Tim Murphy

Tim Murphy

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Tim Murphy is a senior reporter in MoJo's DC bureau. His writing has been featured in Slate and the Washington Monthly. Email him with tips and insights at tmurphy [at] motherjones [dot] com.

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Michele Bachmann's Gay Biblical Alter Ego

| Fri Sep. 16, 2011 6:00 AM EDT
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) says she's a 21st-century version of Saul's son, Jonathan.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has a habit of breaking out Old Testament references when she speaks to religious audiences. She has previously compared her (increasingly) small but determined band of followers to the Men of Issachar, one of the 12 Tribes of Israel that helped ward off the Canaanite invasion in the Book of Judges. Like Bachmann's teavangelicals, the Men of Issachar were reclaiming their godly inheritance after the Israelites had lost their way. It's also one of the only instances in the Bible in which men are led into battle by a woman—Deborah.

But now, with her presidential campaign on the ropes, the Minnesota congresswoman seems to have picked a new Biblical alter ego; we're not sure she really thought this one through. Via MinnPost, this is what she told the conservative activists at RightOnline last week in June:

I want to call to mind in remembrance a hero of mine. And he's from ancient Israel. And from history we know, in the recorded annals of time, that this was someone considered more inconsequential, but to me he had an inspiring, powerful story.

His name was Jonathan. And it was in ancient Israel. His father was king. He was the first king of ancient Israel and his name was King Saul.

And there was another battle that Israel faced. And that battle was with a group of people called the Philistines. And the Philistines had a position of power. And they were up on a cliff during the time of this battle.

Then, as the story goes, Jonathan and a comrade scaled the cliff and defeated the entire Philistine army by themselves.

If the story ended there, that would be a fantastic metaphor for what Bachmann would like to accomplish as a candidate. The story of Jonathan does not end there, however. Given his lineage and heroics in battle, Jonathan was considered the front-runner to become the next head of state. But another, more charismatic (literally) rural farm boy came along and won over the base by killing a coyote with a Rueger killing a giant with a slingshot. Jonathan and Saul died tragically in battle on top of Mount Gilboa; David became king.

Goliath's severed head can only watch.: Wikimedia CommonsGoliath's severed head can only watch. Wikimedia CommonsBut there's another twist: Jonathan's mostly famous because of his very close personal relationship with David, with some scholars going so far as to suggest that they might have been lovers. Jonathan and David have been cited by gay rights activists as proof that gay rights are biblically enshrined, as well as by Oscar Wilde—at his trial for homosexuality. The Book of Samuel describes the relationship thusly: "The soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul." Their friendship led to a falling out between Saul and his son, after Jonathan pleads with the king to stop trying to kill David.

So were they actually lovers? It's hardly the mainstream view, but it's a theory that's out there: Dartmouth religion professor Susan Ackerman wrote a book about it. Here's how she synthesizes the "Jonathan and David were gay" (or at least bisexual) argument, seizing on the pair's falling out with Jonathan's father:

[A]s Schroer and Staubli particularly argue, the language Saul uses in his diatribe is extremely sexually charged, so much so that we may be meant to interpret it also in sexual terms; that is, to understand this charged language is used in Saul's insults because Saul perceives his son's misdeeds to be sexual as well as political. According, then, to Schroer and Staubli, Jonathan has not only engaged in "the political scandal of a royal son betraying father and kingdom for the sake of a stranger, but also the effrontery of homosexual love."

Bachmann, for her part, has described homosexuality as "personal bondage" and a "dysfunction" and alleged that gay marriage is an "earthquake issue" that could shake American society to its core. Given the way her campaign gone since Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the race, though, perhaps Bachmann should have just gone with Job.

Front page image: Wikimedia; Davie Hinshaw/Charlotte Observer/Zuma

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BREAKING: Supreme Court Halts Texas Execution

| Thu Sep. 15, 2011 10:41 PM EDT

The United States Supreme Court intervened at the eleventh hour to halt the scheduled execution of Duane Buck on Thursday, a rare move that will put the controversial execution on hold indefinitely until the justices can properly review Buck's petition for clemency. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles rejected a clemency petition from Buck's attorney on Monday, and petitions to Governor Rick Perry (and his deputy, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst) to grant a 30-day reprieve to re-evaluate the sentence went unanswered. Buck's attorneys filed a writ of certiori with the Supreme Court on Wednesday. (The order came about two hours after the execution window opened at 7 p.m. eastern time; as CNN reported, Buck had already eaten what was supposed to be his last meal.)

For Perry, the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, the decision threatens to reinject not just the issue of capital punishment, but also race into a campaign that in recent weeks has grown more contentious.

Buck was convicted in 1997 on two counts of murder after a shooting rampage at his ex-girlfriend's apartment. The case, which we've written about in more detail previously, is somewhat unusual in that Buck's guilt is not a point of contention by anyone (Buck included). The issue instead is whether his race (he's black) played a role in obtaining the capital punishment sentence. At Buck's trial, a psychologist summoned by the defense went on to testify, under cross-examination, that Buck's race made him more likely to commit violent acts in the future. To obtain a death penalty sentence in Texas prosecutors must prove a level of "future dangerousness," and the psychologist's testimony (although not its specifics) were cited in the prosecution's closing arguments.

When a similar case, brought by Argentinian Hugo Saldano, came before the Supreme Court in 2000, a much different group of justices ruled that the sentence was unconstitutional as it amounted to race-based discrimination. That led Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), then the state's attorney general, to re-examine past cases in which the same psychologist had been summoned and cited race as evidence of future dangerousness. Cornyn found six cases that matched the description—and Buck's is the only one of those six that has not received a re-trial. Cornyn stated at the time that the case had been "improperly decided." Last week, one of the former prosecutors in the case wrote to Perry asking him to commute the death sentence.

It's unclear how the Supreme Court may rule on Buck's petition; at this stage, simply the stay itself can be seen as a victory of sorts. Perry has presided over 234 executions as governor, a modern-day record, including 11 this year alone. He has commuted 31 sentences, but 30 of those came only after intervention by the Supreme Court, in cases involving the execution of minors and the mentally handicapped. And in at least one case, the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, he ignored compelling evidence that the state had sentenced an innocent man to die.

Tea Partiers: Light Rail an Invitation to Al Qaeda

| Thu Sep. 15, 2011 4:14 PM EDT

The citizens of Cobb County, Georgia, are currently mulling a proposal that would increase property taxes for 10 years in order to fund a new light-rail line between Atlanta to its suburbs. It's a fairly straightforward proposal, the kind of thing that pops up all the time in communities across the country. But if there's been one lesson of the past few years, it's that mundane policy debates have a tendency to become a lot less mundane once tea partiers get involved.

In this case, the Georgia Tea Party is arguing that the county should abandon its light-rail proposal because if the light-rail line were to be completed, it would become a magnet for terrorist attacks. Here's the group's chair, J.D. Van Brink:

If anyone doesn't believe me—England and Spain. Now, if we have a more decentralized mass-transit system using buses, if the terrorists blow up a single bus, we can work around that. When they blow up a rail, that just brings the system to a grinding halt. So how much security are we going to have on this rail system, and how much will it cost?

In other words, Van Brink is arguing that because terrorists fantasize about blowing up American infrastructure, we should avoid spending any money on infrastructure. Given tea partiers' opposition to most forms of government spending and their worries that light-rail and sustainable development plans are part of a United Nations conspiracy to force people to live in miniature, lightbulb-less "Hobbit homes," the terrorism concerns here almost seem like a dodge. But maybe Van Brink is on to something. Here's what Al Qaeda's new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, said in a video released in July: 

The al-Qaeda network is fully prepared to continue the jihad against the American infidels by launching deadly attacks, but your outdated and rusting transportation infrastructure needs to be completely overhauled for those strikes even to be noticed. We want to turn your bridges into rubble, but if we claimed credit for making them collapse, nobody would ever believe us.

Or maybe not. That quote was from the Onion.

(h/t Choire Sicha)

The Elephant in the Room in the Duane Buck Case

| Thu Sep. 15, 2011 9:47 AM EDT

Barring a last-minute reprieve from Governor Rick Perry, sometime after 7 p.m. on Thursday Duane Buck will become the 235th person to be executed in Texas in the last decade. Buck's case has drawn attention because of the role race-based testimony may have played in obtaining the death sentence. As I reported previously, a psychologist summoned by Buck's attorney testified under cross-examination that Buck's race (he's black) made him a greater threat to society; that testimony was then cited in the prosecutors' closing argument.

Buck's case is noteworthy because the racial argument was made so explicitly, and under oath. But the reality is that race is a determining factor in capital punishment sentencing whether a psychologist says so out-loud or not. As Amnesty International notes, "the single most reliable predictor of whether someone will be sentenced to death is the race of the victim." Among other things, they point out that:

  • A report sponsored by the American Bar Association in 2007 concluded that one-third of African-American death row inmates in Philadelphia would have received sentences of life imprisonment if they had not been African-American.
  • A January 2003 study released by the University of Maryland concluded that race and geography are major factors in death penalty decisions. Specifically, prosecutors are more likely to seek a death sentence when the race of the victim is white and are less likely to seek a death sentence when the victim is African-American.
  • A 2007 study of death sentences in Connecticut conducted by Yale University School of Law revealed that African-American defendants receive the death penalty at three times the rate of white defendants in cases where the victims are white. In addition, killers of white victims are treated more severely than people who kill minorities, when it comes to deciding what charges to bring.

That kind of institutional bias means that it's a lot harder to point to specific cases, a la Buck, in which race impacted the sentence—which means that, unlike Buck, most defendants will have a hard time making the case that their sentencing was in any way mishandled. But taken in sum, the numbers are pretty damning.

Bachmann Adviser Calls Out Bachmann on Vaccines

| Thu Sep. 15, 2011 9:25 AM EDT
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) falsely suggested on Monday that the HPV vaccine can cause mental retardation.

Even Michele Bachmann's former chief strategist thinks Michele Bachmann went off the deep end on vaccines. On Monday, and then again on Tuesday, the Minnesota congresswoman and GOP presidential candidate repeated baseless claims that the HPV vaccine mandated by Texas Governor Rick Perry can cause mental retardation in adolescent girls. Her comments met swift rebuttals not just from pediatricians, but from conservative talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. And now you can add Ed Rollins, the long-time GOP strategist who is currently serving as a senior adviser role to the Bachmann campaign.

Via Politico:

"She made a mistake. The quicker she admits she made a mistake and moves on, the better she is," Rollins said in an interview on MSNBC on Wednesday.

"Ms. Bachmann's an emotional person who basically has great feeling for people. I think that's what she was trying to project. Obviously it would have been better if she had stayed on the issue," he said.

Like his candidate, Rollins has a history of going off-message. Before he took a job with Bachmann, he told CNN that she was not a "serious candidate." In his first interview after joining the campaign, he boasted that he and his staff would fact-check everything Bachmann says to prevent her from going off the rails. Rollins stepped down from his post as chief strategist in early September for health reasons, but is still involved with the campaign in an advisory role.

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