I generally disagree with Ruth Marcus’s take on politics and policy, but usual find her writing interesting. Today, she writes about how Michelle Bachmann’s belief in the biblical idea of a woman needing to be “submissive” to her husband would translate into a presidency. Marcus seems to want to take the topic seriously, and not just caricature Bachmann (and evangelical women generally) as mindless drones. She writes:

I want to be respectful here of Bachmann’s beliefs about appropriate gender roles and the marital balance of power. I couldn’t disagree more with her views, but I recognize that they are biblically based and in the evangelical mainstream.

Obviously, this is a question that Rep. Bachmann will have to answer for herself, but I imagine that the answer lies somewhere in the understanding of what “submissive” entails.

For Marcus, and many East and West Coasters, evangelical Christians seem like aliens. They seem to envision that Christians, particularly Christian women, operate under rules entirely different from enlightened urbanites. Yet my understanding is that what this concept of being “submissive” entails for most Christian women is simply taking your husand’s advice and wants seriously.

Marcus recounts that Bachmann has explained that her husband suggested she considers specializing in tax law and while at first she wanted to dismiss him, she then remembered she needs to “be submissive to her husband.” Does this mean that Bachmann is really let her husband drive all major career decisions? I seriously doubt it. I cannot imagine she would have also “submitted” to his advice that she should instead become a gardener or try her hand at painting. The language Bachmann uses is language she understands and that appeals to her fellow Christians-but I imagine that the term “be submissive” means little more than that she decided to take her husband’s counsel seriously.

I’m don’t know the extent to which similar counsel is given to men in the Bible, but I know that modern Christian thinkers would encourage men to also sacrifice their personal desires for the good of the family, and to consider the needs of their wives. The language may be different, but the core understanding is that a functioning marriage and family requires putting the unit before individual desires.

Obviously, there is more tension in how these power relationships are discussed when it’s the woman, rather than the man, who is the politically powerful figure. Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, and Michelle Obama likely had and have strong opinions about how their husband’s should handle various situations. Yet since men have traditionally dominated the public sphere, men married to powerful women tend to be cast as either pushovers or as puppeteers. Yet it’s likely that their influence is no greater than that of the average political wife.

I remember reading a quote attributed to Margaret Thatcher (though I can’t seem to find it online), that when asked if her husband was the head of the household, she responded. “Yes, he is the head of the household. I am the head of the government.”

I cannot imagine that Lady Thatcher really differed to her husband’s every whim at home. I know little about their marriage, but assume they had a partnership, and that in making this statement she was defending him against being belittled and wanted to show him the respect he deserved.

Each marriage is different, but I find it hard to imagine that Mr. Bachmann is really calling the shots for his wife, or that a President Bachmann would be any more influenced by her husband than President Obama is by Michelle.