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Gay Husbands, Submissive Wives & Michelle Bachmann, Pt. 1

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Gay Husbands, Submissive Wives & Michelle Bachmann

Not that it’s going to matter much to Michelle Bachmann

In 2006, Bachmann said her husband had told her to get a post-doctorate degree in tax law. “Tax law? I hate taxes,” she continued. “Why should I go into something like that? But the lord says, be submissive. Wives, you are to be submissive to your husbands.’”

Asked about the comment by CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell Sunday, Bachmann reaffirmed that to her, “submission means respect, mutual respect.”

“I respect my husband, he respects me,” she said. “We have been married 33 years, we have a great marriage…and respecting each other, listening to each other is what that means.”

O’Donnell asked Bachmann if she would use a different word in retrospect.

“You know, I guess it depends on what word people are used to, but respect is really what it means,” Bachmann replied.

“Do you think submissive means subservient?” O’Donnell asked.

“Not to us,” Bachmann said. “To us it means respect. We respect each other, we listen to each other, we love each other and that is what it means.”

But… Well… Here.

I realize it’s a bad debate tactic to refer back to the dictionary, but sometimes it’s unavoidable, as when Michelle Bachmann tries to redefine “submissive” to mean something it doesn’t appear to mean to anyone but her. On the other hand, I understand why she’s trying to do it, and it’s a sign of what may doom her.

Naturally, this goes right back to same-sex marriage.

Splitting Hairs Between “Submissive” and “Subservient”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. first, the definitions. Look at them again.

Take your pick: “ready to conform to the authority or will of others; meekly obedient or passive,” or “prepared to obey others unquestioningly.” Or, for that matter, take any other definitions of “submissive” and “subservient.” Some dictionaries even provide nearly identical definitions.

submissive_signNothing in either definition, no matter what dictionary you choose, implies respect. At least not the mutual respect that Bachmann uses to try and paper over what she really said and what she really meant. If anything, respect in a submissive or subservient relationship is a one way street — the submissive or subservient person certainly respect those whose will and authority she is prepared to obey unquestioningly, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she is respected in turn. (BDSM relationships can be an exception, but I don’t think that’s what Bachmann was comparing her marriage to.) It’s a relationship that sounds an awful lot like slavery, and that may not actually be too far from Bachmann’s views.

It’s a misunderstanding, however, that does explain her bizarre views on slavery, and why she tries to rewrite history to conform to it. In fact, Adam Serwer delved into a New Yorker magazine article and dredged up a nugget about a favorite author of Bachmann’s who actually believes that America’s “peculiar institution” really was based on mutual respect,

She is also a fan of Robert E. Lee biographer J. Steven Williams, whom Lizza describes as a "leading proponent of the theory that the South was an orthodox Christian nation unjustly attacked by the godless North." Wilkins "approvingly" cites Lee's conviction that abolition was premature because it was necessary for "the sanctifying effects of Christianity” to take their time “to work in the black race and fit its people for freedom.” Not only that but as Lizza reports, Williams hates abolitionists and thought slavery was awesome:

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.

No, it wasn't an "adversarial relationship founded on racial animosity" because that implies some kind of social parity or dialogue. It was a relationship founded on the idea that black people were not human beings and white people were entitled to own them as property. But while Bachmann has an affinity for historians who think slavery wasn't that bad, she's less bullish on things like taxes and social insurance, which are actually just as bad as owning people as property (even though slavery wasn't that bad).

It works only if everyone understands and accepts their “place.” Thus the familiar southern saying, “I don’t have any problems with black people, so long as they stay in their place,” and often heard admonition to any “uppity” black to “remember his place.” It’s more than a little interesting that these familiar sentiments have resurfaced, and have been heard almost verbatim since President Obama took office.

It works only if one accepts the basic premise, as Serwer points out. That is, it works so long as all the players accept the the status quo and their place within it. If you’re a slave owner, that means accepting some things about black slaves that aren’t necessarily that hard to swallow, because (a) none of it is about you, and (b) it supports and reinforces a status quo that establishes, justifies, and defends your power and status. How hard can it be to accept your superior position?

If you’re a black slave, it means accepting things that are a bit harder to swallow, because it (a) it is about you, and (b) it supports reinforces a status quo that establishes, justifies and enforces your powerlessness and your inferiority. How easy can that be to accept? Pretty hard, considering the lengths whites went to, in their efforts to make sure that slaves heard little other than the accepted script, and to ensure that — should they by some chance hear differently — they would not be able to act upon any non-acceptance.

The slave codes varied from state to state, but all served to define the status of slaves, and the absolute power of masters over slaves. Some forbade slaves to be “provided with arms and ammunitions.” Others established that “children got by any Englishmen upon a Negro” would inherit the mother’s status. Thus, Thomas Jefferson’s children by Sally Hemmings — his mistress and his slave — were also his slaves.

Some established that “baptism does not alter the condition to the person as to his bondage or freedom,” thus making easier for slave owners to “more carefully propagate Christianity by permitting slaves to be admitted to that sacrament.” Some made it illegal to teach slaves to read, thereby making it easier for for masters to “propagate Christianity” by prohibiting their slaves from reading the Bible for themselves and giving masters control over how much and what their slaves heard regarding religion.

A passage I quoted a while back from

There are also Paul’s admonitions to slaves; “obey your masters, etc. Griffin uses Howard Thurman’s report, in Jesus and the Disinherited, of his grandmother’s response to those passages to sum up the response of most African American Christians to troublesome passage like those, and certain Levitical laws that would put the makers of fast food and polyester blend clothing out of business pretty quickly, not to mention the seafood industry. Thurman’s grandmother talks about the white minister who would preach obedience to the slaves on her master’s plantation, and wraps up by saying:

I promised my maker that if I ever learned to read and if freedom ever came, I would not read that part of the bible.


Things That You’re Liable To Read In The Bible

“How do I know?” asked the refrain of a song I learned during my Baptist childhood. The answer came in the next line: “The Bible tells me so.” It wasn’t until years later that I learned that famous Gerswhin lyric, “Things that you’re liable to read in the Bible, it ain’t necessarily so.” Michelle Bachmann’s problem, which is only going to become evident now that the spotlight on her will burn even more brightly after the Iowa straw poll, is that she’s stuck somewhere between the uncertain no-mans-land between what those two lyrics express.

The problem is, that’s where Bachmann has to stay in order to have any chance of being a viable candidate. She’s got to speak two different languages to two different audiences, and make each both believe she’s one of them, and speaking their language. The result is responses like the O’Donnell interview.

When Bachmann said “The Lord says to be submissive,” she was referencing a passage from the Bible. Ephesians 5:22-33, to be exact.

Wives Be Submissive to Your Husbands

22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

It goes on to say that husbands must love their wives and wives must respect their husbands, but it’s still a far cry from the mutual respect that Bachmann seems to want to add to it. Certainly, it may be easier to “be submissive” towards someone who genuinely loves you, as you may be reasonably assured that they will not knowingly harm you and have your best interests at heart too.

It only becomes problematic when, say, the husband doesn’t not love or even respect the wife, as there’s no apparent escape hatch. The appears to give husbands the right to divorce wives for marital infidelity, and not much else. Women, near as I can tell may not “depart from her husband,” but is to remain unmarried if she does.

The typical answer is summed up at a website that attempts to answer the question of divorce.

If people would just obey God’s laws and follow His design for marriage and the family things would work out so much better for them. God knows what is best, and when we follow His plan we will truly have the best chance to be blessed.

It’s not that “God’s laws” are impractical, contrary to human nature or human happiness. It’s that people don’t truly follow them. If they did, everything would be fine. It’s kind like the way conservatism never fails, but is only failed.

Bachmann was not just speaking to conservatives with that statement, but to evangelical conservatives, signaling that she was one of them. The problem is, it wasn’t so much a dog whistle that only the elect would hear and pick up on, but more of a foghorn that we all heard and which left us asking “What the hell was that?”

Suffer Not A Woman

Bachmann has to strengthen her cred with evangelicals, because her candidacy itself has already undermined it. After all, if she really believes what she says, and knows what the Bible says about women leaders, she wouldn’t have run at all.

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For non-evangelical Christians, this sounds ludicrous: How can a woman who believes in submitting to her husband’s will aspire to be president of the United States? Is she going to have to ask Marcus’ permission every time she wants to throw a state dinner?

This apparent contradiction—how you can be leader of the free world and yet subordinate to some guy —has proved no less confusing to the nation’s conservative evangelicals. For them, the justification for a Bachmann presidential run lies in a very careful, some would say tortured, theological interpretation that emerged during Sarah Palin’s vice-presidential candidacy in 2008.

The solution to the “Palin Predicament,” as it’s been called, is laid out on the website of the influential Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. The council, which was established in 1987 to fight “the growing movement of feminist egalitarianism,” espouses something called complementarianism — the idea that while men and women are equal they nevertheless must play different (read: unequal) parts. Men are destined to occupy leadership roles at home and at church, while women are obliged to “grow in willing, joyful submission to their husbands’ leadership.” But the civic sphere is distinct from home and church and governed by different rules, these evangelicals reasoned, and if the Bible didn’t explicitly “prohibit [women] from exercising leadership in secular political fields,” neither would they.

No doubt, part of the reason is that many evangelicals embrace another scripture that seems to make it clear that women are not to lead in the home or anywhere else. Yet Bachmann wants to have it both ways. She wants to embrace an understanding of scripture that would have kept her out of office and out of the media, if she really took it to heart and acted accordingly: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” But she wants to reap the benefits of the movement for women’s equality — the very equality she renounces in order to signal to evangelicals that she’s one of them.

But it’s a hard sell. As Libby Copelan pointed out in the piece quoted above, it won’t wash with some evangelicals — like Albert Moher Jr. who said of Sarah Palins VP candidacy: “It would be hypocritical of me to suggest that I would be perfectly happy to have Christian young women believe that being Vice President of the United States is more important than being a wife and mother.” In that view, Bachmann’s candidacy, and those of other women like her can be veiwed, at best, as a sign of men’s failure to lead effectively. Even then the answer would not be for woman like Bachmann to run for office.

After all, how can you run the world if the Bible says you shouldn’t run anything — not even your own home — and you claim to believe it. You can’t, unless you lie to yourself and everyone else. And, as Copeland point out, it might seem like Bachmann and evangelical women like her have found a way to have it all, but they really haven’t.

Except they haven’t. Soft patriarchalism and feminism are incompatible, even when they look similar. Moderate evangelical and ethicist David Gushee pointed out this fundamental hypocrisy during the debate over the Palin Predicament: If his fellow Christians supported a woman in a position of civic leadership, they should logically support the notion of women exercising leadership in church and at home — but most of them don’t. And Bachmann has explicitly rejected the title of feminist, calling herself an “empowered American.” (Palin, meanwhile, has called herself a feminist, and even if you think this description impossibly wrongheaded, it suggests a certain engagement with the idea of female equality.)

Bachmann’s description of herself as “pro-woman and pro-man” suggests a contentment with the status quo, as far as gender goes. Indeed, it may imply something more — that as a woman who defers to her husband, she believes herself to be more liberated than secular feminists are. According to Karen Seat, a religious studies professor at the University of Arizona, some conservative evangelicals argue that women’s deference is itself empowering, because it’s what God intends, and because it is the fullest expression of womanhood. In this world of opposites, submission is strength and inequity is proof of equality…

Enjoying the benefits of feminism, which gave her a career that she’d never had in a strictly biblical world, while at the same time extolling a faith that literally says that women like her just should not be, might seem like a lot of work. But it’s also a part of the fight against marriage equality.

Series NavigationSubmissive Wives, Gay Husband & Michelle Bachmann, Pt. 2

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