Inside the Right-Wing Christian Law School That Brought Us Michele Bachmann
At the May “First Friday” lecture hosted by the Institute on the Constitution at the Heritage Community Church in Severn, Maryland, IOTC founder Michael Peroutka presented the evening’s guest speaker, attorney Herb Titus, with a “Patrick Henry Award” for “his tireless and fearless telling of God’s truth to power.” Titus (best known for his representation of former Judge Roy Moore in his failed quest to install a 2.6-ton Ten Commandments monument in the Alabama Supreme Court building) is one of the few lawyers in America who, Peroutka noted, truly “believes God is sovereign and therefore God’s law is the only law.” For Peroutka, the Constitution Party’s 2004 nominee for president, this was his usual spiel on God and the law.
In the late 1970s, Titus played an instrumental role in launching the law school at Oral Roberts University (ORU), from which GOP presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann graduated in 1986. Titus, who rejected his Harvard Law School education after reading the work of R.J. Rushdoony, the late founder of Christian Reconstructionism, was moved to exercise what he believes is a “dominion mandate” to “restore the Bible to legal education.” To teach, in other words, that Christianity is the basis of our law, that lawyers and judges should follow God's law, and that the failure to do so is evidence of a “tyrannical,” leftist agenda.
Titus’ lecture, as well as the teachings of Reconstructionists, the Constitution Party, and the IOTC, provide a window into Bachmann’s legal education, and thus how her political career and rhetoric—so incomprehensible and absurd to many observers—was unmistakably shaped by it.
Restoring the American Jurisprudence to its “Biblical Foundations”
After launching ORU’s law school, and later helping with Regent University’s 1986 takeover and launch of a public policy program, Titus ran on Constitution Party founder Howard Phillips’ presidential ticket in 1996. The stated goal of the Constitution Party “is to restore American jurisprudence to its biblical foundations and to limit the federal government to its Constitutional boundaries.” That includes, for example, “affirm[ing] the rights of states and localities to proscribe offensive sexual behavior” (i.e., homosexuality) and “oppos[ing] all efforts to impose a new sexual legal order through the federal court system” (i.e., civil unions, marriage equality, or adoption by LGBT people). It is more extreme than the Republican Party platform, to be sure, but the GOP is hardly devoid of allies of the Constitution Party—including Sharron Angle, who ran for Senate in Nevada last year, and presidential candidate Ron Paul.
The lecture series at the Institute on the Constitution, which also offers in-depth classes that are popular with tea party groups, has recently included presentations on constitutional law by Moore and one of his protégés, current Alabama Supreme Court Justice Tom Parker. In a dissenting opinion in a 2005 child custody case in which the majority affirmed an award of custody to the child’s grandparents, Parker cited not legal cases or statutes, but rather Romans 13:1-2, for the proposition that “there is no authority except from God.” That, he concluded, dictated that the state should stay out of such family law matters except in the most extraordinary circumstances.
Christians are “Second-Class Citizens”
The claim that powerful, anti-Christian forces aim to undermine God’s “truth” lies at the heart of the IOTC’s and Titus’ conception of the constitutional roles of government and religion. Titus insists that Christians are discriminated against by these conventional interpretations of the Establishment Clause, which are at odds with his own, and which he contends have contributed to the treatment of Christians as “second-class citizens.”
“I would say to you that someone who holds a Christian view such as Michele Bachmann does would be much more accommodating of different views than any liberals,” he told me, because her views would permit the public posting of the Ten Commandments, for example, but a liberal’s would not.
That’s because, of course, under a “liberal” (i.e., accepted by the Supreme Court, at least for now) view of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, the government cannot act in a way that does, or appears to, endorse a particular religion.
Titus contends, however, that religion, as used in the Establishment Clause (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”) does not mean, well, a religion. Rather, Titus insists that this clause means that Congress cannot make you do anything that you are otherwise commanded by God to do: in other words, Congress cannot flout God.
Religion, Titus told the IOTC audience, “is the duty which we owe our Creator.” As Julie Ingersoll has described in detail, Rushdoony argued that God granted certain jurisdictional authority to the government, the church, and the family—therefore any government action exceeding its God-granted authority is in violation of God’s commands. Titus says the government has the power to make you, say, pay taxes, but other “duties we owe to God exclusively” cannot be enforced by the government.
In Titus’ view, the First Amendment prohibition against Congress establishing a religion was actually intended to prevent Congress from establishing institutions that he maintains are tantamount to a religion, like public education, or National Public Radio. “I don’t believe what they teach in public schools,” Titus told his IOTC audience. “They don’t even believe in the first thing—that God is the source of knowledge.”
Indeed, as Titus himself was aware, the activism that launched Bachmann’s political career was an extended crusade against public schools in Minnesota (which, oddly enough, included a failed bid for a spot on her local school board, even though her own children did not attend public schools).
According to a 2006 Minneapolis City Pages profile, in 1993 Bachmann helped found a charter school in Stillwater “that ran afoul of many parents and the local school board when it became apparent that the school—which received public money and therefore was bound to observe the legal separation of church and state—was injecting Christian elements into the curriculum.” Later, Bachmann “became a prolific speaker and writer on the evils of public education.”
Health Care, Guns, and Slavery
In a 2009 interview with Glenn Beck, Bachmann said, “I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax because we need to fight back.” Both that statement and her characterization of health care reform as federal government excess that amounts to creating “a nation of slaves” and “tyranny,” draw on her Reconstructionist understanding of the Constitution.
Indeed, Bachmann possesses an alarming misunderstanding of the history of slavery that at once celebrates it as a heyday of African-American family life, and engages in revisionism about the founders’ view of it. She recently signed a “marriage pledge” in Iowa that included the statement (since removed): “sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African-American president.” She has also stated, incorrectly, that the founders “worked tirelessly” to end slavery.
Peroutka and the IOTC, for their part, express affection for the Confederacy. In bestowing the “Courage of Daniel Award” on Moore on June 3, Peroutka, who frequently ribs people for being from the “wrong side of the Mason-Dixon line,” cheerfully noted that it also happened to be the birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Other IOTC speakers have included Franklin Sanders, whom the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as “a peculiar mix of neo-Confederate fantasist and seasoned tax protester.” Sanders has served on the Board of Directors of the League of the South, a Southern nationalist organization the SPLC characterizes as “a neo-Confederate group that advocates for a second Southern secession and a society dominated by ‘European Americans.’” That society would be, according to the SPLC, a “godly” nation “run by an ‘Anglo-Celtic’ (read: white) elite that would establish a Christian theocratic state and politically dominate blacks and other minorities.”
In the Reconstructionist view, a gun will protect you from your imagined enslavement by the federal government. Bachmann is one of several Republicans endorsed by the Gun Owners of America, another Titus client, which contends that gun ownership is not just a right, but an “obligation to God, to protect life.” Last year, Titus cited the “totalitarian threat” posed by “Obamacare” and told me that people need to be armed, “because ultimately it may come to the point where it’s a life and death situation.”
When I asked him recently whether he agreed with Bachmann’s opposition to health care reform, he exclaimed approvingly, “talk about turning yourself over to tyranny—your health care decisions made by bureaucrats.”
Bachmann’s history of questioning Barack Obama’s American-ness, or of espousing “normal people values,” is rooted in the Reconstructionist conception of “American-ness.” Not just Christian, but their kind of Christian; one who would obey God, exercise “dominion authority,” and, most crucially, is one of their “brethren.”
Titus, founder of Bachmann’s law school, happens to be the architect of a legal theory—as far outside of the legal mainstream as his Establishment Clause theory—that Obama is not a “natural-born citizen,” a designation that would render him ineligible to be president due to his “divided loyalties.” Deuteronomy 17, he insists, demands that that the “king” be selected from one’s own “brethren.” As an outsider Obama isn’t a “real” American, worthy—according to the Bible or the Constitution—of being president.
The “Judicial Tyranny” Canard
In 2003, motivated by Moore’s Ten Commandments crusade, then-state senator Bachmann participated in a “Ten Commandments Rally” on the state capitol steps, at which speakers called for the impeachment of federal judges who rule public postings of the Ten Commandments unconstitutional, and for a return to “biblical principles.” Bachmann, according to coverage in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, “told the crowd that the founders of the United States—including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson—‘recognized the Ten Commandments as the foundation of our laws.’”
Bachmann isn’t alone among Republican politicians embracing Reconstructionist views. After Moore was stripped of his judgeship for defying a federal court order to remove his monument, Titus drafted the Constitution Restoration Act, which would have deprived federal courts of jurisdiction in cases challenging a government entity’s or official’s “acknowledgment of God as the sovereign source of law, liberty, or government.” The bill, which did not pass, nonetheless had nine Senate co-sponsors and 50 House co-sponsors; including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Bobby Jindal, now the governor of Louisiana, Nathan Deal, now the governor of Georgia, and Mike Pence, a conservative hero who’s now running for governor of Indiana.
While campaigning for president, Bachmann took up the “tyrannical judges” mantle, this time in connection with the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling that the state’s gay marriage ban was unconstitutional. She applauded the ouster of “black-robed masters,” the three Iowa judges who had ruled same-sex marriage constitutional, and who were targeted by the religious right. In Iowa, judges are appointed, but subject to what is normally a routine, periodic retention vote.
The necessity of electing judges, rather than appointing them, was the subject of Parker’s First Friday lecture in January, because “elected judges are bulwarks against the agenda of the left.”
“If you take a moment to think,” said Parker, “federal judges appointed for life have legalized abortion, homosexuality, pornography, same-sex marriages, and outlawed school prayer and the display of the Ten Commandments.”
“When judges don’t rule in fear of the Lord,” he concluded, “all the foundations of the earth are shaken.”
Just the sort of thing that Peroutka complains isn’t taught in secular law schools. But at ORU, it was.
The Birth of the Christian Law School
The launch of the law school at ORU was intended to create public figures just like Bachmann: lawyers unafraid to inject their particular Christian beliefs, not only into the public square, but quite deliberately into legislation, policy, and jurisprudence.
As Titus tells it, God opened a door when the televangelist Oral Roberts wanted to found a Christian law school at his eponymous university in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “My first reaction,” said Titus in a recent interview with the Christian Reconstructionist Chalcedon Foundation, “was, no way, I’m not going to be identified with Oral Roberts, with this healer, with this Pentecostal personae and so forth, and yet God made it so clear to us that we were to go and help begin a Christian law school.”
Bachmann, who until a few years ago attended a staid and deeply conservative Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod church in Stillwater, Minnesota, might have been, like her law school classmate Dean Burnetti, “shocked” when a fellow student spoke in tongues in chapel the first day of law school. But Burnetti, now a personal injury lawyer in Florida, told me, “My personal worship experience has changed because of those people, and the way I see God’s active involvement in my life has changed because of that.”
The law school at ORU was a first effort at creating a “Christian” law school that would teach the “biblical” foundations of the law—essentially substituting Rushdoony’s totalizing worldview for mainstream legal theory. His views are evident not only in the ORU education Bachmann received, but in the perspectives of other Christian law schools forged on the ORU example, such as Liberty University Law School, where students are taught to follow “God’s law” rather than “man’s law,” and where Rushdoony’s texts are required reading. The rise of Christian schools—not just law schools, but elementary and secondary education, and homeschooling as well—has been, in Titus’ view, a “silent revolution” that has “basically escaped the scrutiny of most journalists.”
According to Titus, there have been “tremendous strides that have been made in last 20 or 30 years,” in developing other “Christian” law schools, including Regent University Law School, which, as noted above, took over ORU law school after Bachmann graduated. Titus credits Roberts, who “didn’t bow down to the establishment”; in particular the American Bar Association, which initially refused to give the school accreditation because it required faculty and students to be professing Christians (both were required to sign a pledge that they were followers of Jesus).
Burnetti described Bachmann as “brilliant” and a “very gifted, very talented, very smart girl.” When I asked whether he could see now how her ORU education influenced her, he said, “there’s no doubt in my mind that has an influence and will have an influence on everything that passes through the filter of her conscience and life. It will be filtered through the principles she has used in the joining of the Bible and her Christian faith and beliefs and the use of the Constitution.”
Titus was quick to point out that not all of the students of his preferred pedagogy are “cookie-cutter” types who fall into an identical ideological line. On foreign policy matters, for example, he said he’d be more aligned with the non-interventionism of Ron Paul than with Bachmann.
But it’s clear, nonetheless, that he’s confident that her Christian beliefs pass muster. He doesn’t consider either Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman, both Mormons, to be Christians; said he didn’t know whether Tim Pawlenty was a Christian (even though his pastor is the president of the National Association of Evangelicals); and defended Texas Governor Rick Perry’s hosting of a prayer rally.
Though he isn’t even running, Titus took a dig at Mike Huckabee, saying that host of Fox News’ Huckabee show “doesn’t understand the difference between the state’s business and the church’s business,” because he believes in “welfare taking care of the poor, which is contrary to Jesus’ teaching.” Again, that’s a reflection of the Christian Reconstructionist view of God-granted authority—i.e., it’s not within the government’s “authority” to take care of the poor.
I asked Titus whether it would be a big moment for him to see Bachmann, a product of the law school he helped found, ascend to the GOP presidential nomination. He replied, “It’s the kind of thing that we believe was one of our major purposes, which was to train people in such a way so as to make an impact in the leadership of the country.”