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The Books And Beliefs Shaping Michele Bachmann

New Yorker Washington correspondent Ryan Lizza spent four days with Michele Bachmann and her staff aboard their campaign jet in late June. His profile looks at the writers, beliefs and books that Bachmann has specifically mentioned as influences in her life.


Other segments from the episode on August 9, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 9, 2011: interview with Ryan Lizza; Interview with Andrea Elliott.


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
The Books And Beliefs Shaping Michele Bachmann


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Ryan Lizza, profiles Michele Bachmann in the current edition of the
New Yorker. His article, "Leap of Faith," is in part about Bachmann's
transformation from Tea Party insurgent to serious Republican Party contender
in the 2012 presidential race.

The article is also about how she developed her Christian convictions and how
they have shaped her right-wing politics. Lizza traveled with Bachmann in mid-
June on a borrowed corporate jet she used to get to Iowa to campaign for the
caucuses. Ryan Lizza is covering the presidential campaign for the New Yorker.

Ryan Lizza, welcome back to FRESH AIR. What are some of the positions that you
would say define Michele Bachmann politically?

Mr. RYAN LIZZA (Washington correspondent, The New Yorker): Well, if you look at
her legislative career in the state Senate, the issues that she was the most
well-known for were opposition to gay marriage, fighting for the display of the
Ten Commandments in public places and railing against federal education policy,
which she partly thought lacked rigor - that was one component of it - but also
she thought it was, as she has said, anti-biblical.

She takes her Christianity very seriously. She comes out of a religious
Evangelical conservative movement that is very much concerned with developing a
biblical worldview and applying it to all corners of one's life.

GROSS: You write that one of the things she's best known for is her habit of
casting outlandish aspersions on her ideological foes and then having to reel
back those statements with a ritual apology.

And you actually witnessed two examples of that when you were traveling on her
campaign plane in June. What were those examples?

Mr. LIZZA: Well, I mean, the first thing I should say is I truly don't mean
this in any partisan way, but this is the fourth presidential campaign I've
covered, I've been covering politics since 1997, and I've never really covered
a candidate, sort of at her level, who frankly makes so many misstatements when
- so many factual misstatements. She's fairly careless with the facts.

I'll just give you one example, and I think this example is quite interesting
because you can sort see a text from what - from which Michele Bachmann took a
series of facts, and then you can watch her give a speech based strictly on
that text, and then you can sort of compare the two.

And the story isn't that important, but she is of course, a very strong
candidate in Iowa, is really emphasizing her Iowa roots. She has - she was born
in Iowa, and she has a long history of ancestors who were from Iowa.

And so she told a story about how her ancestors came to the United States from
Norway, and she tells a series of dramatic stories about their flight from
Norway to Iowa: floods, bad weather, locusts, this and that, and then they
finally persevere and survive and live happy lives.

But all of those dramatic stories she told, that she told her audience happened
in Iowa, actually happened in Wisconsin and South Dakota. And so I was - and
her cousin actually wrote a family history, where it very clearly laid out the
facts of her family moving to Wisconsin and then moving to South Dakota and
these dramatic things happening in South Dakota, and then her family leaving
the frontier of South Dakota for the relative safety and civilization of Iowa.

And in Bachmann's hands, this became a story of just botched facts and
misstated narrative. And I'll be honest with you, that sort of blew me away
when I sat there and looked at the text she took this from and how she
delivered the speech. And that may seem like a trivial example, but when you're
running for president, these things really do matter.

GROSS: Did you call her on that? Did you tell her that you'd read the family
history and that she got the facts wrong?

Mr. LIZZA: You know, I didn't, and I get at this a little bit in the piece. I
spent four days on her campaign plane. She has a very small plane, where
everyone was basically in one cabin, where I was able to sort of report and
observe how she and her campaign aides interacted really up close, really
frankly in a sort of unprecedented way when it comes to presidential campaigns
- you don't really get to see the inner workings of a campaign like this.

And so, you know, I had some very short conversations with her onboard there.
Later, though, at the end of my reporting, I did interview her. And a lot of
the issues that I talk about in the piece I didn't get to because after about
20 minutes, she cut me off, and she told me that she had to go do Sean
Hannity's show on Fox News, and she couldn't talk anymore, but she would get
back with me.

And then later, her press secretary told me that she didn't like my line of
questions. So she wasn't going to resume the interview. So some of the stuff
that is talked about in the piece I didn't actually get to ask her, including
the example I cited about her story about her ancestors in Iowa.

GROSS: Do you have a sense of what it was about your line of questions that she
objected to?

Mr. LIZZA: You know, that's a good question. I looked over the transcript again
to try and figure it out. It's probably one of two things. I did ask her - one
of the important moments in her life that she's talked about with a great deal
of emotion, before, is - she's used this phrase. She has said she came from a
broken home.

And her parents, (unintelligible), she lived in Iowa until she was 12 years
old, and then her father and her mother separated and then divorced. And she's
talked about the divorce as the most, sort of, shattering experience of her
young life.

And not long after her parents divorced, she joined a prayer group, and that
prayer group led her to become a born again Christian. And she's talked very
movingly and in great detail about the moment she was born again.

And it all sort of started - her sort of road to be born again - started with
this sort of shattering of her family life. And one of the interesting things
she's noted, at least when she spoke in front of one church audience, was how
she didn't have a father. She didn't have a strong male figure in her life, but
when she became born again, as she said, she then had a father.

So she's talked about this very moving experience of losing her own dad and
finding God, and she's connected the two in a very clear way. And so I started
to ask her a bit about that, and she didn't want to talk about it with me.

The next set of questions that I asked her were more about her intellectual
influences. And she's cited over the years, a number of people who have had a
profound effect on forming her ideology. And as I started to get into the weeds
of who these people are and what they believe, that's when, sort of, the
interview, it seemed like she was not as interested in talking about that.

GROSS: Let's talk about some of those people who have had a profound influence
on her ideas about Christianity and how Christianity relates to politics,
because Christianity, I think it's fair to say, is at the center of her
political and social views, yes?

Mr. LIZZA: Without a doubt. And frankly, I think a lot of political journalists
are uncomfortable in talking about someone's religious views and how they
relate to their politics. You know, and often we treat religion or one's faith
as, you know, a sort of box that we're - as political journalists, we shouldn't

GROSS: Something that's too personal.

Mr. LIZZA: Exactly, exactly. It's one faith. No matter what they believe, it's
really not relevant to their political views. But when you have someone who, at
every turn, talks about how there's nothing more important in their life than
their faith and how it relates to all of their politics, you know, I don't see
how you could write about their thinking, their philosophy, their intellectual
formation, without trying to understand how religion moves them.

So, you know, that's a lot of what the piece is about, and a lot of what I
tried to do is explore the writers that she has cited as really helping form

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ryan Lizza. Her profiles Michele
Bachmann in an article in the current edition of the New Yorker, it's called
"Leap of Faith: The Making of a Republican Frontrunner." Ryan, let's take a
short break here. Then we'll talk some more about Michele Bachmann. This is

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ryan Lizza. He's covering the
presidential campaign for the New Yorker magazine, and his article in the
current edition is called "Leap of Faith: The Making of a Republican
Frontrunner," and it's a profile of Michele Bachmann.

So Michele Bachmann is born again in high school. She meets her husband,
Marcus, in college. They both first support Jimmy Carter, who is a born-again
candidate. But then she is influenced by the teachings of the evangelist and
theologian Francis Schaeffer and by his film series "How Should We Then Live?"

So it sounds from the piece like you watched the film series. You describe the
first five installments as being like an art history and philosophy course
taught by a puritan. Give us an overview of some of the main points that you
took away from this series that you think had an impact on Michele Bachmann.

Mr. LIZZA: Yes, so Schaeffer is a fascinating figure, and he was a very
important Evangelical thinker in the '70s. Ralph Reed once credited - Ralph
Reed the former Christian Coalition leader, once credited Schaeffer with
encouraging a whole generation of Evangelicals to get involved with politics.

And so a lot of Schaeffer's philosophy was about applying a sort of Christian
worldview to Western history. So Schaeffer will - in the first five episodes of
his famous film series, he takes the audience through the entire history of
Western culture, from Rome and then by the end of the movie, all the way up
through Roe v. Wade.

And the beginning chapters of this movie are all about where Christianity took
wrong turns. And for Schaeffer, it's the Enlightenment. It's the Italian
Renaissance. It's Darwinism. It's secular humanism. It's any point in history
where he believes that man turns away from God and turns away from putting God
at the center of life to putting humankind at the center of life. That's sort
of his big point.

What happened with Schaeffer, though, is he becomes completely radicalized in
1973. And his focus completely changes. So in 1973, when Roe versus Wade
abortion decision comes down, Schaeffer decides that all of his philosophy and
all of this history that he teaching for years about the dangers of moving away
from a Christ-centered world, everything he warned about is now coming to
fruition with this Roe decision, that the government is becoming, in his terms,
being taken over by an authoritarian elite.

And you actually see this radicalizing moment show up in his film series. The
first few episodes really are about art and culture. And then the last episodes
take a very conspiratorial and frankly paranoid turn, and the sort of iconic
scene in the second half of the series is a government van driving around with
a funny-looking guy in a fake moustache pouring chemicals in the water supply
of a city as Schaeffer narrates that perhaps the government could be using, you
know, psych - drugs to control the population.

I mean, it really takes a completely different turn. And so I emphasize this,
just to sort of show that this is the movie that Michelle Bachmann says changed
her life. This is the movie that got her radicalized on the abortion issue.
And, you know, to understand her, I think you have to understand Schaeffer a
little bit.

By the end of his life, right before he died, Schaeffer published a very
influential book called "A Christian Manifesto." And in that book, by the end
of that book, he is actually laying out the ground - laying down the groundwork
by which Christian activists, and especially anti-abortion activists, may need
to resort to the use of force.

GROSS: The use of force?

Mr. LIZZA: The use of force. I mean, literally as his son Frank, who was very
close to his father and was - and carried on his father's teachings after his
father died in 1984 but then eventually left the religious conservative
movement and, you know, is no longer a Schaefferite, to say the least - as his
son said, you know, by the end of his dad's life, his dad was calling for the
violent overthrow of the U.S. government.

GROSS: Now, Bachmann was also influenced by a student of Schaeffer's, Nancy
Pearcey, who was - was she a proponent of Schaeffer's view of Dominionism, that
really Christians - Christians had - were biblically mandated to occupy all
secular institutions until Christ returns?

Mr. LIZZA: Yeah, now Pearcey, from what I can tell, is sort of one of the
leading modern proponents of Schaeffer's philosophy. Pearcey actually studied
with Schaeffer in Switzerland and has sort of continued on with his line of

And the reason I brought her into the piece is that Michele Bachmann has
mentioned Pearcey's book as one that was important to her. And I actually did
ask her about that, and she told me it was a wonderful book.

So Pearcey wrote a book a number of years ago called "Total Truth." It's in
line with the sort of Schaefferite view of taking your Christian faith and
making sure that it permeates all parts of your life. The key thing here is
Christians should not just be go-to-church-on-Sunday Christians. But their
religion should permeate all aspects of life.

And Pearcey actually calls this the cultural mandate. She uses the same line
from Genesis to rest this idea on, and again, argues that your faith needs to
permeate your life.

GROSS: Well, I guess what I'm wondering if she's saying your faith needs to
permeate your life, or your faith needs to permeate the United States

Mr. LIZZA: Well, she would say that it needs - if you're a dentist, then you
have to figure out a way to have your faith permeate your dentist practice. If
you are a politician, your faith should permeate what you do as a politician,
that there's really no distinction between the two and that the great problem
for Christianity is that Christians separate these two things.

GROSS: So, do think that Michele Bachmann subscribes to the view that you say
Francis Schaeffer eventually subscribed to, which is that Christians are
biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns?

Mr. LIZZA: She never said that specifically, but if you look at her history, if
you look at the first time she actually got involved with politics, and that is
when she started a charter school in her local town of Stillwater, Minnesota.

It was only a six or seven-month experiment. She got together with some
parents. They started a publicly funded charter school, signed a charter that
said that they were not allowed in any way to include a sectarian religious
agenda at this school. And they very quickly violated that and built the school
around a Christian sectarian agenda, to the point where parents started - where
parents who were told that this was a school for at-risk kids became very
alarmed because their children were being taught creationism, and famously,
they were not allowed to watch the movie "Aladdin" because it involved magic.
And, you know, and on and on and on. And where - eventually the school district
stepped in and warned them they were going to lose their charter because they
were violating it. And eventually Bachmann and another person who were
spearheading this were forced off the board and forced off the leadership of
that school.

So that's a great example of, to me, at least, Bachmann's view of - what
Pearcey would call the cultural mandate, sort of, running head-on into the
separation of church and state that exists in our schools.

GROSS: Michele Bachmann went to Oral Roberts University, and you asked her if
her views were fully consistent with the prevailing ideology at Oral Roberts.
What was the prevailing ideology at Oral Roberts University when she was there?

Mr. LIZZA: Well, so she was part of the first law school class at Oral Roberts.
The school was actually called the Coburn School of Law. And it's a law school
that taught its students biblical law, that you need to understand the Bible,
you need to understand biblical law, and that's what the United States
Constitution is built upon. And as a legal mind, you should understand when
American law is and is not consistent with biblical law.

I actually asked one of her former professors, John Eidsmoe, someone who she
was a research assistant for, you know, what does this mean? What does it mean
that, you know, you're studying biblical laws? I said: You know, what happens
if biblical law conflicts with American law? What do you do?

And he said, well, the first thing you would be taught at Coburn is to do
everything you can to change the American law.

GROSS: So Michele Bachmann was not only a student of Professor John Eidsmoe,
she was also a research assistant for him. And you asked him if he thought that
her views were consistent with a book that he wrote called "Christianity and
the Constitution," and he told you that he thought her views were consistent
with the book. What are the views in that book?

Mr. LIZZA: Well, the book is ostensibly a explanation of how most of the
founders were Christians and how their Christianity influenced their political
thinking and specifically the Constitution.

And so he has, I forget how many, I think 13 chapters, one each, on 13 of the
founders. And it's just his sort of excavation of their religious beliefs and
how they used their religious beliefs to apply to the Constitution.

That's a big part of the book, but really by the end of the book, what Eidsmoe
is talking about is how Evangelic Christians need to get politically active.
They need to get involved with the legal system, and they need to make sure
that American law is more biblically based. I mean, that's what the book ends
on. He has sort of a clarion call for his students to get involved.

And that wouldn't mean much. I mean, I've had some wacky professors in college,
frankly, that I wouldn't want someone to associate with my own views today. And
so I want to be careful to point out that I'm not saying that - you know, I'm
not just cherry-picking this guy. This is someone that Michele Bachmann
specifically, to this day, mentions as a very important influence on her, as
recently as this spring in a speech in Iowa.

GROSS: Ryan Lizza will be back in the second half of the show. His profile of
Michele Bachmann, titled "Leap of Faith," is in the current edition of the New
York. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. We're talking with Ryan Lizza about
his profile of Michele Bachmann in the current edition The New Yorker. Lizza
reports on national politics for the magazine and is covering the presidential

Michele Bachmann describes herself as a former federal tax litigation attorney.
And on her website bio it says she spent five years as a federal tax litigation
attorney working on hundreds of civil and criminal cases. That experience
solidified her strong support for efforts to simplify the tax code and reduce
tax burdens on families and small business budgets.

But you spoke to some of her former colleagues and they gave you a different
impression of her than the one she gives.

Mr. LIZZA: Yes. I talked to six people who worked with her in this small IRS
office in St. Paul, Minnesota. They all had the exact same story about her time
in that office. And nothing, you know, nothing really earth-shattering. Just
that she was fresh out of law school, she was young, inexperienced, not really
focused on a legal career, not one of the best lawyers in the office and partly
because she was new and inexperienced, but also it was a time in her life where
she was much more focused on her family than a law career.

And I will say this. I think this is one of the more controversial parts of the
piece because I think she was the victim to a certain extent of some sexism in
that job because everyone complained to me that she wasn't in the office much
because she was on maternity leave.

GROSS: Twice.

Mr. LIZZA: Twice. And I never really got to ask her about this because she
didn't respond to questions about this. But that was the impression that she
left her colleagues there - that she wasn't around much, wasn't very
experienced, and was much more focused on raising her family than on her

GROSS: Well, you do point out that for somebody who is so opposed to government
(unintelligible) government benefits she collected, generous government
benefits while she was working.

Mr. LIZZA: For someone whose ideology is really defined by a strong dislike for
government, if you look at the way that she's supported herself over the years,
it's mostly through the government. So after law school she goes to work for
the IRS, she's there for four years, then in 1992 she starts taking in foster
children and does that from '92 to '98 and is paid by the state to do that. She
then works briefly for a local charter school and then she starts running for
office and becomes both first an employee of the state of Minnesota and then,
of course, a congresswoman, so an employee of the federal government.

On top of that, as has been well reported, her husband is a psychologist, has
two counseling clinics that, of course, like any other medical professional,
you know, takes lots of money from the government medical, from Medicaid and
Medicare. And then on top of that, you know, has received some generous farm
subsidies for a farm he owns in Wisconsin. So if you actually went through the
dollar amount of income that the Bachmanns have from government sources, it
would be a pretty significant.

GROSS: I think it's fair to say that a lot of your piece is kind of like the
intellectual biography of Michele Bachmann, the professors that shaped her, the
books that shaped her.

Mr. LIZZA: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And one of the books I was really surprised to read about, which I
hadn't heard of before, is a biography of Robert E. Lee written by J. Steven
Wilkins published in 1997. Part of it has to do with slavery. And I want to
read a paragraph that you quote.

Slavery as it operated in the pervasively Christian society, which was the old
South, was not an adversarial relationship founded upon racial animosity. In
fact, it bred on the whole not contempt, but over time mutual respect. This
produced a mutual esteem of the sort that always results when men give
themselves to a common cause. The credit for this startling reality must go to
the Christian faith. The unity and companionship that existed between the races
in the South prior to the war was the fruit of a common faith.

Mr. LIZZA: So this one sort of blew me away, because you have to ask yourself -
and first of all, let me just point out why this book is relevant. For a number
of years, Michele Bachmann's personal website had a list of books that she
recommended people read and it was called Michelle's Must-Read List. And so I
was looking over the list and noticed this biography of Lee by Wilkins. Never
heard of Wilkins. Started looking into who he was, and frankly couldn't believe
that she was recommending this book.

Wilkins, he's done something very unique. He's combined a Christian
conservatism with neo-Confederate views and developed what is known as the
theological war thesis. And this is an idea that holds the best way to
understand the Civil War is actually to see it in religious terms, and that the
South was an Orthodox Christian nation attacked by the godless North and that
what was really lost after the Civil War was one of the pinnacles of Christian

And this, what I discovered is that this insane view of the Civil War has been
successfully injected into some of the Christian home-schooling movement
curriculums with the help of this guy Wilkins. And my guess - I don't know this
for sure because I didn't get to ask Michele Bachmann - my guess is that this
is how she probably encountered Wilkins at some point. Because she's not from
the South. There's no history of her being interested in Southern heritage or
anything else. And so I'm assuming that that's how she was introduced to it.

Either way, she recommended this book on her website for a number of years. It
is an objectively pro-slavery book and to me one of the most startling things I
learned about her in the reporting of this piece.

GROSS: Do you think that the kind of Christian views that were expressed in the
books that helped shape her faith and that helped shape her intellectually and
helped shape her view of government are being expressed by her in her campaign

Mr. LIZZA: You know, it depends on the audience she's speaking to. In this
spring, when she was doing some of – some sort of less headline-making visits
to Iowa and speaking at churches and sort of - not, I don't want to say
covertly, but under the radar sort of wooing some of the religious leadership
in Iowa, she knows how to speak that language and she knows how to draw on her
history at Oral Roberts and her born-again experience and her story about
watching Schaeffer's series of movies and how that changed her life. She knows
how to tell all those stories so that an evangelical audience will in a certain
sense of bond with her. I think she did that early this year when she wasn't an
announced candidate.

Most of those voters know that background and she doesn't really need to sell
herself to those voters anymore, so she's transitioned and she's transitioned
into a candidate that talks much, much more about debt and spending and all the
sort of libertarian economic issues that are so important to the Tea Party
movement right now.

GROSS: So what's your take-away from having done this profile of Michele
Bachmann? What did you learn about her that you didn't know before?

Mr. LIZZA: I understand her little bit better. I think I understand her
complete confidence in her own worldview, which she believes is grounded in the
Bible. I understand how sometimes she is impervious to ideas and information
that are sort of outside the bubble of her worldview, I understand where that
comes from now. And I understand when she says something sort of that I
might've thought just outrageous and, you know, and shook my head at, I
understand intellectually and philosophically a little bit better where it's
coming from.

GROSS: So that imperviousness to other people's points of views that you refer
to - you said you understand where that comes from now.

Mr. LIZZA: Well, you know, I don't want to say that everything that is written
in a book that she recommends means that she believes it, right? You can't, you
don't want to do that. What I was very careful to do is look at the thinkers
that she cited as the most influential in her own life.

But there was one line from this Pearcey book that she cited as important to

GROSS: This is Nancy Pearcey.

Mr. LIZZA: This is Nancy Pearcey, who writes basically that believers need to
be very, very careful when adopting ideas from nonbelievers. That even if once
in a while - this is not an exact quote but I'm paraphrasing - even if once in
a while nonbelievers get a fact wrong, it will always in some way be tainted by
the non-Christian worldview it comes out of.

And I think frankly if that is what you believe, it's very hard to absorb
thinking and ideas from outside your own worldview if you believe everything
else is tainted if it comes from nonbelievers.

GROSS: Ryan Lizza, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. LIZZA: Thank you for having me, Terry. I really appreciate it.

GROSS: Ryan Lizza is covering the presidential campaign for The New Yorker. His
profile of Michele Bachmann is in the current edition of The New Yorker. You'll
find a link to it on our website,
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
J. Steven Who's Behind The Movement To Ban Shariah Law?


Alarms are being sounded about the threat that Shariah law, Islamic law, poses
to our legal system and our way of life. Michele Bachmann signed a pledge to
reject Shariah Islam. Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich have warned against Shariah
law. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had to defend his appointment of an
American Muslim to the Superior Court against critics who charged the judge
might rule according to Shariah law.

Since last year, more than two dozen states have considered measures to
restrict judges from consulting Shariah or foreign and religious laws. The
statutes have been enacted in three states.

My guest, Andrea Elliott, has investigated the roots of this movement. She
wrote a recent article in The New York Times titled "The Man Behind the Anti-
Shariah Movement." That man, she says, is David Yerushalmi, a little-known
lawyer who has worked with a cadre of conservative public policy institutes and
former military intelligence officials to write reports, file lawsuits against
the government, and draft model legislation, all with the effect of casting
Shariah as one of the greatest threats to American freedom since the Cold War.

Andrea Elliott, welcome to FRESH AIR. Before we talk about what the perceived
threat is, let's just start with - what is Shariah law?

Ms. ANDREA ELLIOTT (New York Times): Sure. Thanks for having me. I think part
of the challenge here is that it's an incredibly complex topic. Shariah
literally means the way to the watering hole and is more commonly referred to
in shorthand as the way. And it is most simply put the legal code that guides
Islamic beliefs and actions. But when Westerners think of a legal code they
tend to think of a fixed set of laws and Shariah is a lot more fluid than that,
because - in part because there is no governing authority, no Vatican in Islam.

So while Islam's four major schools of law agree on many basic areas of
Shariah, there are many areas that lack consensus and really just this whole
spectrum of ways in which Muslims around the world observe Islamic law. And I
think one of the key points that's been missing from this debate is that for
Muslims living in non-Muslim countries like the United States, there is broad
agreement that Shariah in fact obligates them to abide by the laws of the land
in exchange for the right to worship freely. So I think those are some of the
nuances that have been missing from this public outcry.

GROSS: So you say the man behind the anti-Shariah law movement is David
Yerushalmi, a 56-year-old Hasidic Jew with a history of controversial
statements about race, immigration and Islam. Tell us more about who he is.

Ms. ELLIOTT: Well, he's a complicated character, and he was a relatively
obscure figure before all of this. His history of controversial statements has
brought a lot of criticism to him, most notably from the Anti-Defamation
League, a prominent Jewish organization, but all the while he's managed to stay
somewhat behind the scenes as this whole movement took hold. So what was
intriguing to me was how this man who is really a fringe figure came to
cultivate allies and influence people at such high levels, former military and
intelligence officials, leaders of national organizations, presidential

How did he make that leap? And I think part of the answer is that in person he
comes across not as the erratic character that some might expect, but as a
sophisticated man who is convinced by his ideas and who has a kind of endless
appetite for defending those ideas - the primary idea being that Islamic law
poses a totalitarian threat to the West.

So I think if I were to sum up sort of his argument, it's that you can't
understand Shariah as simply an expression of faith but as this broader program
that seeks world domination, that - as a legal military/political system that
seeks world domination.

GROSS: In trying to investigate the question of how did David Yerushalmi become
so connected to people in politics and national security, you make the
connection between him and Frank Gaffney, the president of the Center for
Security Policy, a conservative think tank.

Ms. ELLIOTT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And Gaffney himself argued after President Obama nominated Elena Kagan
to the Supreme Court that Kagan had to be investigated because of her possible
support of Shariah law. And he said that he thought that Obama might secretly
be a Muslim. So what is the connection between Gaffney and Yerushalmi?

Ms. ELLIOTT: Their partnership began years ago when Yerushalmi, who had just
started a non-profit organization that really became his platform for opposing
Shariah, kind of reached out to Gaffney because he was looking to raise funds
for a study that he wanted to lead that would kind of examine mosques and
whether there was a connection between what he calls Shariah adherent behavior
and support for violence.

And so Gaffney really became his bridge to a whole network of think tanks and
government - current, then current and former government officials, including
ultimately Jim Woolsey, the former director of Central Intelligence. And really
they kind of set out together to launch this effort. I mean I would say Gaffney
catapulted Yerushalmi onto a new platform of influence and their aim seems to
have been really to try to get people in circles of influence to understand
Shariah in this totally new frame, which is to say that it was, you know, they
presented it as a totalitarian threat akin to what the United States faced
during the Cold War.

And so they, Yerushalmi in particular, kind of found different targets. One was
the Industry of Islamic Finance. That led to meetings that Gaffney set up at
the Department of Treasury. And I think those meetings in 2008 really marked a
turning point for Gaffney and Yerushalmi because up until then they were trying
to figure out how to influence people at high levels of government but the
briefings went nowhere and so they began looking for other avenues just as the
Tea Party movement was taking off. And Yerushalmi saw an opening there in the
sense that people were calling for smaller government, greater state autonomy.
And so he started to focus on state legislatures, and in the summer of 2009 he
began drafting the model legislation that would later sweep across the country.

And so as he was putting the finishing touches on this law in preparation for a
rollout in 2010, Gaffney was organizing conference calls with activists and
getting people on board from organizations around the country. Groups like the
Eagle Forum, Tea Party groups, ACT for America, which is a group that has
170,000 members and describes itself as opposed to radical Islam - although its
critics argue that it's a central force in steering up anti-Muslim sentiment
across the country. And ACT really emerged as a key player in this, as did a
newer non-profit that began recruiting dozens of lawyers across the country to
work with legislative committees or to sponsor the bills. And so then it, you
know, it first passed in Tennessee, in May of 2010, and then Louisiana and more
recently in Arizona. And by the summer and fall of 2010, I think this whole
message had gained new prominence.

GROSS: So what did the state anti-Shariah laws have in common? Like what is the
model legislation?

Ms. ELLIOTT: The proposed laws vary from state to state but they all basically
restrict judges from considering Shariah or the broader category of religious
or foreign or international laws. So it's hard to say what the legal impact of
these laws will be. You know, the establishment clause of the Constitution
prevents the government from favoring or targeting one religion. The Oklahoma
amendment which singles out Shariah has been temporarily blocked by a federal
judge pending the outcome of a lawsuit that argues that it infringes on
religious freedom. But the three other laws that have passed in Tennessee and
Louisiana and Arizona are worded neutrally enough that they could withstand
Constitutional scrutiny.

I mean what they do is they essentially restrict judges from upholding foreign
laws that violate constitutional rights, which critics argue is already the

GROSS: So David Yerushalmi, the man who you say is behind this movement to
introduce anti-Shariah laws into the states, you know, at the state level, he
says that part of his goal is to prevent, you know, Shariah from taking over.
But he's also said part of his goal is to just get people asking the question:
What is Shariah?

Ms. ELLIOTT: That's right. I think that's one of the more interesting facts of
this, is that, you know, he really set out on what might have seemed like an
impossible mission, which was to make this very arcane and complex subject of
Shariah a focus of national scrutiny. I mean this is a word that was not even
part of our vernacular a few years ago. So just the idea that you could get
Americans to talk about Islamic law when Islam itself remains a subject that is
so little understood in this country would seem like a tall order.

But the leaders of this campaign really talk about it in a more sort of
preemptive way than a prescriptive way. What they say they're doing is that
they're trying to prevent Shariah from having the kind of influence seen in
Europe, particularly in England, where the Muslim immigrant community is far
less integrated and where there are formal Shariah tribunals, where even just
recently a group of hard-line conservative Muslims launched a campaign calling
for Shariah-controlled zones.

So here in the U.S., among supporters of the anti-Shariah message, there is
this tendency to look at England as a harbinger of things to come. And there's
evidence of that, municipal pools in Seattle, for instance, that have adopted
special hours to accommodate Muslim women so they don't have to swim in the
presence of men. And those kinds of accommodations are obviously a far cry from
the harsh form of Shariah that is practiced in Afghanistan and Somalia, where
you can be executed for leaving the Islamic faith or where you hear of rape
victims being stoned to death for committing adultery.

But implicit in the message of the anti-Shariah movement here is that asking
for female-only hours at the pool is like the first step towards establishing a
Muslim political order. And you know, as one prominent Muslim-American leader
put it to me, that's why we left those countries.

GROSS: My guest is New York Times investigative reporter Andrea Elliott. We're
talking about her recent article "The Man Behind the Anti-Shariah Movement."

We'll talk more after a break

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is New York Times investigative reporter Andrea Elliott. We're
talking about her recent article, "The Man Behind the Anti-Shariah Movement."
She says that man is David Yerushalmi, a 56-year-old lawyer who has worked with
conservative policy leaders and military intelligence officials to write
reports and draft model legislation to cast Shariah, Islamic law, as a threat
to American freedoms.

So recently New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who's a Republican, had to
defend his decision to nominate a Muslim judge to the State Superior Court.
Critics were warning that this new judge was going to implement Shariah law.
And Christie said Shariah law has nothing to do with this at all. It's crazy.
It's crazy. This guy is an American citizen who has been an admitted lawyer to
practice in the state of New Jersey, swearing an oath to uphold the laws of New
Jersey, the Constitution of the State of New Jersey, and the Constitution of
the United States. This Shariah law business is crap. It's just crazy and I'm
tired of dealing with the crazies.

So that's what Governor Christie said. What did you think about when you heard
this? Did you hear this as being connected to the anti-Shariah law movement
that you write about in The New York Times?

Ms. ELLIOTT: I thought it was certainly a kind of watershed moment in the sense
that no one in the Republican Party had spoken out against this so forcefully
until then. Mitt Romney had distanced himself a little bit from it during the
recent Republican debate among presidential candidates when others were
speaking in support of it.

But there was this tremendous reaction to what Christie said, I think in part
because among critics of this movement there's a sense that he gave voice to
what they've been feeling has sort of been lacking from public commentary about
this, which is the sense that it is crazy, that it is, you know, coming out of
nowhere, that it's extreme.

GROSS: Tell if you think this is a fair analogy or not in terms of
understanding Shariah law as practiced in the United States. You know, a lot of
Jewish people practice aspects of Jewish law. They observe the Sabbath. They
keep kosher. It does not interfere in any way with them observing the laws of
the United States, with them observing the Constitution, nor would they want it

Is there an analogy that can be made to Shariah law, that there's aspects of
Shariah law that a Muslim could easily practice in the United States without
interfering at all with their loyalty to observing American law and the

Ms. ELLIOTT: Absolutely. And Muslim leaders, scholars, civic activists and
regular citizens have made this argument for a long time - that in fact nothing
about their observance of Shariah comes into conflict with being American. And
these recent - there are a bunch of new surveys coming out on Muslim-American
thought in the United States that show that there is a comfort with being both
Muslim and American, that the two are not at odds, that they don't see the two
as being at odds, and that that applies to - I would say that definitely
applies to the way they approach Shariah. And I think that one of the kind of -
the driving messages that they want to put out there is that there is no
conflict between being a Shariah-observant Muslim and being a patriotic
American. And you hear that a lot and I think that that's a really important
message that's also, you know, that's important to them that's been lost in

GROSS: Andrea Elliott, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. ELLIOTT: Thank you. It was a pleasure to be here.

GROSS: Andrea Elliott is an investigative reporter for The New York Times.
You'll find a link to her article "The Man Behind the Anti-Shariah Movement" on
our website,, where you can also download podcasts of our

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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