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.
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."
Those who accuse Huckabee of falling prey to "liberal values" betray an ignorance of evangelical history. By transcending the false division between "moral values" and "social justice," Huckabee actually represents a return to a more broad-based and less ideological brand of evangelical politics, one that pframredates the modern split between liberals and fundamentalists that became so pronounced during the later 20th century.
Perhaps the reason that Huckabee has struck fear in the hearts of so many Republicans and old-guard fundamentalists is less ideological than pragmatic. The evangelical groundswell that plucked Huckabee from obscurity during the Iowa caucuses demonstrated the viability of a Republican candidate who represents Evangelicals but who also believes that the state has a positive and necessary role to play in the lives of citizens, especially those whom Jesus called "the least of these."
A reenergized evangelical base sounds like good news for the GOP, especially given recent talk of creeping demoralization and disillusionment in the party.
In fact, the opposite is true.
Even assuming he loses the nomination, Huckabee's appeal demonstrates what journalists and commentators have been saying for the past year: the views in the pews are changing. Republicans can no longer take Evangelicals for granted simply by beating up the old piñatas of abortion and gay marriage. While a full-scale exodus from the GOP is unlikely, more "Bible-believing" Christians are likely to consider voting for a Democratic candidate this November than in any election since Evangelicals helped to put Jimmy Carter in the White House.
Unfortunately, we don't know how many Evangelicals are voting Democratic because current exit polling doesn't ask Democrats whether they're evangelical. However, a recent Beliefnet poll found that born-again believers now rank traditionally Democratic causes ahead of Republican ones.
Almost 60 percent said that fighting poverty, protecting the environment, and expanding public healthcare deserved more attention than abortion and gay rights. Twenty three percent said their views had become less positive about Republicans, twice the number who said they'd soured on Democrats. According to some polls, the votes of 40 percent or more of white evangelical voters are up for grabs in 2008.
Democratic contender Barack Obama has already narrowed the "God gap" with Republicans by making personal faith a driving force in his campaign. By helping to close another gap in American political discourse – one that long separated social-justice issues and "moral values" – Huckabee may inadvertently be ushering many "new Evangelicals" out of his party.