Tulsa, Oklahoma – Michele Bachmann was 22 and newly married when, in the fall of 1979, she and 53 other aspiring lawyers arrived on the manicured campus of Oral Roberts University here. They were the inaugural class in an unusual educational experiment: a law school rooted in charismatic Christian belief.
“We hope to guide our students to a deeper understanding of their spiritual gifts and of their place in God’s kingdom,” the school’s dean, Charles Kothe, wrote in the first edition of its law review, The Journal of Christian Jurisprudence. The aim, he said, was to train the next generation of legal minds to “integrate their Christian faith into their chosen profession,” and to “restore law to its historic roots in the Bible.”
Today, as a Republican congresswoman from Minnesota seeking her party’s nomination for president, Mrs. Bachmann often talks of her work as a lawyer, describing herself as a “former federal tax litigation attorney,” though not identifying her employer as the Internal Revenue Service. She points to her master’s degree from the College of William and Mary in Virginia, from a nine-month program in tax law.
But the far more formative experience was one she rarely discusses in front of secular audiences: the legal education she received at Oral Roberts University, founded by the Christian televangelist and Pentecostal faith healer of that name. It was, one fellow student recalls, a “Petri dish of conservatism and Judeo-Christian thought.”
Mrs. Bachmann’s studies here exposed her to ideas — God is the source of law; the Constitution is akin to a biblical covenant, binding on future generations; the founders did not intend for a strict separation of church and state — that are percolating throughout the 2012 race for the presidency, as social conservative candidates like Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, court the evangelical Christian vote.
But the philosophy has its best-known advocate in Mrs. Bachmann, whose bid for the presidency campaign has exposed a wider audience of Americans to views long espoused by social conservative scholars.
On the campaign trail, she bills herself as a “constitutional conservative,” and holds that judges must limit themselves to the text and original understanding of the Constitution, rather than regard it as a living document whose meaning can evolve. At a recent forum in South Carolina, she criticized President Obama’s policies on health care, immigration and education as unconstitutional, saying the 2012 election would turn on how candidates interpret “that sacred document.”
Here, Mrs. Bachmann worked as a research assistant to John Eidsmoe on his 1987 book, “Christianity and the Constitution: The Faith of Our Founding Fathers,” which argues that “religion and politics cannot be totally separated” and that “America was and to a large extent still is a Christian nation.“ She studied “legal institutions and values” with Herb Titus, a Harvard-trained lawyer who hears his philosophy in Mrs. Bachmann’s words.
“Her belief is consistent with a biblical and a Christian understanding of the Constitution,” Mr. Titus said.
It took Mrs. Bachmann seven years to graduate; she took a four-year hiatus that began before the birth of her first child. And the school itself was short-lived; it ran out of money and closed in 1986. The future congresswoman’s tenure spanned its entire existence, a time of great ferment among Christian conservatives who, buoyed by the political rise of Ronald Reagan, were flexing their political muscles.
Mrs. Bachmann, who declined to be interviewed for this article, was among them. As a student here, she put her legal skills to use working with Chris Klicka, another Oral Roberts graduate who helped found the Home School Legal Defense Association. Together, Mrs. Bachmann told an evangelical Christian audience earlier this year, they researched state laws on home schooling, favored by many Christian parents (including, later, Mrs. Bachmann and her husband) as an alternative to public education. That kind of activism was promoted.
“We were encouraged to make a difference,” said Rich Gradel, an Oral Roberts law graduate and solo practitioner in Tulsa. “A lot of us could have gone elsewhere. We came here because we felt — not everybody, but a whole lot of us — felt like God led us here.”
‘Mind, Body and Spirit’
With its 30-ton bronze sculpture of praying hands and 200-foot prayer tower offering a panoramic view of the 263-acre campus, Oral Roberts University was chartered in 1963 as an educational home for charismatic Christians. It placed a “particular emphasis,” its literature says, on “the Spirit-given ability to speak in tongues,” which Mr. Gradel and others said was common in chapel services here.
By the time Mrs. Bachmann arrived, the school was expanding. Chancellor Roberts, as he is still known here, envisioned an array of graduate schools — in medicine, nursing, dentistry, business, theology and law. He hoped for “cross-pollination,” so that budding lawyers, businessmen, theologians and health professionals could talk about how to carry God’s message “into every person’s world.”
The O.W. Coburn School of Law, financed largely by O.W. Coburn, an Oklahoma businessman (and father of Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma) opened in September 1979 with one dean, three professors (including Mr. Titus) and a law librarian. Byron R. White, the Supreme Court justice, spoke at the dedication ceremony.
The facilities were a big draw, former students say. There was a mock courtroom with an ornate wooden jury box and a 150,000-volume law library. Classes were held in the Learning Resources Center, a huge diamond-shaped building with soaring arches and metallic gold trim designed to evoke Solomon’s Temple in ancient Jerusalem. To get to their classrooms, students walked past one of Oral Roberts’s favorite sayings in huge gold lettering: “Lawyers can be healers.”
Law students were held to the same strict standards as undergraduates. Physical education classes were mandatory; students had to maintain activity logs, in keeping with Mr. Roberts’s insistence on building “mind, body and spirit.” There was a dress code; modest skirts and dresses for women, shirts and ties for men. Beards were forbidden; a man’s hair could be no longer than halfway down the ear. Twice-weekly chapel attendance was required.
The school was not Mrs. Bachmann’s first choice. She had applied to a secular law school in her home state of Minnesota. But she told an evangelical Christian audience earlier this year that her husband, Marcus, had heard about “a new Christian law school” and encouraged her to attend. Records show both enrolled; Marcus took classes for one semester toward a master of divinity degree.
In many respects, former professors and students say, O.W. Coburn was just like any secular law school, teaching students the nuts and bolts of torts, property law, contracts, and civil and criminal procedure. “We used the same kind of textbooks they used,” said Tim Harris, the Tulsa County district attorney, who graduated a few years ahead of Mrs. Bachmann. “We used the same Socratic method.”
But where secular law professors tend to analyze court decisions in the context of the Constitution, legislative actions and judicial precedent, professors here prodded students to also consider how biblical principles and Scripture would apply. In interviews, graduates say they infuse their Christian faith into their work in a variety of ways, perhaps counseling couples to avoid a divorce, or encouraging a businessman to honor a contract. Some are active in causes important to conservative Christians, like opposing abortion.
“As a criminal prosecutor, I look at the Ten Commandments — thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not murder,” Mr. Harris, the district attorney, said. “You’ve got law given to Moses by God and we have included that in our scheme of criminal law. We were challenged often to ask: Is there a biblical basis from which this came?”
Fight for Acceptance
That did not sit well with the American Bar Association, which at first refused to accredit the school. The association balked at the university’s requirement that students sign an honor code in which they recognized that “our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, is the Whole Man,” and pledged to “follow in his footsteps,” (The wording of the code is slightly altered today.)
“The A.B.A.’s argument was too much emphasis on the Christian aspect and not enough on the law,” said Roger Tuttle, a former professor and dean. The university sued on First Amendment grounds and won in 1981. But that first crop of students like Mrs. Bachmann, he said, “took a real gamble” in enrolling. Had the university lost its accreditation fight, they would have been ineligible to take the bar exam.
Classmates of Mrs. Bachmann recall her as bright, personable and engaged — “a pretty eager, keen student,” said Mark Stewart, a commercial litigator in Toronto. “Real bubbly” and “politically interested,” Mr. Gradel said. But after her second semester, in the spring of 1980, she and Marcus Bachmann left. Mike King, a Tulsa lawyer who was her study partner, said he suspected that she could no longer afford the tuition.
In 1982, Mrs. Bachmann gave birth to her son Lucas, the first of her five biological children, in Winona, Minn. (She eventually took in 23 foster children, as well.) By the time she moved back to Tulsa to re-enroll for the 1984-85 academic year, a new professor had joined the faculty: Anita Hill.
Ms. Hill, who would later make headlines when she accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings, was hired to address the bar association’s complaints that the faculty was overwhelmingly white and male, Mr. Tuttle said. Though the university would not release Mrs. Bachmann’s transcripts, Lucas Bachmann said he believed that Ms. Hill had been one of his mother’s professors. Ms. Hill, now at Brandeis University, declined to be interviewed.
Now Mrs. Bachmann was juggling motherhood and school. The family lived in graduate student housing, a complex of boxy apartments behind what is now a Wal-Mart. Marcus Bachmann worked as an activities coordinator at a nursing home — “We did a lot of bingo and buffets,” Lucas Bachmann said — while Michele hit the books.
She was on staff at the law review, where her duties included soliciting and editing articles, according to the journal’s editor, H. Wayne House. But her most powerful experience seems to have been her association with Mr. Eidsmoe, an ordained minister, retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and author who, she told a Christian audience in March, “had a great influence on me” and “taught me so much about our godly heritage.”
A Big Influence
It was Mr. Eidsmoe, she said, who first exposed her to the idea of home schooling, and who introduced her to the writings of David Barton, a self-taught evangelical historian whose organization, Wall Builders, promotes the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. (Last year, Mrs. Bachmann provoked a brief uproar on Capitol Hill when she proposed that Mr. Barton teach classes on the Constitution to incoming Republican freshmen.)
Mr. Eidsmoe, who has since run into controversy over remarks he made to an Alabama secessionist group, declined to be interviewed. Years after Mrs. Bachmann left Oral Roberts, he and Mr. Titus defended Judge Roy S. Moore, the Alabama chief justice who lost his seat for his refusal to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the courthouse. As a Minnesota lawmaker, Mrs. Bachmann took up the cause, boasting that she kept a copy of the Ten Commandments on her office wall.
“They’re teaching children that there is separation of church and state, and I am here to tell you that’s a myth — that’s not true,” she told an evangelical Christian audience while running for Congress in 2006. She went on: “The only reason we’ve been a great nation — guess why? Because at our founding we established everything we did on the lordship of Christ.”
In 1986, Mrs. Bachmann graduated from law school and passed the Minnesota bar. That spring, Oral Roberts University turned its law school over to Christian Broadcasting University, now Regent, founded by another televangelist, Pat Robertson. The law library was packed up and shipped off to the Regent campus in Virginia Beach. Mr. Titus became Regent’s founding dean.
Mrs. Bachmann went on to get her tax law certificate and join the I.R.S., for five years handling run-of-the-mill tax cases, which mostly settled out of court. She tried just two cases, including one involving a Native American who argued that treaties exempted him from paying taxes. (He lost.)
Mr. Titus says he can find a Christian perspective to tax law — “Go back to Romans: 13,” he said. “You only pay the government what the government is due.” — although it appears that Mrs. Bachmann took the job mostly to help support her family.
She did not practice law after that; today, the congresswoman’s law license is no longer active. In Tulsa legal circles, O.W. Coburn graduates speak with “with a little tinge of pride” about her, Mr. Gradel said, and perhaps a hint of wistfulness that she does not do more to advertise her time here.
“She doesn’t tout our school, obviously — she touts William and Mary, and you and I can understand why she does that,” he said. “If you run for public office, people say, ‘Where did you go to school?’ They’d like to see that your alma mater is still around.”