Mike Huckabee: Cosmopolitan Evangelical

The Republican candidate represents a new breed of evangelical Christian.

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Mike Huckabee is an evangelical with political ambitions, but he sure doesn't act like Pat Robertson. He plays the guitar. He drops witty one-liners on the late-night talk shows. He resists being pushy or judgmental. He voices as much concern for postnatal life as for prenatal life. He seems genuinely concerned about the less fortunate, including the children of illegal immigrants. Given those qualities, it's probably not surprising that many old-guard leaders of the religious right seem uneasy about the former Baptist minister and Arkansas governor—or at least about his surprisingly strong showing in the Republican presidential primaries.

Is Huckabee the political expression of something new in the evangelical Christian movement? Some analysts think so. Rice University sociologist Michael Lindsay, writing in the the Immanent Frame, calls him a "new kind of evangelical that is less interested in 'taking back the country' for the faithful and more interested in his faith being seen as authentic, reasonable, and attractive." Dubbing this new type the "cosmopolitan evangelical," Lindsay, author of Faith in the Halls of Power, says that many who fit the label have become influential Washington players, still committed to the antiabortion and traditional marriage agenda but "also concerned about the environment and...federal support for the poor and suffering." Some of these cosmopolitan evangelicals are politically liberal, Lindsay explains, but just as many, if not more, are conservatives who favor a truly compassionate and less confrontational conservatism. Think Rick Warren goes to Washington. Or, for that matter, Mike Huckabee.

But to reach Washington, Lindsay believes, Huckabee will have to pull off a delicate balancing act. While showing the cosmopolitans that he is one of the new breed, he will also have to reassure the older, more fundamentalist evangelicals and their activist leaders like James Dobson, Gary Bauer, and Paul Weyrich that he still shares their core concerns and beliefs. In other words, Lindsay suggests, Huckabee can't leave behind the Left Behind folks, because they are the voters who came out for him in Iowa.

Lindsay's analysis raises an interesting question: Are the rank-and-file evangelicals out there in the hustings more like the old-guard fundamentalists (whom Lindsay somewhat confusingly calls "populist evangelicals"), or are they more like the cosmopolitans? The answer, no doubt, is both. But the best research on the subject suggests that rank-and-file evangelicals might be more cosmopolitan than populist, in Lindsay's sense of those terms.

In an important book that appeared in 2000, Christian America: What Evangelicals Really Want? University of North Carolina sociologist Christian Smith looked beyond the rhetoric of the Religious Right to determine what everyday evangelicals thought, believed, and hoped for. Not surprisingly, after extensive surveying, Smith found that the attitudes of most evangelicals were more tolerant, nuanced, and diverse than those of their more zealous leaders. To some extent, this made perfect, unsurprising sense. Leaders of special-interest groups, religious or otherwise, mobilize supporters by focusing on hot-button, divisive "wedge" issues. It is their way of holding things together, advancing an agenda, bringing pressure to bear. Mix things up, add nuance, or broaden the agenda—as, say, Rick Warren and Richard Czizik (vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals) have done by bringing in poverty and global warming—and you lose your grip on the troops.

But there is reason to believe that the old-guard activists never had that strong a hold on their troops—and didn't because politics and religion make an unstable alliance. To reduce the teachings of Christianity, or any other religion, to a set of divisive wedge issues is ultimately to do violence to those teachings, as almost any thinking believer understands. Yet many conservative Christians went along with their leaders for a time, accepting their extremism as the price for correcting what they saw as the ills of contemporary society, from efforts to legitimize gay marriage to secularists' attempts to exclude all expressions of religiosity from the public sphere. But such support could last only so long. With more and more social conservatives moving into the halls of power and some of the perceived excesses corrected, many evangelicals began to tire of the endlessly confrontational rhetoric of their leaders. In addition to the growing appeal of broad-agenda evangelicals like Warren or progressive evangelicals such as Sojourners founder Jim Wallis, a lot of young evangelicals found themselves drawn toward the less dogmatic "emergent church" movement.

So will Huckabee be able to play to both sides of the evangelical divide—the diminishing ranks of the fundamentalists on one side and the more diverse young evangelicals on the other—while at the same time connecting with a broader American electorate? That is the question that has many observers puzzled. "He seems to be putting things together as he goes along," says Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and director of its Evangelical Studies Project. Cromartie was as surprised by Huckabee's strong showing in Iowa as many people were, but he thinks the former Baptist minister needs to do a better job of making his religiously informed positions sound less sectarian. And sometimes, Cromartie believes, Huckabee talks in ways that seem theologically dubious even to serious Christians. To claim, for example, as Huckabee did, that God had a decisive hand in his victory in Iowa was as troubling to many Christians—and even evangelicals—as it was to secular Americans. (Not the least of problems raised by that boast is the implicit corollary: that God scorned Huckabee's efforts in New Hampshire and Michigan.)

If he hopes to succeed on the wider American stage, Huckabee can ill afford to offend secularists and even many coreligionists with careless pronouncements that play well only among hard-core fundamentalists. His claim not to "believe" in the theory of evolution, for example, exposes him to easy ridicule when it is an established scientific fact that the mechanisms of natural selection work. But Huckabee is on safer, more broadly accepted grounds when he says that the efficacy of those mechanisms does not rule out the existence of an intelligent designer behind them. Science, in other words, can no more disprove the existence of God than it can prove it.

Whether Huckabee will learn to connect with a larger part of the electorate—or even see the need to do so—should become apparent in the coming primaries, particularly in Florida, a state with a strong core of evangelical voters but also a very diverse collection of other voters broadly representative of the American mix. Lindsay, for one, believes that Huckabee, if victorious in South Carolina, will explain his success in different terms from those he used after Iowa. "That," says Lindsay, "is the real tension he faces: to speak to the faithful without offending the others." And how he comes through that trial may tell us as much about the new evangelicals as it does about Mike Huckabee.