Editor’s Note: On July 13, Michele Bachmann sent a 16-page letter to fellow Minnesotan Keith Ellison. In it, she raised questions about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin, charging that her family had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. The missive came after Ellison had challenged Bachmann on similar statements she and colleagues had made to top government officials. Ellison decried the allegations, as well as claims by Bachmann that he also was affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Last Wednesday, John McCain defended Abedin on the Senate floor, saying, “When anyone, not least a member of Congress, launches specious and degrading attacks against fellow Americans on the basis of nothing more than fear of who they are … it defames the spirit of our nation.” Other lawmakers followed suit with criticisms. Our latest article from the States of the Union Project explores the backstory between Bachmann and Ellison—how such different elected officials live and serve in districts side by side.
The line that divides Minnesota’s Fifth and Sixth Congressional Districts, a border which stretches along several miles, is as puzzling, if not more so, as any in this nation. To say that this line is geographically non-descript is an exaggeration. On either side are matching dentist offices, auto parts stores, and modest one-story, single family homes. But since 2006, those north of the line have been represented by Michele Bachmann, an evangelical Christian, chair of the Congressional Tea Party caucus, and one-time candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. Those south of the line have been represented by the first Muslim member of Congress, Keith Ellison, a Democrat who is co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and vice-chair of the Congressional Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Equality Caucus. So what logic could possibly underlie this Minnesota irony, and what can it tell us about the broader scene?
True, this unremarkable boundary distinguishes the Twin Cities’ outer-ring suburbs and adjacent rural towns from the half million strong city of Minneapolis, which comprises Ellison’s district. According to 2010 Census numbers, Bachmann’s district is whiter (93 percent, compared with 75 percent in Ellison’s) and a third is rural. Ellison’s more urban district predictably includes more immigrants (14 percent foreign born, compared with 4 percent in Bachmann’s) and has more residents living below the poverty line (16.5 percent, compared to 6 percent in Bachmann’s). Yet according to Minnesota Public Radio, the per capita income for both districts is remarkably consistent. And whether they live in the Fifth or the Sixth, citizens wear their shared Minnesota identity with considerable pride: together they root for the Vikings and Twins despite losing records. They bring a homespun casserole, known locally as a hotdish, to new neighbors. They applaud the snowplow crews that make driving and living through the long cold winters here possible. They also take their civic participation seriously, turning out to vote in enviable numbers: according to analysis by Minnesota Compass, 53 percent of the voting-age population in counties in both districts voted in 2010, ten points higher than the national average.
Perhaps there’s something predictably puzzling about Minnesota politics, where we laugh at the punch line, like we do with Garrison Keillor’s News from Lake Wobegon monologues, not because it surprises us but because it strums familiar cords of the ironies of ordinary human life anywhere. The state that brought us Democratic Senator Al Franken also brought us Independent Governor Jesse “the Body” Ventura. Minnesota politics produced vice presidents Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, who along with Senator Eugene McCarthy, famously carried Democratic mettle to the presidential electoral stage in the 1960s and 1980s. The formal name of their party—the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL)—bespeaks the depth of the state’s grassroots progressive tradition. But Minnesota politics also launched Republican presidential seekers who wed Midwestern modesty with considerable ambition: former Governor Tim Pawlenty, of course, comes to mind these days, but we ought not forget the stolid Harold Stassen, who made twelve bids for the Republican nomination between 1944 and 2000.
Indeed, Representatives Ellison and Bachmann may exemplify how Minnesotans have consistently mixed progressive liberal politics with social conservatism in a sort of political-cultural hotdish. Minnesota hasn’t had the death penalty since 1911, but Minnesotans can’t buy a bottle of wine at a grocery store, or for that matter, buy it anywhere in the state on Sunday. If you live in the eastern reaches of Bachmann’s district and run out of beer during a Vikings game, Wisconsin’s convenience stores are minutes away on the other side of the St. Croix River. (Ellison joins Bachmann in supporting federal funding for a new bridge there.) Electorally, Minnesotans have endorsed divided government in a consistently purple manner. The state has elected moderate-leaning Republican governors (ordained Lutheran pastor Al Quie, Arne Carlson, and not one, but two, unrelated Elmer Andersons!) to complement DFL legislatures. At the current moment, there is a liberal DFL governor (and former U.S. Senator) Mark Dayton to complement the Republican-led House and Senate. While there’s a long tradition of civility in the state, that prerequisite Minnesota niceness, this political divide in government has led to no shortage, especially in the last decade, of gridlocks—like the state shutdown last summer.
If the analogy of a hotdish of social conservatism and political liberalism can bring context to the region, it cannot explain the elections and reelections of Michele Bachmann and Keith Ellison in contiguous districts. Simply put, while the districts they represent are surely distinct in many respects, they are hardly congruent in terms of this extreme contrast. Ellison has carried Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District handily in the last two elections, and it remains the most reliably Democratic district in the state. Bachmann’s Sixth Congressional District, by contrast, is not decidedly Republican by comparable margins. In 2010, despite high spending in one of the most expensive congressional races, Bachmann carried the Sixth District by only a 13 percent margin; in that same year, Ellison carried his district by a 44 percent margin. This is not because his is a predominantly or even seriously Muslim district in terms of demographics. While Ellison’s district is home to the largest concentration of Somali and other Muslim immigrants in the state, Muslims make up a very small minority of his constituency, estimated to be 12,000 in 2000 by the American Religious Data Archive. In June, a municipality largely within Ellison’s district even rejected a permit for an Islamic community and mosque. Indeed, Ellison represents more Jews than Muslims, and his district notably includes St. Louis Park, a center of Minnesota’s Jewish community, and the hometown of Al Franken, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, and the film-making Coen brothers.
Neither is the Sixth District a monolith of the religious affiliation of its congressional representative. Despite Michele Bachmann’s own strongly evangelical identity, her district is no more demographically evangelical than Ellison’s. In 2000, only 9 percent of Bachmann’s district was affiliated with an evangelical faith. Hennepin County, about half of which comprises Ellison’s district, also is 9 percent evangelical. There is a higher share of Roman Catholics in Bachmann’s district–30 percent compared with 23 percent in Ellison’s, and this is largely because the western counties of her district were historically settled by German Catholics. Lake Wobegon references to Minnesota Lutherans aside, the state has a rather significant Roman Catholic population, and certain regions have a deep tradition of Catholic identity. While a drive through that part of her district features no small number of graphic anti-abortion billboards, along with the flagship American Benedictine monasteries of St. John and St. Benedict, it also includes a Laotian Buddhist retreat center and the city of St. Cloud, which is home to a relatively large black population—around 12 percent in Census data—many of whom are of African, and especially Somali, descent.
If their respective districts offer far more muted contrasts than Bachmann and Ellison themselves suggest, it is certainly true that both members of Congress engage their religion and politics in highly contrasting ways, and that those contrasts are important to their electoral success in those districts. It may be by less handsome margins than her Fifth District counterpart, but Bachmann is reelected in light of, not in spite of, the identification of her religious identity and her political positions. It is hard to imagine her national name recognition, and the pride that can come with that star-power on the part of even those constituents who do not share fully her conservative Christian views.
If Ellison’s stature as Congress’s first Muslim also proves a point of pride for urban and urbane constituents happy to reelect him even if they do not share his religious identity, it is precisely because he does not wear his religious identity on his political sleeve. Indeed, what keeps Ellison in play is the mannerly manner with which he publicly engages a decidedly pluralistic, modern, and American version of Islam. About his conversion from Catholicism to Islam in college, Ellison told Bill Maher in March, 2011, “I found a message of inclusion, social justice—all races, all colors … I do believe that religious pluralism is a key component of the human experiment and that we need to have respect for believers … and non-believers.” Perhaps Ellison’s toughest political moment involved answering for his involvement with Louis Farrakhan as an organizer for the 1995 Million Man March and ensuring Jewish and Christian voters that his Muslim identity would not wholly color his support for Israel. Ellison’s religious sensibilities, and tact, were on display when he was sworn in ceremonially on a Qur’an (the official swearing in on a Bible had already transpired). Criticized by Representative Virgil Goode of Virginia for threatening “the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America,” the copy of the Qur’an Ellison had chosen for the ceremony was none other than one on loan from the Library of Congress that had belonged to Thomas Jefferson.
For her part, Bachmann’s view of Thomas Jefferson stands in sharp contrast. She construes Jefferson’s intention behind his language of a “wall of separation” between church and state in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists merely as a safeguard against a single national Church, not a denial of religion’s robust place in the public square. On her website, Bachmann states, “I am a firm believer in upholding the Judeo-Christian values that helped found this country. It is a gift to know that God has blessed us with the right to pray, teach, and practice our religious beliefs throughout this nation.” Bachmann belongs to a Stillwater, Minnesota, Lutheran church affiliated with the Wisconsin Evangelical Synod, a confessional branch of the Lutheran church which distinguishes itself sharply from the mainline Evangelical Lutheran Church of America on such doctrinal matters as the ordination of women, of which it does not approve.
So if Ellison and Bachmann suggest the polarization of our nation, the line between their districts is hardly a fault line. Instead, it would seem, the local, multifaceted, and ever shifting, workings of politics, especially the push and pull of redistricting, ensures that even narrow electoral margins can produce such extreme contrast in elected officials as that between Bachmann and Ellison. Indeed, the redistricting plans in light of the 2010 Census numbers, which were released in late February, are generally agreed to serve Ellison and Bachmann equally well.
Inasmuch as Minnesota presents a political cipher, this case can perhaps illuminate national trends. Though headlines suggest otherwise, the causal relationship between religious conviction and political behavior is far more varied, more shifting, and more complex than we expect. To confirm these ruminations, I returned to the north suburbs to drive the full length of the line dividing the Fifth and Sixth. I pulled into Nicklow’s Café and Bar, an establishment in the Fifth District, for an afternoon cup of coffee and hopefully a good quote. I sat at the circular bar opposite two men who were decrying, over beers, the level of violence associated with Meth and, I might add, with an alarmingly detailed knowledge about handguns. I thought I’d direct my questions instead to the bartender. As she came by to top off my coffee cup, I told her about the story I was writing, and, with a modicum of feigned interest, she responded that she didn’t know Representative Ellison was a Muslim.
Because the coffee at Nicklow’s had grown bitter by that time of the afternoon, I was pleased to spy a Dairy Queen across the road, and thus I found myself in Bachmann’s district. But the server there was as uninterested in my planned article as the server at Nicklow’s, so even though there were no other customers in line, I decided to place my order and head out. It felt right, and perhaps artful, to finish my work on the boundary between these two congressional districts with a vanilla cone, and a medium one at that.
Michael D. McNally is an historian of American religion and Chair of the Religion Department at Carleton College.