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Will Huckabee's campaign encourage evangelicals to vote for a Democrat?

The former Arkansas governor's positions on "liberal" social issues may herald a political realignment of evangelicals.

By Brett Grainger / February 4, 2008

Cambridge, Mass.

By far, the most significant story of the 2008 Republican primaries has been the unlikely candidacy of Mike Huckabee and his single-handed resuscitation of Christian conservatives as a force to be reckoned with in the Republican Party. Yet, regardless of how he fares on Super Tuesday and beyond, Mr. Huckabee will perhaps be best remembered as the man who, however unintentionally, helped persuade evangelicals to vote a Democrat into the White House in 2008 – and possibly in future races, as well.

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Since the 1970s, conventional wisdom has held that evangelicals are driven by a single-minded concern with defending "moral values," while mainline Protestants focus on issues of social and economic justice. Huckabee has helped crack that old chestnut – and suddenly, the GOP is having a harder time standing for "God's Own Party."

While an orthodox Republican on "gays, guns, and God," Huckabee made his mark by presenting himself as a different type of Christian conservative. His campaign website devotes as much space to arguing for the need to increase funding for the arts, protect the environment, fight poverty, and reform healthcare as it does to the fight against abortion and gay marriage. And though he was forced to toughen his stand on immigration and government spending, his record as governor of Arkansas, where he raised taxes and granted in-state tuition rates to the children of illegal immigrants, speaks for itself.

For such temerity, Huckabee has been slammed by his GOP colleagues as "liberal." Rush Limbaugh accused him of engaging in "class warfare"; The Wall Street Journal said it's fair to call him a tribune of the "religious left." But in breaking from the conservative mold, Huckabee is following tracks laid by the National Association of Evangelicals, which last year incited a civil war among evangelical leaders by broadening its political agenda to include issues such as climate change.

Huckabee's supporters glimpse in him the archetype of the "new evangelical" – a truer representative of the "compassionate conservatism" that Bush preached but never practiced. In fact, Huckabee's seemingly novel mix of moral conservatism and economic populism owes more to the 19th century than the 21st.

During the Second Great Awakening, revivalists such as Charles Finney led a national movement to transform the young republic on an expansive set of issues. Some of them – abolition and women's rights, for instance – would today be called "progressive"; others – such as temperance or religious education – come closer to what we think of as "conservative."