those of any American politician of her stature, including Sarah Palin.” (Sarah’s emphasis.)

Sarah suggests that Lizza has no basis for these claims, but I find her scorn somewhat inexplicable. True, it can be difficult for people who grew up in the evangelical world to imagine that other Christians have not heard of Francis Schaeffer. But conservative evangelicals are a fraction of American Christians, and not even all of them are very familiar with Schaeffer. I grew up with other home-schooled evangelicals who never read him, and neither had most people who attended my large, conservative Southern Baptist church. And it is indisputable that only a fraction of Christians have heard of R.J. Rushdoony, David Noebel, and John Eidsmoe. Lizza’s claim is precisely correct: Bachmann has been shaped by institutions and leaders with whom even many Christians are unfamiliar. And because her conservative evangelical education—her complete immersion in the alternative universe from the ground up—is so much deeper than that of other candidates who ostensibly share her ideas, it is absolutely fair to say that her beliefs are more extreme than those of Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, et al, no matter what unhinged things the others may say.

One of Sarah’s major contentions is that Lizza is maliciously attempting to link Bachmann with the fringe thinkers she has read, recommended and worked for in the past. Sarah calls them “attempts to prove guilt by association,” that Lizza used to “take shots.” Based on what the piece actually says and what Lizza said today on NPR, I have to say I think that’s a false charge. In his interview on NPR yesterday, Lizza repeatedly—I mean, with nearly every other breath—said that it was unfair to assume Bachmann believes everything her former mentions and influences do. He even observed that he had wacky professors he wouldn’t want to be associated with. But he correctly observes that Bachmann still references most of the people he investigated. She still says on the stump that Shaeffer’s How Shall We Then Live? changed her life, and still recommends Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth as a “wonderful book.” She has talked about Eidsmoe, who she worked for at Oral Roberts, on the campaign trail this very year, saying her taught her “foundational” things. She was his researcher while his law school published Rushdoony, and her website recommended a pro-slavery revisionist Civil War history by J. Steven Wilkins while she was running for public office. Except for an in my opinion quite justified spike of alarm at the Wilkins book, Lizza lays all of this out quite neutrally, with scarcely a noticeable judgment. I read the blocks of his prose in question over several times, and the supposed malice and unfair suggestion is just not there.

The Francis Schaeffer part of the piece will obviously be the most controversial, and here I think Sarah may be more on the right track. First off, Lizza portrays Schaeffer as fringe because he was in fact fringe. By any measure, against the Western philosophical spectrum or the American religious one, Schaeffer cannot accurately be portrayed otherwise. I’m not sure why Sarah objects there. But she may be right that Lizza’s cursory treatment makes him sound more bizarre and extreme than he was. He spent most of his decades writing dense works of theological philosophy that, while they used as intellectual building blocks by many a modern fundamentalist, are not adequately captured by Lizza’s drive-by description of the How Shall We Then Live video series. As I’ve written before, it’s pretty clear Schaeffer became a political crackpot toward the end of his life. But I’m not sure it’s accurate to characterize A Christian Manifesto as promoting “the violent overthrow of the U.S. government,” as Lizza does, rather than recommending more garden-variety civil disobedience. (I can’t really say; I never read the copy my evangelical college gave me as a gift.) But the other Shaeffer quotes Sarah mentions that contest his support for violence, and my general sense of Schaeffer’s beliefs, suggests “violent overthrow” is an exaggeration. Coupled with a few crazy lines from How Shall We Then Live, it far from gives an adequate picture of who Schaeffer was and why Bachmann likely found him attractive.

I’m all for improving the generally overblown quality of mainstream media coverage of evangelicals. But it’s a mistake to take the inevitable condensations that are a part of journalism, or even a few genuine misunderstandings, as malice. The profoundly religious character of Bachmann’s campaigns, past and present, make it unthinkable for journalists not to explore her intellectual formation. I don’t expect them all to suddenly understand decades of evangelical culture and literature, and I respect serious, evenhanded-as-possible attempts to produce information the public needs to know. They can be critiqued, and their errors corrected, without unwarranted attacks on their motives.