Catholics shouldn’t fear Michele Bachmann

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Michele Bachman has been taking some heat lately for the views of the conservative Christian denomination to which she used to belong, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), which believes that the Pope is the Antichrist. People have been understandably concerned about Bachmann’s past affiliation with WELS, especially conservative Catholics who would otherwise be favorably disposed to many of her positions. The stance reminds Catholics of similar stances taken by earlier Protestant groups — the 19th-century Know-Nothings immediately come to mind — that promoted anti-Catholic bigotry and discrimination. It would be alarming if a presidential candidate had a similar antipathy for Catholics.

I’m a pretty conservative Catholic myself. I love the institution of the Papacy and I deeply admire our current Pope. I love being a Catholic, I love the Church and I would never shirk from defending it from unjust accusations, slander or bigotry. But I wouldn’t be terribly alarmed if Michele Bachmann agreed with the WELS belief that the Pope is the Antichrist. Here’s why:

First, WELS’s teaching sounds a bit more alarming than it truly is. As was described in this article in The Atlantic, the denomination takes a fairly moderate interpretation of what it means for the Pope to be the Antichrist. WELS simply holds that the Catholic Church’s teaching of Papal infallibility is opposed to the Lutheran teaching of the primacy of the Bible; WELS members argue that by putting himself in the place of God’s written word (the lone source of authority on matters of faith for traditional Lutherans), the Pope opposes himself to Christ. He is thus anti-Christ — an Antichrist. The teaching isn’t accompanied by any requirement to persecute Catholics, to treat them unkindly or deny them political rights, as earlier, more bigoted Protestant groups did.

While I obviously disagree with the idea that the Pope is the Antichrist, I can’t say I find WELS’s teaching offensive. Protestants don’t like Papal infallibility — oh wow, I had no idea! Further, I have to say that I admire WELS’s chutzpah. The tendency among both Catholic and Protestant liberals has been to promote a phony kind of ecumenical “unity” by glossing over doctrine and dogma in favor of a lowest-common-denominator religion of niceness. They promote a religion that has abandoned the supernatural in favor of the topical; they demonstrate a lot more concern for environmental protection than they do for the eternal salvation of their members. WELS, by contrast, has held firm to a large body of clearly articulated doctrines with little compromise.

I believe that if someone thinks my views are so wrong as to jeopardize my salvation, and if they are so concerned as to try to convince me of the error of my ways, it’s really an act of kindness on their part. Frank expressions of disagreement provide a more honest basis for discussion and eventual reconciliation than pretending everything is hunky-dory; it’s truly more ecumenical than any silly “ceremony of unity” that liberal ecumaniacs are so fond of. I’d prefer to have a religious discussion with someone who thinks that I’m wrong than with someone who doesn’t really believe that there’s a “wrong” in religion. In the sense that they both believe in the importance of doctrine, WELS members have something in common with orthodox Catholics.

In fact, there are a lot of ways in which WELS and other conservative Protestants are very similar to Catholics. On all of the most important and most hotly contested social issues of the day (abortion, euthanasia, embryo-destructive stem cell research, gay marriage), they stand side by side with the Catholic Church. They firmly believe that Christian moral teaching should have a voice in the public square, that religious conceptions of right and wrong should inform even our legal conception of right and wrong. As a Catholic, I disagree with a whole host of WELS’s doctrines; however, as a social conservative, I’d vote for a strict WELS conservative over a phony Catholic like Nancy Pelosi any day.

Ultimately, I don’t think Bachmann thinks or thought the Pope was the Antichrist, and on that front I think this story is a non-issue. When the question of her association with this church was first discussed in 2006, she immediately tried to distance herself from any idea that the Pope is the Antichrist, claiming the pastor of her own church did not believe in the teaching either. She then formally requested to leave the denomination. I’m almost certainly not going to vote for Bachmann in this primary, but it’s not because of these allegations. Even if they were true, I don’t think it would make me view her that much more unfavorably.

In our era, Catholics have a lot more to fear from the anti-Catholicism of aggressive liberal secularism than they will ever have to fear from Protestantism. Protestants will disagree with us; secularism would deny the Church any right to influence society. Christopher Hitchens should scare us a lot more than Michele Bachmann.

John Gerardi is a student at Notre Dame Law School. He writes on topics relating to religion and society.