When someone leading Barack Obama in a hypothetical if absurdly premature 2012 matchup comes to town, it's worth investigating.
Mike Huckabee spoke at an ecumenical Christian music and arts celebration at a Baptist megachurch in Mobile, Alabama, last night. The sanctuary was about two-thirds full. In fact, with Tim Tebow in town for the NFL's Senior Bowl, Huckabee was only the second-most famous evangelical visitor to the city. (In the Southeast, Tebow would surely crush Obama in a head-to-head matchup of messianic figures).
So $15 for a Huckabee speech, and -- to paraphrase Paul -- here the blog is. I asked Huck if he wanted to do an interview for Religion in American History Television, but he demurred.
Just a few years removed from liberal fears of a rising theocracy, the Religious Right seemed almost irrelevant during the 2008 election cycle. Don't worry, those who think this blog can't live without the infusion of Sarah Palin-based traffic, it'll be back. The Religious Right is the zombie of American politics.
Last time around, the most viable Republican candidates early on seemed to be Mitt Romney, John McCain, and Rudy Giuliani. Between Romney's Mormon faith, McCain's repeated expressions of loathing for the Religious Right, and Giuliani's shabby treatment of his second wife and support for abortion rights, evangelical powerbrokers didn't see a good-looking horse in the race.
Eventually, James Dobson and a few others threw their support behind Huckabee in Iowa, but that support came too late for Huckabee to build a national movement.
Next time around, things will be different. It is easy to imagine potential candidates like Huckabee, Sarah Palin, John Thune (Biola College B.A. and impeccable pro-life credentials), and Tim Pawlenty vigorously competing for evangelical votes. Look for pundits to note the renewed strength of the Christian Right. Heck, members of the Christian Reformed Church can win statewide races in Massachusetts.
I have a soft spot for Mike Huckabee because he attended Campus Crusade's Explo '72 evangelistic youth fest in Dallas nearly thirty years ago. Since that event ended with a "Jesus Music Festival," it seemed appropriate that last night Huckabee appeared after the best contemporary Christian music Mobile has to offer. Huck then played bass on a rousing rendition of "Sweet Home Alabama."
Huckabee is a busy guy, hosting a conservative variety show on FoxNews, leading trips to the Holy Land with Tim LaHaye, and publishing apolitical fare on the true meaning of Christmas. He's more of a brand than a politician. The brand is Christian, amiable, optimistic, up-to-date, and mostly non-confrontational (the brand de jour of contemporary American evangelicalism).
That brand was on display at tonight's event. Huckabee's speech wasn't especially political, though he mentioned his support for a revised No Child Left Behind law and spoke at some length about his opposition to abortion.
Mostly, Huckabee emphasized the need for Christians to see the creative love of God at work in every individual. "Look at each other through the eyes of God's grace and see what they could be," he suggested, "rather than look through the eyes of human judgment." He emphasized, very authentically to my ears, the significance of music and arts education ("weapons of mass instruction") and chided Christians who could not see beauty in "secular" forms of entertainment. Huckabee is one of those few evangelicals who do not instantly scare the bejeezus out of non-evangelicals.
Huckabee has obvious political gifts (and I can see how he was a great preacher), but I don't think the Huckabee brand is presidential material. I couldn't imagine the man playing the bass guitar at Cottage Hill Baptist Church sitting behind the Oval Office desk. Huckabee oozes everyman populism, but he doesn't exactly scream gravitas.
The wealth of potential evangelical options in the 2012 GOP field is good news for those of us who study and write about contemporary (or near-contemporary) evangelicalism. After 2008, I thought Mitt Romney had no chance to win over enough evangelical voters to ever get the Republican nomination. But that was partly because Huckabee was the only serious evangelical contender in the field -- he sucked up all the evangelical oxygen in Iowa and in southern primaries. If Huckabee, Palin, and others split the evangelical vote, perhaps Romney will have more of a fighting chance. Good news for those of us trying to write about Mormonism. In any event, these potential candidates should give us plenty of good material and keep the folks over at Religion Dispatches squirming.