Michele Bachmann: What do her favorite books tell us?

A list of Michele Bachmann's favorite books includes one that "startles" an interviewer.

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    On a list of her favorite books, Bachmann included one that argues that the US Civil War is the story of a "South [that] was an orthodox Christian nation unjustly attacked by the godless North."
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Michele Bachmann’s life is an open book in more ways than one.

Sure, we know about her migraines, her foster children, the suspicions about her husband. But if you really want to know the congresswoman from Minnesota and one of the leading contenders to run for president in 2012 – if you really want to know anyone – you have to check out her bookshelf.

Fortunately, years ago when she was a Minnesota state senator, Bachmann published a list of nine of her favorite books on her website. The picks speak volumes on the Tea Party-favorite Bachman and has, at times, put her in the uncomfortable position of defending controversial ideals and dwelling on issues her campaign PR would no doubt rather bury.

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In the Aug. 15, 2011, edition of The New Yorker, Washington correspondent Ryan Lizza examines the writers, books, and beliefs that have shaped the Republican frontrunner and he says what he found shocked him.

One constant theme that connects each of the books that have been important to Bachmann: applying a Christian conservative biblical worldview to many facets of life.

Among the most controversial books that have shaped Bachmann – a book she endorsed as one of her nine favorite works on her website back in her state senator days – is “Call of Duty: The Sterling Nobility of Robert E. Lee,” by J. Steven Wilkins.

In his New Yorker profile, Lizza describes the book and its author:

“Wilkins is the leading proponent of the theory that the South was an orthodox Christian nation unjustly attacked by the godless North.… In the book, Wilkins condemns ‘the radical abolitionists of New England’ and writes that ‘most southerners strove to treat their slaves with respect and provide them with a sufficiency of goods for a comfortable, though – by modern standards – spare existence.’ African slaves brought to America, he argues, were essentially lucky: ‘Africa, like any other pagan country, was permeated by the cruelty and barbarism typical of unbelieving cultures.’”

It’s known as the theological war thesis and with Wilkins’s help, it’s now part of some Christian home schooling curricula.

“It is an objectively pro-slavery book and one of the most startling things I learned about her in this piece,” Lizza tells NPR.

Unfortunately for Bachmann, it’s also one of many slavery-related gaffes, as Time’s political writer, Katy Steinmetz, points out in a recent blog. (It’s also one more example of how, 150 years later, the Civil War continues to be a controversial and fraught topic for schools, as the Monitor discussed in these two articles.)

Along with Rick Santorum, Bachmann signed the “Marriage Vow” pledge, which among other things, originally suggested black children born into slavery right before the Civil War had it better than those born under Barack Obama. In a Western Conservative Summit gathering in Denver in 2010, she famously claimed that Washington’s liberal agenda was turning America into “a nation of slaves.” And, Ms. Steinmetz points out, “she dubiously claimed that the Founding Fathers worked tirelessly to end slavery, later clarifying that she meant John Quincy Adams (who was a boy in the Founding-Father era).”

Lizza traces her ideology back to the books and authors who shaped Bachmann in her earlier days. Among the first books Lizza mentions is “Total Truth,” by Nancy Pearcey, a well-known creationist and an advocate of Dominionism, the belief that Christians are biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Jesus returns.

In an interview with NPR, Lizza says “Total Truth” helped shape Bachmann’s anti-secular beliefs.

"Michele Bachmann has mentioned Pearcey's book as one that was important to her," he says. "[The book] is in line with the Schaeffer-ite view of taking your Christian faith and making sure that it permeates all parts of your life. The key thing here is Christians should not just be go-to-church-on-Sunday Christians. Their religion should permeate all aspects of life."

And for Bachmann, trained as a lawyer, that includes American law. In 1979, Bachmann enrolled in the first law school class at Oral Roberts University, where professors taught “biblical law” and students were required to sign a "code of honor" attesting to their Christian beliefs.

There, she worked with one of the professors, John Eidsmoe, as a research assistant, and has repeatedly referred to the influence he had on her beliefs, telling one audience in Iowa this year that he "taught me so many aspects of our godly heritage." “Christianity and the Constitution,” Mr. Eidsmoe’s 1987 book, advocates for more Christian influence in politics and the legal system.

"That's what the book ends on, a clarion call for his students to get involved,” Lizza tells NPR. “Eidsmoe is someone who believes American law should be based on the Bible. He believes that the United States is a Christian nation, should remain a Christian nation and that our politics and our law should be permeated by one's Christian faith."

In the highly controlled, image-conscious, PR-savvy world of modern political campaigning, a book list is a rare look – sans poll numbers, glossy campaign ads, or hot air from political analysts – inside a candidate’s mind. Bachmann’s reads are certainly revelatory.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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