When the standard narrative fails

fieldguideIf you are interested in Huckabee's efforts to woo evangelicals, you could do worse than read the latest from the Washington Post's Perry Bacon and Juliet Eilperin. In a straightforward account, they explain how Huckabee isn't just an economic populist, but a religious one, too:

Last month in Iowa, Huckabee noted the criticism against him for supporting tax increases while governor of Arkansas, and he said the "Washington establishment" was opposed to his candidacy in a party where social conservatives often do not wield the same power as do small-government conservatives.

"Many of us who have been Republicans out of conviction . . . the social conservatives," he told reporters, "were welcomed in the party as long as we sort of kept our place, but Lord help us if we ever stood forward and said we would actually like to lead the party."

John A. Schmalzbauer, the Strong Chair in Protestant Studies at Missouri State University, said Huckabee is practicing "a kind of politics with identity" that will resonate with evangelicals.

"It's saying, 'You've been shut out. You've voted for people in the past who've said they represent you. Why not get somebody that's one of you?' " Schmalzbauer said. "It's a kind of religious populism that goes along with economic populism."

The article is surprisingly deft, reinforcing the religious populism theme throughout. Whether or not it's wise to run for a party's nomination by encouraging resentment among one key part of a coalition against other key parts of a coalition is a question only the voters can ultimately answer. But the article explains quite well how that campaign tactic is being deployed.

It also says that many evangelical Christians are no longer following old school Christian activists such as Pat Robertson. That was the entire theme of David Kirkpatrick's most recent piece in the New York Times:

Much of the national leadership of the Christian conservative movement has turned a cold shoulder to the Republican presidential campaign of Mike Huckabee, wary of his populist approach to economic issues and his criticism of the Bush administration's foreign policy. But that has only fired up Brett and Alex Harris. . . .

The brothers fell for Mr. Huckabee last August when they saw him draw applause on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" for explaining that he believed in a Christian obligation to care for prenatal "life" and also education, health care, jobs and other aspects of "life." "It is a new kind of evangelical conservative position," Brett Harris said. Alex Harris added, "And we are not going to have to be embarrassed about him."

Mr. Huckabee, who was a Southern Baptist minister before serving as governor of Arkansas, is the only candidate in the presidential race who identifies himself as an evangelical. But instead of uniting conservative Christians, his candidacy is threatening to drive a wedge into the movement, potentially dividing its best-known national leaders from part of their base and upending assumptions that have held the right wing together for the last 30 years.

Kirkpatrick's article is also fantastic and suggests that Huckabee's rise indicates the complete realignment of the "old" Christian right. It also briefly touches on Huckabee's outreach to Catholics. HuckCPAC The one thing that neither article gets into -- and I wouldn't expect them to for stories recording incremental political changes -- is the "why" of it all. Why are some religious conservatives embracing economic and religious populism?

Back before the previous presidential election, I had a conversation with one of my favorite authors -- D.G. Hart -- about just this topic. He had mentioned in an off-handed way that American Protestants on the right were getting ready to realign politically. "Never!" I cried out. And I really thought that he was wrong. The mainstream media started writing (a bit eagerly, I might add) about the demise of the values voters political realignment of Republican evangelicals only in the past year. Hart's prescience was helped, I'm sure, by his research of American Protestant political activism.

The standard narrative of American Protestantism used by journalists is that you have two vehemently opposed sides. On the one side are liberal mainliners who seek to enact social justice programs and on the other side are Bible-thumping evangelicals who want to enforce strict morality on the masses. In addition to his belief that this leaves out a significant swath of Protestants (we confessional Protestants), Hart argues that the standard media narrative is lacking. He says both of the aforementioned groups belong to the same tradition: American Pietism. Such Pietism, fueled by revivalism, emphasizes the concept of changing the world and preaches a God whose public and private work touches on the secular (other Christian traditions emphasize the sacred and sacramental).

In the forward to Hart's Lost Soul of American Protestantism Cornell History Professor Laurence Moore writes:

American Pietists have never agreed on a platform that spells out exactly what God should do, hence the seeming divide between liberals and conservatives. But what the purported two parties of Pietism share is more important than their differences. They both believe in a public-minded deity who was yoked into partisan political service by [both sides] long before the 1980s.

That members of the conservative coalition would support a populist has shocked many on the Right. But the fact is that Protestant voters have repeatedly realigned all over the political spectrum. The religious right wasn't born in our lifetime. It's pretty old. And, as tmatt said recently, the "new" religious left is even older. Perhaps it's time to drop the standard narrative and search for a better one.

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