Religion & American politics:

It’s the economy and the culture stupid!

posted by John Schmalzbauer

“I am not interested in being the candidate of Wall Street but of Main Street. Wealthy CEOs get paid 500 times what the average worker does, but they are not necessarily 500 times smarter or harder working and that is wrong.”

– Mike Huckabee in The Politico

“There is a level of elitism that has existed, the chattering class if you will who lives in that corridor between Washington and Wall Street and they sort of live in their protected world, and frankly for a number of years many of them thought of people like me – whether it was because we were evangelicals or because maybe we were out from the middle of America. They were polite to us. They were more than happy for us to come to the rallies and stand in lines for hours to cheer on the candidates. . . . But when they got elected, behind closed doors, they would laugh at us and speak with scorn and derision that we were, as one article I think once said ‘the easily led.’”

– Mike Huckabee in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network

I agree with Michael Lindsay that Mike Huckabee exhibits many of the qualities of a “cosmopolitan” evangelical. At home in the company of both Jay Leno and Jon Stewart, he is a far cry from Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson (in spite of his appearance on Robertson’s CBN).

And yet it is impossible for journalists to talk about the second man from Hope without mentioning his populist rhetoric. While the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne writes that Huckabee “preaches a gospel of populism that rejects conservative orthodoxy on trade, the value of government and the beneficence of Wall Street,” Commentary’s Fred Siegel dubs him “William Jennings Huckabee.”

This combination of economic and religious populism sets Mike Huckabee apart from the rest of the Republican pack. Yet Huckabee’s marriage of cultural conservatism and economic egalitarianism makes sense in light of the social and cultural attitudes of American evangelicals.

Though evangelicals enjoyed a half-century of upward mobility (as documented by Lindsay’s Faith in the Halls of Power), they still have a long way to go. An analysis of 1996 General Social Survey data by Christian Smith and Robert Faris found that Southern Baptists and some Pentecostals have “significantly lower levels of socioeconomic status than many other groups.” While a far cry from a Washington Post reporter’s caricature of them as “poor, uneducated, and easy to command,” many evangelicals have not yet made it into the middle class.

This fact was not lost on Thomas Frank in his 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, nor is it lost on Huckabee, whose unofficial campaign slogan could be “What’s the Matter with Wall Street and Washington?”

Huckabee’s campaign demonstrates that working class evangelicals are not easy to command. It also shows that the political marriage between corporate America and Bible Belt Protestants may be on the rocks.

For those who have been paying attention to the polls, this shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. As early as 1987, a Times Mirror study noted the tensions between Enterprise and Moralist Republicans, describing the latter as “regular church-goers with a large number of born-again Christians.” While Enterprisers opposed increasing the size of the welfare state, Moralists favored government social spending.

As E.J. Dionne noted in his Huckabee column, the 2005 version of the same survey describes a “new group within the Republican alliance,” dubbed the “Pro-Government Conservatives.” This group is nearly 40 percent evangelical. Over half attend Bible study or prayer groups.

Since the early 1990s, the political scientists James Guth, John Green, Lyman Kellstedt, and Corwin Smidt (the so-called “gang of four”) have documented the existence of pro-government sentiments among evangelicals. Analyzing a 1992 survey, they noted that evangelicals gave “strong support for tough environmental regulations, comprehensive health insurance, and efforts to ease poverty and hunger.” Despite such pocketbook progressivism, cultural rather than economic issues have continued to shape the voting behavior of the evangelical electorate. In “It’s the Culture Stupid!”, Guth and his colleagues argued that culture war issues trumped social class in the 1992 election.

History often repeats itself, but what happens when an evangelical presidential candidate embraces cultural conservatism and economic populism? According to a January 2008 survey by the Pew Research Center, that candidate (Huckabee) takes 33 percent of the conservative evangelical vote, more than any other Republican.

As Romney’s success among Michigan evangelicals shows, many conservative Protestants remain unconvinced by Huckabee’s populism. His Southern Baptist ways may not have played well among the Dutch Calvinist denizens of Grand Rapids and Holland. For the Psalter-singing grandchildren of European immigrants, the Arkansas governor’s love of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Southern Gospel does not compute.

Yet as the South Carolina primary approaches, the future of the Republican coalition remains very much in doubt. More than any other presidential hopeful, Huckabee throws a wrench into the political machinery of the Republican Party. That’s why the National Review, Rush Limbaugh, and Wall Street are so distressed by his candidacy. The fissures revealed by the Arkansas populist may also provide a moment of opportunity for the Democrats. For both political parties, 2008 promises to be a critical year.

Tags: , ,

Printer-Friendly Version


2 Responses to “It’s the economy and the culture stupid!”

  1. avatar Michael Perry says:

    In South Carolina the other day, Governor Huckabee warned that unless we amend the Constitution to protect traditional marriage, “we’re going to change the definition of marriage so that it can mean two men, two women, a man and three women, a man and a child, a man and animal.” Such a “cosmopolitan” sentiment! Check out the discussion at dotCommonweal.

  2. avatar John Schmalzbauer says:

    Point well taken about Huckabee’s marriage comment. I think he is a hybrid of evangelical populism and evangelical cosmopolitanism. David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times had a perceptive article talking about Huckabee’s ability to talk about very conservative evangelical positions and make them sound moderate. Obviously, the episode Michael Perry refers to was not one of those occasions.

Leave a Reply

Please note: All comments will be approved by an administrator before they appear on this page.