One of the most amusing parts of Rapture Ready , Daniel Radosh’s investigation into the world of evangelical Christians, is his discovery of how often your average evangelical “converts.” See, at the end of church services and even just evangelical social events, there’s an altar call where people who have been moved by the spirit stand up and dedicate themselves to Christ. It’s all very moving to see these sinners start life anew on the path of the Lord. So moving, in fact, that you can’t just leave the minister hanging if there’s no one in the audience who has, in the past hour, renounced their Satan-worshipping ways to come to Jesus. So, many to most people who come up for your average altar call have done it before, often dozens or even hundreds of times. The already-converted keep converting over and over again, and each “conversion”–even if it’s just one of hundreds for an individual–counts toward the minister’s tally of souls saved. To outsiders, coming to Jesus over and over seems a tad phony, but for insiders, the potential for drama far outweighs these concerns about integrity.
Which goes a long way toward explaining how it is that Michele Bachmann has more origin stories than the superhero of a long-running comic book franchise. Did she realize that she needed to come to political Jesus when she worked for Jimmy Carter and felt betrayed by his liberal ways? Or was it when she read Gore Vidal and was so incensed by his lack of regard for the Founding Fathers that she was forced to go full wingnut? Was it when Roe v. Wade was decided and she first discovered what “abortion” means, destroying her innocence and sending her into politics? Or was it, as she claims this week, after she fostered 23 teenagers in the Bachmann-Jesus Home for Wayward Girls and was inspired to go into political life? Answer: depends on who’s doing the altar call this time and what they need to hear.
The uniting theme of Bachmann’s various conversion stories is just that, conversion. Her narrative about herself is that politics is not an ambition of hers, but a calling. She was a Democrat/housewive/naive ingenue, at least until her innocence was shattered and she was forced, forced I tell you, to seek power and attention and wealth, all in the service of making the world a more Christian place. This is actually a common enough narrative for female Republicans, at least of the social conservative variety. It’s the way they smooth over the cognitive dissonance between conservative values regarding gender (that women exist to serve, that women shouldn’t be ambitious) and their obvious ambitions. A conversion story allows the audience to believe that your nature is to stay at home and cook something, but the Lord had larger plans for you. It also, conveniently, casts the politician as something more than a politician, as a hero on a quest , which makes the female politician who adopts this narrative a lethal media weapon, at least as long as she’s got the charisma to back it up. (Sorry, Sharron Angle.)