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Michele Bachmann: Crazy Like a Fox

She won the Ames straw poll on Saturday and is the clear favorite to win the Iowa caucuses in January. There's a method to Michele Bachmann's madness.

| Mon Aug. 15, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

There's a story Michele Bachmann likes to tell when she speaks to religious audiences. It arrives about three-quarters through her stump speech, after the warning to opponents that she is "one tough cookie" and the crowd-pleasing pledge to make Barack Obama a—say it together—"One. Term. President."

As Bachmann tells it, America's national sovereignty is slipping away, and the sanctity of the family is being overrun by an encroaching nanny state. But we can find hope in the story of the Israelites, who, after drifting from their faith and coming under siege in their own land, shunned their false idolatry and pushed back the invaders with God's help: "The men of Issachar understood the times that they lived in, and they knew what to do," she says, referring to one of the 12 tribes of Israel. "They had the courage to carry it out." Although Bachmann doesn't note this, it's the only episode in the Bible in which men are led into battle by a woman, Deborah.

This is Michele Bachmann's message, in its biblical essence: America will be restored to its founding glory by a righteous few, and it's going to take a fight. "It is my opinion that God has not given up on the United States of America," she says, the crowd beginning to feel it, "and we shouldn't either."

Since her election to Congress in 2006, Bachmann has earned a reputation as one of the lower chamber's biggest bomb throwers. She has accused the president of harboring "anti-American" views, warned that census data could be used to round up dissenters into internment camps, and declared that the Treasury Department is quietly planning on replacing the dollar with a global currency. To her critics, Bachmann is flat-out crazy, a purveyor of, as Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) put it, "psycho talk."

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But beneath language that seems cribbed straight from Glenn Beck's magical chalkboard, there is a method to the congresswoman's madness. Her rise was not a fluke, and she is not, as Fox News' Chris Wallace clumsily implied in June, a "flake." Bachmann's candidacy represents the crest of a movement, four decades in the making, to restore faith as the foundation of public life in America—from public schools on up to the White House.

From her days as an abortion protester and conservative foot soldier, she has climbed the ranks, at every step of the way reshaping the political dynamic around her to reflect her own frenzied style. In some respects, her career arc mirrors the president's—a restless youth, a life-changing trip abroad, a stint as a community organizer, and then a rapid rise from the state legislature to the US Capitol. Now she wants Obama's job.

In June, when Bachmann officially kicked off her presidential campaign in Waterloo, Iowa, the town where she was born and lived until she was 12, she recast herself as a Hawkeye in exile. "Everything I need to know," she told the crowd, "I learned in Iowa." But her formative years were really spent four hours north in Anoka, Minnesota, where she moved with her parents shortly before they divorced.

In August 2010, Bachmann threw a tea party event after Glenn Beck's Restoring Honor rally in Washington, DC.: Mark Peterson/ReduxIn August 2010, Bachmann threw a tea party event after Glenn Beck's Restoring Honor rally in Washington, DC. Mark Peterson/ReduxIt was here, at 16, that she had the religious epiphany that has guided her life. Prodded by friends, she showed up at a prayer meeting one day, still in her cheerleading uniform. "I didn't drink, I didn't party, I wasn't out chasing around," she tells supporters now, "but I was still a sinner. Even though I didn't have the big outward sins, I was still a sinner. I asked him to cleanse me and change me and turn me into his likeness." The summer after she graduated high school, she went to Israel to work on a kibbutz. The trip was a revelation for Bachmann, who, citing Genesis 12:3 ("I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse"), calls American prosperity God's reward for the nation's steadfast support for Israel.

After a stint living with an uncle in Alaska, Bachmann enrolled at Minnesota's Winona State University, where she met her husband, Marcus, through a campus Christian fellowship. Their courtship was not the stuff of rom-coms. One day, Michele was praying with a girlfriend when she had a vision of getting married to Marcus at his family farm in western Wisconsin. "I thought to myself, 'Ooh, I don't even like this guy. What's this about?'" she explained later. But God provided the spark.

Together, they discovered politics. Michele and Marcus volunteered for Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign in 1976, drawn in by the former Georgia governor's born-again faith and their own roots. (Bachmann was raised in a Democratic family; she jokes that her party affiliation was printed on her birth certificate.)

Without a light to guide them, its citizens became apathetic. They stopped working and relied on assistance from the ever swelling government. Rome didn't fall; it gave up.

Her political conversion came in college, while reading Gore Vidal's Burr. She grew upset at the book's mocking tone toward the Founding Fathers. "I looked out the window, and I said, 'You know what? I think I must be a Republican,'" she recalled during a speech last December.

But the intellectual roots of her transformation go much deeper. Bachmann's worldview is infused with a sense of urgency driven by her religious beliefs—particularly the conviction that current events are helping to usher in the apocalypse. "We are in the last days," she said in 2006. "The harvest is at hand."

At Winona State in the '70s, the Bachmanns watched How Should We Then Live?, a 10-part historical miniseries written and narrated by Francis Schaeffer, a founding father of the religious right. The film would become central to the couple's outlook.

Schaeffer's goal was to reinject Christianity into the public sphere. The premise of his film was that modern society was dissolving in a morass of apathy, sin, and moral relativism. But there was a solution. As Schaeffer told it, Rome's decline was the inevitable consequence of an insufficient moral foundation. Without a light to guide them, its citizens became apathetic. They stopped working and relied on assistance from the ever swelling government. Rome didn't fall; it gave up.

For Bachmann, Schaeffer's series offered a frame for understanding modern times—and more importantly, it illuminated the righteous pathway forward. She enrolled in law school at ultraconservative Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma, where, in Bachmann's words, "they taught the law from a biblical worldview." Over her own initial objections, she felt a divine calling—strongly encouraged by Marcus—to study tax law. "Tax law? I hate taxes," she recalled in a 2006 address at a mega-church in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. "Why should I go and do something like that? But the Lord says, 'Be submissive.'" It's a reference to Ephesians 5:24, which instructs women to obey their spouses: "As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands." The Lord and Marcus knew best.

If tax law sounded less than thrilling, it was nonetheless a starting point. As Schaeffer had taught, Christians, whatever their professions, had an obligation to engage society and use their status to correct its wayward course. Bachmann was about to do just that.

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