Friday, March 07, 2008

Whither Huckabee?

An interesting article by Jim Wallis of the God's Politics blog, talking about what's next for Mike Huckabee. His main point is that Huckabee represents the new face of the Religious Right, one that is socially conservative but also concerned about issue of economic justice and poverty. Wallis argues, very effectively, that Huckabee's ostracism from the Republican party during his presidential campaign was because he did not embrace the (ironically) Darwinistic attitudes of a no-holds-barred capitalist. Huckabee brought issues like poverty and the environment into the evangelical fold.

Of course, these types of issues are apostacy to the Republican establishment, so Huckabee was not going to win "traditional" Republican support. But his very authentic social conservatism won over the religious right base that Karl Rove and company abused so well in 2000 and 2004.

I strongly disagree with almost all of Huckabee's social conservative positions. But if he's the face of the new evangelical movement, then all of a sudden progressives and conservatives will have a lot of common ground on issues like the environment and poverty to be able to form coalitions and actually get things done that will be helpful to the least powerful among us.

I don't heart Huckabee, although I do think he's pretty entertaining and geniune in his good humor. His Chuck Norris ad was still one of the funniest things I've seen from a political camapign in a long time. But Huckabee's rise as an evangelical leader does present an opportuntity to do some good things in the future.

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Tuesday evening, John McCain clinched the Republican nomination for president, and Mike Huckabee, the last remaining contender, conceded defeat. Huckabee's campaign, and the failure of the Religious Right to support him, has been one of the most interesting and puzzling stories of this primary season

While Huckabee is certainly a social conservative, he refused to toe the line on a number of issues. And that is more evidence for why I say the monologue of the Religious Right has ended and the evangelical agenda has broadened.

In the Republican YouTube debate, the candidates were asked if they believed every word of the Bible. Huckabee said that while some of the Bible was allegorical, we needed to take much of it much more seriously than we do - such the words of Jesus that say, "As you have done to the least of these you have done to me." This is not the text that most conservatives quote when asked about the authority of the Bible. In an interview with Reuters in January, Huckabee spoke about the broadening evangelical agenda:

Unquestionably there is a maturing that is going on within the evangelical movement. It doesn't mean that evangelicals are any less concerned about traditional families and the sanctity of life. It just means that they also realize that we have real responsibility in areas like disease and hunger and poverty and that these are issues that people of faith have to address.

And when conservative columnists such as Robert Novak attacked Huckabee for not being a "real conservative," this is precisely what they meant. When Huckabee was governor of Arkansas, he advocated spending money on poor people - behavior that is offensive to the economically conservative wing of the Republican Party. While Huckabee is a consistent social conservative, he is considered suspect by the party's economic conservatives who, of course, don't support spending any money on overcoming poverty. Huckabee disagrees with them.

On immigration, in that same debate, there was an all-out attack on "illegal aliens" who became the new scapegoat, the new "other," for many of the Republican candidates - and the preferred way to energize their primary base. Except for the acknowledgement from John McCain that "these are God's children too," every Republican candidate preceded to demagogue the issue, beating up on undocumented immigrants for crass political gain.

But then Mike Huckabee spoke. He agreed that our borders need to be protected and enforced (I do too), but then defended his support for a failed bill in Arkansas to give scholarships to exceptional students - including undocumented children. He said he didn't want to punish children for their parents' illegal actions because "that's not what we typically do in this country." This educational plan, he said, was intended to bring people from illegal to legal status. He continued, saying that he had received a good education; but if he hadn't, "I wouldn't be standing on this stage; I might be picking lettuce; I might be a person who needed government support." Then he said, "In all due respect, we're a better country than to punish children for what their parents did." Although he later moved more to the right in the heat of the primaries, that response remains.

Is that ultimately why the leaders of the Religious Right didn't support Mike Huckabee until late in the primary season? Is it because many on the Religious Right are really more committed to economic conservatism than social conservatism? Have religious conservatives gotten so used to their access to power that are they afraid to risk standing for principle over pragmatism? Huckabee was the most consistent social conservative Republican in the race - he won a straw poll at the FRC Values Voters Summit this winter - yet most of the leaders of the Religious Right never rallied around him. But the evangelical base did, keeping him in the race until this week.

Now that he is out of the race, what's next for Huckabee? The conservative Washington Times said that Huckabee is at the forefront of an evangelical revival, and quoted his former communications director as saying

He has become the leader of a new generation of Christian conservative voters. ... There is nobody else you can identify outside of Mike Huckabee as a leading person to take on that role, really in a new era where evangelicals care about a lot of things like the environment and working with the poor.

And, as former Bush staffer David Kuo wrote in The Washington Post,

That there's now a pitched battle for the soul of the religious right is a horrifying thought to Republican leaders long familiar with the old religious right, a hierarchical group dominated by larger-than-life figures who'd anointed themselves Jesus's political representatives. But that movement is withering at the top and in revolt at the grass-roots. ... What's new is how widespread social justice issues are in the evangelical world. Leading New Testament theologian N.T. Wright, a conservative, says that the greatest moral issue today is not abortion but the economic inequality between the U.S. and Europe and the developing world.

So, stay tuned. We haven't heard the last from Mike Huckabee.

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