Religion & American politics:

A new kind of evangelical

posted by D. Michael Lindsay

Mike Huckabee’s early success in the primary season shows that evangelicals have political muscles to flex in the post-George W. Bush era. Just as scribes across the country were ready to write Huckabee’s political obituary, he came out of nowhere and won the Republican Caucuses in Iowa by nine points over Mitt Romney. He also did better in New Hampshire than many pundits predicted, and with South Carolina and many other states up for grabs in the next few weeks, Huckabee’s political star will continue to rise—at least for a few more weeks.

In Iowa, Huckabee rallied support among evangelical populists—a base that will be critical to the race in South Carolina and several other states on Super Tuesday. But can the folksy governor from Arkansas translate his evangelical appeal into broader support? After all, a poll among Republican caucus goers revealed that 80 percent of his supporters self-identified as evangelicals. This will be an important question in evangelical-friendly states like Tennessee and Texas and even more critical in places like Florida and California. The national media has fixated on Governor Huckabee’s populist rhetoric about the economy and foreign policy. But in the days ahead, the key thing will be how well he appeals to a broader constituency. Can Mike Huckabee become a national candidate?

He can because Huckabee is a “cosmopolitan evangelical”—a new kind of evangelical that is less interested in “taking back the country” for the faithful and more interested in his faith being seen as authentic, reasonable, and attractive. Huckabee, like other cosmopolitan evangelicals, is not obsessed with who’s going to heaven and other existential questions. Instead, he’s a pragmatist and recognizes that in politics, salvation comes in several forms. If Huckabee plays up his cosmopolitanism and downplays his populism in the next two months, his campaign may become a parable of why evangelicals believe in the power of resurrection.

I spent the last five years criss-crossing the country to interview 360 of the nation’s most prominent evangelicals. These included two former Presidents, nearly fifty Cabinet secretaries, over one hundred CEOs and leading business executives, celebrated artists, professional athletes, as well as media moguls and Hollywood icons. In 2005, those travels took me Little Rock for an interview with the Governor about his evangelical faith.

Huckabee often says “I’m a conservative, but I’m not mad at anybody.” And he takes a similar approach to his faith. When I asked him whether the Christian life was the best way of life, he answered “Well it is for me,” but said that he was careful not to be “judgmental, caustic or pushy.” And while he supports traditional evangelical issues like the federal marriage amendment, when I asked about the effects of his faith on policy, he talked about things like children’s health insurance and education.

Of course, the more familiar evangelical activists—whom I call “populist evangelicals”—are still around, and Huckabee has to court them as well. Rather than dish out red meat, though, he plays up his humble roots (complete with “dirt floors and outdoor bathrooms”) and unrefined demeanor. His funny one-liners complete the country preacher persona.

We remember another folksy Southern governor whose evangelical faith served him well on the campaign trail. Carter’s surprise performance in the 1976 Iowa Caucuses became the launching pad for his nomination. Just as Carter’s campaign played up his populism, so also must Huckabee appeal to those who read Left Behind and hang Thomas Kinkade paintings on their living room walls.

But to secure major campaign dollars and prove himself inside the Beltway, Huckabee must also appeal to the establishment. The major difference between early 1976 and early 2008 is that evangelicals have now joined the American elite. Huckabee has tapped into something important that has passed by the old guard leaders like Pat Robertson and James Dobson. The former Arkansas governor is the one White House contender with the best evangelical credentials, but it’s not the kind of evangelical faith we’re used to hearing about.

Cosmopolitan evangelicals now honeycomb Washington and the halls of power. They remain committed to a pro-life agenda and oppose same-sex marriage, but they are also concerned about the environment and favor federal support for the poor and suffering. Many evangelicals of the political left are of this cosmopolitan ilk. As increasingly vocal opponents of the current administration, these cosmopolitan evangelicals favor a more humble, tolerant political leader—one whose faith not only compels action but also curbs hubris and builds bridges.

Within the evangelical fold, Mike Huckabee must straddle the divide between the populists and the cosmopolitans, convincing both that he is one of them. It’s a difficult balancing act, but Huckabee is singularly poised to unite both camps. Like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, he is able to exist on the margins of different groups and yet seem like an insider. To win, a candidate must appear as comfortable before factory workers as he is before titans of industry. Huckabee’s cosmopolitan faith helps him become all things to all people.

This helped him win in Iowa and could be the edge that propels him to victory in South Carolina—and from there to the nomination. For this evangelical candidate, Resurrection Day may be coming twelve weeks early.

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