The Coming Rebirth of the Religious Right

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.


Matt Sutton said…
Great post John, but I have some doubts about a few of your conclusions.

"...I couldn't imagine the man playing the bass guitar at Cottage Hill Baptist Church sitting behind the Oval Office desk..."

Is this worse/different than playing the sax on Arsenio Hall? It's certainly better than singing "Let the Eagle Soar"!

"Huckabee oozes everyman populism, but he doesn't exactly scream gravitas."

Have you already forgotten GW Bush? Is gravitas a requirement?

As for RD, yep, they'll keep squirming!
John G. Turner said…
Quite right, Matt. I was engaging in some wishful thinking. And perhaps the country's in a more sober mood now than in 1992 or 2000.

Do trips to Israel with LaHaye count as foreign policy experience?
A major lingering question here is just how much, if any, synergy there is (or will be) between the evangelical right and the Tea Party scene. Palin, as the new pal of Franklin Graham’s BGEA, is a link, as is the fact that Huckabee has a Fox News show. A glance at the preliminary schedule for the upcoming National Tea Party Convention in Nashville turns up Roy Moore, Rick Scarborough, and others with strong Christian Right credentials. Obvious ties to the wild, wild world of the American right aside, though, the populism of the Tea Party movement is framed largely in economic terms (Rick Santelli might support gay marriage for all I know). John, I expect a full report from the Nashville convention (ticket price $349 + $200 for Sarah’s banquet).
Manlius said…
Enjoyed this post very much, John. I could almost imagine myself with you at the Huckabee event. Must have been quite the spectacle.

As for 2008, don't forget that Pat Robertson backed Giuliani. Of course, aside from Giuliani's campaign bus being immune to earthquakes and hurricanes, it's hard to see how Rudy benefited from that endorsement.

Just a minor quibble. I know you weren't being all that serious anyway, but it should be noted that Scott Brown's CRC affiliation is quite weak. New England Chapel in Franklin, MA is on the very emergent side of the CRC. (I highly doubt they get into tulips or TULIP very much. :) ) It's also my understanding that he's not too frequently in attendance. I don't think it fits too well into his triathlon training schedule.
Manlius said…
As I read your post again, it seems that you were not trying to overplay Scott Brown's CRC connections, but were instead implying that some political analysts might do so. I definitely agree with that possibility.
John G. Turner said…
The Scott Brown comment was just an aside, but even emergent CRC members shouldn't win elections in Massachusetts.

Steve, I'll see any candidate in Mobile for less than $50. I paid $25 for Bill Clinton in 1992 and at least got an autograph. I've always been a real political nerd, to which Manlius can attest. Huckabee went like a rocket out of the auditorium after his speech, though to his credit he had sat through the musical program before it.
Mike DeLong said…
Do you think Huckabee's connection to Maurice Clemmons will hurt him in 2012?

The "Clemmons is Huckabee's Willie Horton" message looks too simple for a savvy opposing campaign manager to pass up; not to mention the questions it raises about faith-based prison programs generally.
melanie said…
While I think it's probable that the Republicans will go with a polarizing, Goldwater-esque candidate in 2012, I wonder if Romney's- or any Mormon's chances- might be different if the sole factor was religion. Between Prop 8 and more importantly, Glenn Beck's stature as perhaps one of the most prominent Mormon opinion-makers in national politics, it seems like Mormons- not necessarily Romney- might have a better chance in the GOP culture of conservative credentialing / distaste for RINOs etc.
John G. Turner said…
I absolutely think the Clemmons case will ruin Huckabee. I don't think it's necessarily fair, but what a gift to political rivals.

I try not to underestimate the GOP's ability for self-destructive behavior, but I think the party leadership at least will eschew a highly polarizing figure like Sarah Palin. I think even most Republican primary voters would worry about her chances in the general election. Furthermore, despite conservatives' ire about RINOs, they're often able to hold their noses when it comes to GOP moderates like Christie and Brown. The last few months have dented the wishful thinking of the Left that the GOP has become a purely regional party of extremists. On the other hand, there's no doubt that the more conservative faction of the party currently feels emboldened, so who knows. I certainly don't.

Overall, I still see Romney's faith as a significant political handicap.
Manlius said…
I'm not sure I agree with you, John, about Romney's faith being a major hindrance. I think he's now had enough exposure in the country to avoid being narrowly defined by his Mormonism. We may eventually get to see who's right.

Btw, I was at the Scott Brown victory rally at the Park Plaza Hotel in Boston. It was quite an event. (Lest anyone think I'm revealing my political persuasion, I was there because I was invited by a parishioner of mine who did a lot of work on the campaign. As a centrist Democrat who's not a fan of Coakley, though, I didn't feel too out of place.) I didn't get to meet Brown, but I did get to say hello to a certain man named Doug Flutie who happened to pass my way. He's also a Democrat, I understand, but was a big supporter of Brown's, even doing some ads. Imho, political analysts have not paid enough attention to the Flutie factor in Brown's triumph. Flutie's a winner!

A humorous moment for me came when a tipsy guy near me started to light a cigarette. Receiving the rebuke of several in the crowd, he said, "Relax, everybody, I'm from Mississippi. Fight the Democrats, man, not me." Thankfully, he at least reluctantly honored the fact that he was in a rather different "M" state than his own.

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