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My View: Bad for Huckabee, good for America

Dan Gilgoff
L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service
Vail CO, Colorado

At the Values Voter Summit in Washington in October, Southern Baptist ex-preacher Mike Huckabee made headlines by imploring evangelical voters to stay true to their Bible-believing faith rather than sell their souls for the good of the Republican Party. What he meant, of course, was that they should back true-believer Huckabee, despite his long odds in the race for the White House, over impure candidates such as Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson.

“Let me say that it’s important that people sing from their hearts and don’t merely lip-sync the lyrics to our songs,” Huckabee told the crowd, referring to the presidential contenders. “I think it’s important that the language of Zion is a mother tongue and not a recently acquired second language.” The speech was a hit, but in the weeks since, most A-list Christian right leaders and organizations have shrugged off his advice.

The National Right to Life Committee has endorsed Thompson, an admittedly infrequent churchgoer who once lobbied for a family-planning group. Bob Jones III and Moral Majority co-founder Paul Weyrich have gotten onboard with Romney, a formerly pro-choice and pro-gay-rights Mormon. And, in the biggest endorsement bombshell of the campaign, televangelist Pat Robertson announced his support for Giuliani, who is thrice-married and the GOP’s most socially liberal candidate.

To many conservatives ” and even to some liberals and neutral observers ” the Robertson endorsement vindicated Huckabee’s complaint that Christian right leaders “are more intoxicated with power than principle.” The right-wing Web site World Net Daily reported “Pat Robertson’s sell-out,” while left-wing evangelical Jim Wallis quipped that “according to Pat Robertson’s twisted moral logic, forgiving the social conservative shortcomings of Republicans is a Christian virtue.”

But in a country founded firmly on religious pluralism, watching the Christian right pick and choose among candidates could be a positive development. It’s a sure sign that many evangelical leaders have moved beyond mere identity politics and toward an overdue openness to compromise in a political system that’s built on it.

Does a proudly pluralistic nation want candidates openly appealing to voters on sectarian grounds — as Huckabee seemed to do at the Values Voter Summit — so that evangelicals back only solidly evangelical candidates, Catholics support orthodox Catholics and Jews vote for faithful Jews?

That scenario almost played out in 2005, with George W. Bush’s nomination of Harriet E. Miers to the Supreme Court. Miers, then the White House counsel, hadn’t served a single day as a judge. But the Bush administration expected the conservative movement’s evangelical wing to support her because she was one of them.

Many high-powered evangelicals happily obliged. Focus on the Family founder James Dobson assured his huge radio audience that Miers was worth supporting because she was “an evangelical Christian … from a very conservative church, which is almost universally pro-life.”

Eventually, though, the conservative establishment convinced its evangelical brethren of Miers’ lack of qualifications. Her confirmation to the Supreme Court on the backs of evangelicals keen on her primarily because of her religion would have been even more unseemly than her actual ignominious political demise.

Perhaps Huckabee didn’t intend to ask for votes on the basis of church membership. Perhaps he merely wanted to communicate that he’s more solid on hot-button social issues like gay marriage and abortion than his GOP competitors. On that grounds too, the failure of his ideological purity to translate into more Christian right support is still good news for American politics.

One of the most troubling tendencies of the Christian right has been its habit of translating the black-and-white literalism of its theology to the political realm. Under this model, Democrats and moderate Republicans are God’s sworn enemies and must be opposed at every turn. Rather than compromise, the Christian right has attempted to stage a conservative Republican “takeover” of Washington, with considerable electoral success during the Bush years but with poisonous consequences for politics and policy.

The willingness of a powerful figure such as Robertson to work with a former enemy such as Giuliani, by contrast, is evidence of the Christian right’s ideological demilitarization. Add it to other recent evangelical partnerships ” with feminists, for instance, on the issue of sex trafficking, and environmentalists on the issue of global warming ” and a trend emerges.

Some evangelical figures involved in those efforts have been denounced as sellouts for neglecting the Christian right’s hard-core agenda of fighting abortion and gay rights and because their actions threatened to give the left legitimacy. Sound familiar? Those denouncements aren’t too far off from those leveled by Huckabee and the “Robertson sold his soul” crowd.

Of course, Christian right backers of Giuliani, Romney and Thompson are driven by less noble causes than fighting human trafficking or climate change. They want to keep Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton out of the White House and don’t think Huckabee has enough money to win. But their practical decision to compromise by supporting flawed candidates could open the door to healthy compromises on thorny policy issues.

Alternatively, a plan by Christian right purists to back a third-party candidate if Giuliani clinches the nomination would further the theological “with us or against us” approach to government.

With pundits already speculating that Giuliani may ask Huckabee to be his running mate, the one-time preacher might be pressured to compromise his principles in the not-too-distant future. His willingness to pair with a social liberal would doubtless be seen in some quarters as selling out. But in the fallen world of American politics, it would probably be the best evangelicals could hope for.

Dan Gilgoff is the author of “The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical America Are Winning the Culture War.”


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