Michelle Bachmann’s Catholic Problem

Is Emmett Tyrell, editor of the American Spectator, a fool or a scoundrel? From his latest musings (at Clownhall) on the anti-Catholicism of Michelle Bachmann’s church, it’s hard to tell.

The backstory is the Bachmann just resigned from the Wisconsin Synod Lutheran church which she had attended for years, after it came out that website of the Wisconsin Synod’s website – following the teachings of Martin Luther himself – identifies the Pope as the Antichrist.

If you didn’t know that backstory, Tyrell’s piece would leave you ignorant. He writes:

I do not know what the Salem Lutheran Church’s complaint is, but if it is the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility, I think I understand. The debate began in 1517 and got rather bloody. Yet over the past century or so, it has become quite civilized. Actually, I would be rather surprised if any Protestant or, for that matter, Jew accepted papal infallibility. But that does not mean I would not vote for a Protestant or Jew for president.

Now, Martin Luther was undoubtedly a great man, but as far as I know his followers have never claimed that he had such prophetic powers as to dissent in 1517 from a doctrine – Papal infalliblity – not proclaimed until the First Vatican Council of 1871. But of course reducing the claim that “the Pope is the Antichrist” to the claim that the Pope is not infallible” makes it hard to see what all the shoutin’ is about. No doubt that was Tyrell’s intention.

Of course I agree with Tyrell that whether or not Michelle Bachmann agrees with Martin Luther and her former church about the Bishop of Rome is not relevant to her qualifications (if any) for the Presidency. It’s all good clean fund to point out that politicized fundamentalism and politicized Catholicism come from religious traditions that hate and despise each other as much as Sunni and Shi’a Islam. But that fact is a mere historical curiosum. A generation ago, anti-Catholicism was still an important social fact in this country. Now it’s not. That’s progress, and no Catholic in his right mind will think that the adherence of the Wisconsin Synod to the Smalcald Articles has any relevance to the candidacy of Michelle Bachmann.

Her apparent mendacity on the point – denying that her former denomination believes what it does, in fact, hold – is, perhaps, a different question.

Joshua Green found the following delicious piece of transcript:

Pat Kessler, WCCO (debate moderator): We’ll start with Senator Bachmann. Religion and politics that has crept into this campaign over and over again. The Minneapolis-based Star Tribune reports today, Senator, that the church you belong to is affiliated with the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, which, it says, regards the Roman Catholic pope as the Anti-Christ. Is this true, do you share the views of your church, and why should any Catholic in the Sixth District vote for you if it is true?

Bachmann: Well that’s a false statement that was made, and I spoke with my pastor earlier today about that as well, and he was absolutely appalled that someone would put that out. It’s abhorrent, it’s religious bigotry. I love Catholics, I’m a Christian, and my church does not believe that the Pope is the Anti-Christ, that’s absolutely false.

Compare the relevant passage from the Wisconsin Synod website:

… all Christians ought to beware of becoming partakers of the godless doctrine, blasphemies, and unjust cruelty of the Pope. On this account they ought to desert and execrate the Pope with his adherents as the kingdom of Antichrist.

Now, the last time I checked, the “adherents of the Pope” were called “Catholics.” So the Wisconsin Synod calls on its members to “execrate” Catholics as partakers of “godless doctrine” and “blasphemies.” It’s quite likely that Michelle Bachmann has no actual prejudice against Catholics. But her denial of an accurate account of her church’s teachings as “a false statement” is … well, it’s in line with the rest of her discourse.

Mollie Ziegler Hemingway correctly points out that the Wisconsin Synod is less extreme than some evangelicals, who regard Catholicism as a form of paganism and do not regard Catholics as Christians. I suppose that’s even worse than holding “godless doctrines” and partaking of “blasphemies.”

As to the question with which this post started, to Hell with it: why not both?

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.