Last week's debate among the GOP presidential candidates included two questions that were all about the specifics of religion -- and concerned candidates who still matter following the Ames straw poll.
The first query was from was Byron York, basically asking Herman Cain if Mormons (as in Mitt Romney) are too weird to win in the South. I figure Romney himself will face that question in the next debate.
The other religion inquiry was also from York who, like all of the questioners, had an excellent night. In what was among the most quoted segment of the debate, he asked Michele Bachmann whether she would be "submissive" to her husband if elected president.
Her answer was either revelatory or evasive. And the exchange returned a particular passage of the New Testament's Epistle to the Ephesians to the national spotlight after more than a decade.
To understand why this is important, you'll need to get through three extended bits of text.
Let's start with the transcript of a speech Bachmann gave back in 2006. You can watch the video here. She is explaining why she went back for advanced work on tax law after finishing law school. Her answer: Her husband said to do it.
"Tax law? I hate taxes. Why should I go do something like that? But the Lord says 'be submissive. Wives, you are to be submissive to your husband'...I was going to be faithful to what I thought God was calling me to do through my husband," said Bachmann.
York used that statement as the peg to his question. (You can read the whole debate transcript here.)
"In 2006, when you were running for Congress, you described a moment in your life when your husband said you should study for a degree in tax law. You said you hated the idea. And then you explained, 'But the Lord said, 'Be submissive. Wives, you are to be submissive to your husbands.' As president, would you be submissive to your husband?" York asked.
Bachmann was silent for a TV-time eternity and gave York the kind of look that makes that Newsweek cover photo seem less unreasonable. Then she thanked him for the question and replied:
"Marcus and I will be married for 33 years this September 10th. I'm in love with him. I'm so proud of him. And both he and I -- what submission means to us, if that's what your question is, it means respect. I respect my husband. He's a wonderful, godly man, and a great father. And he respects me as his wife. That's how we operate our marriage. We respect each other. We love each other.
"And I've been so grateful that we've been able to build a home together. We have five wonderful children and 23 foster children. We've built a business together and a life together. And I'm very proud of him."
Which seems a few lines short of a full reply.
Where did Bachmann get the idea she expressed so clearly in 2006 that a wife should submit to her husband? Ephesians 5:22-33. Let's take the key sections from the grand old cadences of the KJV:
"Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the savior of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it... let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband."
The last time the MSM devoted much attention to this Bible passage was back in 1999, when the Southern Baptist Convention amended what it calls the Baptist Faith and Message, a sort of creed for a putatively creedless denomination. The revised (and still current) version states: "A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ."
That set off a round of hand-wringing about the patriarchical oppression of women by fundamentalist right wingers and so on. The SBC response was to direct readers to Ephesians and point out that the passage describes a two-way street. The "submission" part of the formula kicks in only if the husband is treating his wife's needs and interests the way that Christ served the church. Which is a pretty high bar.
But there is no question that the passage has been used over the centuries to justify terrible abuse of women. Or that, even when followed sincerely and literally, it ends up with the husband in charge of the household.
Bachmann's answer during the GOP debate equated "submit" as "respect." Which would not be the first or million-and-first time that a Christian offered her own metaphorical interpretation of scripture. But in other contexts, including that 2006 speech, Bachmann has aligned herself with those whose understanding of Bible passages tend toward a particular and literal reading. Here's a piece from an answer she gave last year to a question about Israel:
"As a nation we have been blessed because of our relationship with Israel, and if we reject Israel, then there is a curse that comes into play. And my husband and I are both Christians, and we believe very strongly the verse from Genesis, we believe very strongly that nations also receive blessings as they bless Israel."
And in this case, she's talking about the modern state of Israel. Which is not a unique reading of Genesis 12:3, but it is a particular one.
What does "submit" mean in that passage from Ephesians? I don't translate biblical Greek but there are plenty who do. The verb is "hypotasso," which most authorities translate as "to submit," "to yield," or "to be subject to." Based on a classical translation of the Greek word as "to arrange or place under." Which is a whole 'nuther thing from "to respect."
So either Bachmann is engaging in the kind of flexible biblical interpretation that she seems not to run with in other contexts. Or she avoided the question.
We've heard questions like this before in presidential politics. Critics have frequently wondered whether a First Lady exerted undue and untoward influence over her husband. Remember complaints about Nancy Reagan and her astrologer? Or Hillary Clinton and, hm, pretty much everything?
And neither of their husbands, mind you, had ever suggested that they'd felt a divine obligation to submit to their wives in anything.
Bachmann has already acknowledged that her understanding of her husband's biblically based authority led her in to an important direction in her life that she would have otherwise rejected. If, in the White House, he were to come to her in a similar context with thoughts about economic policy or how do deal with Iran, how could she consistently disregard such counsel? Why would she not believe it was what "God was calling me to do through my husband?"
It's wonderful that she's got a happy marriage filled with mutual respect. That kind of deep and mutual respect is surely part of the Ephesians equation. But when push comes to shove, when does she hear the call of God when her husband speaks? And what happens if the call comes in at 3 a.m.?