Saturday, January 12, 2008

Parsing the Parson - Campaign 2008, Mike Huckabee, and the Evangelical Vote

“Had I but serv’d my God with half the zeal
I serv’d my king, He would not in mine age
Have left me naked to mine enemies.”
- William Shakespeare (Henry VIII, Act 3, scene 2)

When campaign 2008 is all said and done there will be, as there always are, enduring fictions that live on. I think one of them will be that a candidate’s religion doesn’t really matter. Those who propagate it will do so quite skillfully. Many of them will be conservatives.

Back in October, eons ago now, Mike Huckabee had this to say to a gathering of values voters in Washington, D.C.:

“It’s important that people sing from their hearts and don’t merely lip-sync the lyrics to our songs,” I think it’s important that the language of Zion is a mother tongue and not a recently acquired second language.”

There have been two especially interesting reactions to those words. At the grass roots level, the response has been straight from the gut. People who like Mike say they like him because…..they like Mike. In the rarified air of Republican Party power the response to Mike Huckabee has been every bit as visceral. They’ve cloaked their contempt in what they call reason and conservative principles. They claim that it has nothing to do with his religion. But, as they say here in the Bible belt, “That dog won’t hunt.” They’re parsing and rationalizing, which can, for the unskilled and un-knowing, be dangerous. Kinky Friedman once observed that “a rationalization a day keeps the shrink away.” I think that’s where the Republican movers and shakers are right now. They can’t figure this “I like Mike” thing out, so they’ve taken to rationalizations when they should be engaging in a bit of soul searching.

For years now, the Republican Party has presumed upon the values voter, particularly the Evangelical. But Mike Huckabee represents something new. There’s a fresh wind in the air; the days of presumption may be coming to an end. The old appeals from the Party’s center of gravity don’t seem to be working. The scorn (Huckster Mike, Pastor Mike, “librull,”) only seem to be adding fuel to the fire. The frenetic attempts to label don’t seem have enough glue to stick.

What those attacking Mike Huckabee fail to see is that the phenomenon is less about him than it is about his supporters. This is becoming, if it wasn’t already, a movement. Mike Huckabee is simply responding to the sense a lot of us Evangelicals and political populists have been feeling for quite a while. The sense of abandonment and disconnect by the party powerful has been palpable.

How has it come to this? Mike Huckabee’s detractors say that it’s because he and his supporters have betrayed conservative principles. Huckabee supporters like me are saying, “Nonsense. Someone has moved and it isn’t us.” In 1953, Russell Kirk outlined what he termed the “six canons of conservative thought.” They were/are – (1) Belief in transcendent order which rules society as well as conscience (2) Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence (3) Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes (4) Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked (5) Faith in prescription and distrust of “sophisters, calculators, and economists (6) Recognition that innovation may be a devouring conflagration rather than a torch of progress (see Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind – pages 8 and 9). I’d be willing to wager that the vast majority of Huckabee supporters would agree with those principles.

Why, then, have so many Evangelicals, values voters who adored Ronald Reagan, flocked to Mike Huckabee? Is it all as simple as a matter of common faith? Is all this groundswell nothing more than a religious huckster playing pied piper to his fringe flock? Huckabee detractors can portray it like that if they like, but they do so at their own peril. This movement goes far deeper than that.

The depth of the movement may not be evident on the surface, but it’s there. For example, while we believe in temporal order, our roots sink more deeply into the notion that transcendent order (see principle one) is paramount. The practical outworking of that belief in policy terms means that while we believe that we have a duty to solve the illegal immigration problem and our porous southern border, we don’t believe that firing up the busses and rounding up twelve million souls is, in transcendent terms, an acceptable policy position. When it comes to the notion of “affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence,” we Huckabee supporters stand second to none. We are pro-life, in all the richness the term suggests. We believe in order, and even class. But, we also believe that principle is all too often used as an excuse for economic elitism and obscene profits gouged out from the backs of “the least of these.” We do believe in class, but we also believe in the transcendent idea of conscience. In keeping with principle five, we don’t place abiding faith in “sophisters,” calculators, and economists. We refuse to let them explain away our moral obligation to account for the guy who cuts cows or works bussing tables in our economic paradigms. We believe in the notion of freedom and its link to property. Many of us have read the work of F.A. Hayek, but we’ve also read the Acts of the Apostles. Finally, like our Founding Fathers, we believe that change for “light and transient causes” is all too often folly. But, we also believe that those things that are eternal/immutable should have a profound effect on how we live our lives and on public policy (see Malachi 3).

At our core, we Mike Huckabee supporters are true believers in the conservative cause. We haven’t moved. In fact, we’d like to think that we’re trying to re-introduce the notions of soul and human faces into the movement: We’re conservatives. We believe in Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead.” And, we believe that men ought to “participate in a natural and moral order in which they count for more than the flies of summer.”

Will the Mike Huckabee groundswell continue? I don’t know. Does it matter? Yes! From the grass roots a call for the Party to regain its soul has been sounded. Despiet notions to the contrary, the call hasn’t come from a shallow place. The Mike Huckabee movement goes far deeper than its detractors can imagine. They can ridicule it and laugh it to scorn. They can try to bring it back in line. But, it’s too late. The movement has found its voice. The dry bones are coming to life. The Republican Party would do well to listen.

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