Hear that snickering? That’s the sound of the 2012 mudslinging starting in earnest.
If you aren’t yet familiar with the growing whispers about Michele Bachmann’s campaign—the uncorroborated speculation that the candidate’s profoundly antigay hubby, Marcus, is a closeted gay man—you will be. The chatter has already made its way from the blogs and Twitter (Cher tweeted that Marcus has tripped her exquisitely tuned gaydar) to the alternative press to The Daily Show, where Jon Stewart and Jerry Seinfeld left each other in stitches this week taking shots at Marcus Bachmann’s effeminate manner and “center-square gay” voice. (Anyone out there old enough to remember Paul Lynde?) As Stewart joked, the guy is “an Izod shirt away from being the gay character on Modern Family.” Clips of the comedians’ faux “comedy repression” session promptly popped up on the websites of such stodgy outlets as The Washington Post and The Atlantic.
The wringing of hands about whether it’s fair for the respectable media to promote this sort of salacious chatter is as inevitable as the chatter itself. But this particular assault on Marcus is about more than critics lobbing generic bombs at a fiercely conservative presidential combatant. Michele Bachmann has long been one of the most aggressive anti-gay-marriage crusaders in politics, while Marcus runs a Christian-based therapy clinic accused of dabbling in “reparative therapy,” a controversial counseling technique premised on the notion that you can "pray away the gay." (One clip making the rounds from an undercover video shows a potential clinic patient being assured that, among other things, God had made men’s eyes to appreciate the form of a woman.)
The Minnesota congresswoman has lamented that involvement in “the gay and lesbian lifestyle” is a life of “personal bondage, personal despair, and personal enslavement,” while her husband has charmingly likened bi-curious youth to “barbarians” who must be “educated” and “disciplined”—parenting advice that manages at once to sound both draconian and pervy.
In short, we’re talking here about a couple that has planted its flag on the lush green fields of militant anti-gaydom and dared the deviants to take their best shot.
Which is precisely what is happening now—and is likely to accelerate as the congresswoman’s profile and poll numbers rise.
Not sharing the Bachmanns’ squeamishness about homosexuality, I don’t give a pig’s lip which way Marcus rolls. I can’t even get worked up about the hypocrisy angle, always a favorite cudgel in politics. After all, if someone as religiously conservative as Marcus Bachmann were gay, of course he’d cling to the idea that a person can pray away his supposedly satanic urges. It’s human nature to flip out most about the things that affect us the most personally.
But while Marcus’s sexuality holds little interest for me, I am interested to see how the Bachmann camp will handle the still-below-the-radar-but-getting-tough-to-ignore buzz. It’s one thing to be attacked during a campaign for your political positions or personal quirks. Most big-league candidates make their peace with the possibility that their beliefs, character, and personal lives will be publicly shredded before they opt to enter the game (or not, as in the case of Mitch Daniels).
But in Bachmann Land, where politics is so personal, what will be the reaction to the suggestion that Marcus is the very thing he has long devoted himself to fighting against? Slamming the congresswoman as a Jesus freak or an antigovernment extremist only fills her with pride. But how will she and her camp deal with her husband being lampooned as a closet case? It’s like Ronald Reagan being tarred as a down-low commie—or Grover Norquist being accused of harboring big-government impulses. Harsher still, as the FrumForum has noted, Bachmann’s fellow righties have thus far not been leaping to her defense on this most ticklish of issues. She and Marcus have been left to twist in the wind as outlets like Gawker compile the increasingly brutal commentary.
But here’s where Bachmann has the edge over many other pols: as a conservative Christian, the more she and hers are attacked—especially on something she considers a core moral issue—the more she will be convinced that she’s doing God’s work.
Among devout evangelicals, ferocious attacks—including people bearing false witness against you—are brandished as a badge of honor. It shows that you are willing to be despised and persecuted for your faithfulness, as were Jesus and his early followers. “They’ve heard the sermon over and over again, ‘You will be persecuted for righteousness' sake,' ” observes Michael Cromartie, head of the Evangelical Studies Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “So the idea of being misrepresented or persecuted is not new.”
The degree to which Christians should anticipate or even pine for persecution has long been a common debate topic. (“You know if you are never persecuted for your beliefs then you are probably not bothering Satan too much,” asserts this poster at ChristianOvercomers.com, adding that “being delivered up to Satan and the rules of his beast system is your DESTINY as one of God’s elect.”) The tendency of some religious conservatives to see themselves as a political minority under siege has even been given its own cheeky moniker, Christian Persecution Complex.
In modern-day America, chances for actual religious martyrdom are few and far between. For the pious like Bachmann, political martyrdom can be the next best thing.
Bachmann has already pointed to religious bigotry as a source of her political opposition. “I was attacked repeatedly for my religious faith, and the media was a willing accomplice,” she told the Minneapolis Star Tribune of her 2006 House race. “I’m really disturbed by the media’s lack of tolerance and understanding for the belief of a committed Christian.”
The more personal the persecution of her husband gets, tied as it is to his antigay labors, the more likely it is to steel Michele’s spine and persuade her to stay the course. “Most social conservatives agree with her about the homosexual issue,” asserts Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, predicting: “Not only is it not going to faze her, it will build sympathy for her among her supporters and admiration that she doesn’t back down.”
In which case, it could be the congresswoman who winds up having the last laugh.