Presidential hopeful Rep. Michele Bachmann spoke to Iowans gathered in the Marshalltown Library, Saturday, July 23, 2011. Behind her on the left is her husand Marcus.
Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune
Bachmann builds a base of the faithful
- Article by: KEVIN DIAZ
- Star Tribune
- July 24, 2011 - 10:30 AM
DES MOINES - One of the most electrifying moments in Michele Bachmann's quest for the White House came last Sunday when she took to the pulpit of an evangelical mega-church in this city's suburban edge.
There were no campaign banners, no attacks on President Obama, not even any mention of next month's all-important Republican straw poll in Ames.
But a crowd of more than 500 -- far larger than the ones most candidates attract on the Iowa campaign circuit -- sat in rapt attention as Bachmann told the story of how she confessed her sins and found Christ as a teenager in Minnesota. She received a standing ovation.
"It was just a wonderful witness," said First Assembly of God church member Mark Linebach, who described himself as spellbound by the telegenic congresswoman. "She is 100 percent comfortable in the setting of a church."
To Linebach and others who have heard her talk in recent church appearances in Iowa, Bachmann's appeal clearly goes deeper than the politics of taxes and jobs. In a growing list of appearances that center explicitly on her faith, Bachmann has drawn new Christian conservatives into the political arena, lending her campaign the aura of a moral crusade that could outlast the 2012 presidential elections.
"She's building an appeal," said Tori Rabe, a graduate student and born-again Christian who saw Bachmann for the first time in Des Moines last week. "She's building those relationships. She's setting that foundation."
In an early-voting state where the majority of Republican caucusgoers are religious conservatives, Bachmann has shot to the top of the polls.
As much as anywhere else, her faith message has resonated deeply here, giving traction to a presidential campaign that has taken a skeptical party establishment by surprise.
"Michele wants Iowans to see her faith as a major part of her decisionmaking process," said Steve Deace, a Christian broadcaster who has had her on his radio show in central Iowa. "It's wise of her to do that."
Her rivals, including former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, have learned to work frequent faith references into their speeches. But none plans church appearances as regularly as Bachmann.
"We go anywhere people are gathering," Bachmann said Saturday during a campaign stop in Marshalltown. "There's been a good output of people that are coming from the churches to participate in the straw poll. So we want to go and just share our message with them and invite them to come and be a part of it."
'Her faith story'
Bachmann's faith has always been at the center of her politics, informing her staunch opposition to legalized abortion and same-sex marriage. When she ran for Congress in 2006, she told Mac Hammond's Living Word Christian Center in Brooklyn Park that she felt "called" to run by God, fasted and prayed with her husband for three days, and finally decided she would bear the rigors of public life because she was a "fool for Christ."
While her faith constitutes the base of her politics, it also places her at the forefront of bitter cultural wars.
Her most ardent opponents remain gay rights activists like the ones who recently "glittered" the faith-based counseling clinic run by her husband, Marcus, whom they accuse of practicing reparative therapy on certain clients, sometimes branded as "praying away the gay."
But unlike her controversial appearance at Hammond's church five years ago, the church outings in Bachmann's presidential run don't feature registration tables and voter guides.
"Her focus here was strictly to share her faith story," said Brittney Roorda of Des Moines' First Assembly of God church, a conservative church that teaches that those who reject Christ are damned to a lake of fire. "She did not go into any political leanings, or ask for a vote or any sort of endorsement."
According to Roorda, the church's lead pastor invited Bachmann to speak because "he realized her faith story fit with the Nehemiah series that we're in right now."
The Old Testament Book of Nehemiah focuses on the importance of leadership. Amid some grumbling in the congregation about opening the church to a presidential candidate, Pastor Dave Beroth wrote in his church blog: "No, she will not be actively campaigning while she is with us. Yes, we each have a responsibility to vote for godly public officials."
'I needed a savior'
Bachmann's 20-minute talk recounted the night in 1972 when she and some teen friends felt inexorably drawn to an empty church.
"The Holy Spirit drew us up to the altar and we went onto our knees and we began confessing our sins," Bachmann said, according to an account in the Des Moines Register. "I hadn't been wild. I hadn't been drinking, or on drugs or carousing or chasing around but it didn't matter. I knew that I was a sinner and I knew that I needed a savior and I knew that I didn't have Him."
Sitting in the audience was David Hull, an AT&T worker who picked up on a reference to the books of Samuel, which tell stories of King Saul and his battles against the Philistines.
Hull saw a parallel between Bachmann and the outnumbered Israelites. "She's at a disadvantage, but she's a woman of action," he said.
To Hull, the disadvantage stems from a sense of being marginalized in popular culture and politics, including by media he views as unfriendly to religious conservatives: "I'm a man of faith, but I know how the world perceives it."
Carol Palmer, the mother of a Des Moines deli owner who hosted Bachmann this week, said she's grown tired of the intense scrutiny of Bachmann's views.
A series of Bachmann gaffes and missteps in recent months has only fed the beliefs of both those who see her as unqualified for the White House and those who believe she is being singled out. Her recent endorsement of a controversial pledge by an Iowa religious group that compared the lives of slave families favorably to those of modern black families provided fuel to both sides.
Bachmann later disavowed the slavery reference. Much of the rest of the GOP field refused to sign the pledge and dismissed the group behind it.
Born-again Christians like Rabe feel their beliefs are under attack as well. "We have a right to our opinions,'' she said. "We think it's radical on the other side."
For the faithful, Bachmann doesn't always have to be right on the issues. "People are looking for convictions, not positions," said Deace, explaining Bachmann's popularity despite the barrage of withering political attacks that would flatten most candidates.
Linebach, who owns a couple of Des Moines coffee shops, said he questions Bachmann's opposition to raising the nation's debt limit under any circumstances, which he thinks could plunge the economy into chaos. He's not even sure he'd vote for her for president.
But he said she speaks to him at a deeper level. "It's really a passion for her that you can see so readily," Linebach said. "She really steals the hearts of a lot of people."
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.
© 2013 Star Tribune