Why Huckabee makes evangelicals nervous
Before Mike Huckabee became a serious challenger for the Republican presidential nomination, I was asked by a powerful businessman, someone well-connected in Republican politics, why Huckabee wasn’t being endorsed by prominent evangelical leaders. Although I’m a Catholic, I grew up as an evangelical and know that world, and I had to wonder the same thing.
I remembered watching one of the early TV debates where Huckabee was asked whether his beliefs as an evangelical Christian would influence how he would govern. Huckabee said that he thought anyone’s deepest beliefs, whether atheistic or Christian, could not help but influence his decisions. That seemed exactly the right answer to me, and Huckabee delivered it without hesitation, showing himself at home with worldview questions.
I also liked how at ease and consistent he seemed in regard to his pro-life position. Most politicians still can’t defend the rights of the unborn without flinching. Mitt Romney, for instance, is for overturning Roe and Casey but wouldn’t support a constitutional amendment banning abortion. There may be prudential arguments for his position, but didn’t we fight a Civil War over the Constitutional protection of every human life?
Now that Huckabee has risen in the polls, unspoken doubts about his immigration stand, his fiscal responsibility, his grandiosity in naming so many public buildings after himself, and whether he possesses the gravitas to endure the presidency are being voiced.
There’s something closer to the bone about Huckabee that scares the bejeebers out of many evangelicals, I think. Huckabee is too much one of their own. He’s the pastor you shake hands with at the end of the eleven o’clock service, the guy you rib about being a health fanatic, the person across the table at a potluck dinner. He possesses our strengths, evangelical leaders may be thinking, but what if he possesses our weaknesses as well?
Advocacy from the embattled position evangelicals have occupied carries with it a get-out-of-jail free card. By and large, evangelicals haven’t had to take responsibility for their positions because they have won so few battles. What if Roe were really overturned and the ire of so many directed their way? President Bush’s assertion of American power against radical Islam was roundly blessed by evangelicals, and they haven’t enjoyed the guilt-by-association that has come their way for the difficulties in Iraq. A Huckabee presidency would mean that evangelicals had truly come to power. Winning can often be a far scarier thing than losing.
But didn’t conservative evangelicalism already come to power with President Bush? Not culturally. For evangelicals Bush represented an ideal combination of cultural elitism (Yale, Harvard, old money) and born-again theological commitments. He validated them from what the chip on their shoulder tells them is a culturally superior position.
In contrast, Huckabee is ice cream socials, all church hymn sings, and fruit salad called “ambrosia.” Trust me. If you’re a true cultural evangelical, you know what I’m talking about.
And, sure enough, one of evangelicalism’s worst habits—its unctuous self-promotion—was on full display in Huckabee’s Christmas ad. The “floating cross” in the ad was the least of it. He was using the holy event of Christ’s birth for his own political gain. That’s profane. A way of taking the Lord’s name in vain that goes far beyond any unthinking utterance. Huckabee only made it worse by saying he was simply trying to provide a helpful time-out from the campaign. I hope that was pretended naivete. I hate to think that Huckabee cannot recognize the context in which he now finds himself and the inevitable political meanings that entails. Otherwise, he really is too much “ambrosia” to be electable.
All that said, I do hope Huckabee makes a strong run at the presidency. I would consider voting for him. But that means that his evangelical constituency and those like me who agree with his worldview are going to have to grow up and accept the tragic dimension of history. Few worthwhile things are accomplished perfectly and without unintended consequences and even our best efforts have to be redeemed by a power greater than our own.