Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee's unexpected resilience has influenced this election in myriad ways. But one of the most intriguing side effects of the Baptist minister's tour in the spotlight has been the attention it has brought to an evolution occurring inside the white Christian evangelical movement.
Huckabee has pulled back the curtain on a long-churning generational struggle over the movement's priorities and tone. For many, he is the first national political iteration of a new crop of leaders challenging the old guard's script, which focuses almost exclusively on banning abortion and same-sex marriage and confronting those issues in the courts.
The former Arkansas governor, only belatedly supported by long-time leaders like James Dobson of Focus on the Family and Moral Majority cofounder Paul Weyrich who were alarmed by John McCain's momentum, has shown that the movement is not a monolith. New-generation leaders, including author and pastor Rick Warren and environmentalist Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals, are now competing mightily for influence among a younger generation of born-again Christians.
"The evangelical community is in flux," says John Green of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "And it's about priorities." Most in the new wave remain strongly opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage but are advocating a broader moral agenda and a way to tackle life and gay issues outside the Supreme Court. That agenda includes a focus beyond the traditional issues to those ranging from global poverty and the environment to battling HIV-AIDS in Africa.
Some progressive evangelicals have suggested that the GOP’s recent stranglehold on the white, born-again vote may be waning, though that assertion has been met with skepticism. "If you voted for Huckabee, what are the chances you're going to vote for Hillary?" asks Michael Cromartie, head of the Evangelicals in Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. But he acknowledges that something profound is happening. "New leaders are raising very legitimate questions about leadership that grew up out of the late 1970s and can appear to be self-righteous, condemnatory, and harsh," he says.
One progressive organization that has taken on the old religious right is Faith in Public Life. It has agitated for better polling of Democratic primary voters to determine whether evangelicals have migrated from the GOP. Its phone survey of primary voters in Missouri and Tennessee found that one third of evangelicals voted for a Democrat, though polling experts cautioned that the survey was small and that extrapolations could be overstated.
New voices. Joel Hunter, an Orlando pastor at the forefront of the new wave, says that he has been struck at "how not hard right, not partisan" young evangelicals appear to be. Fresh voices, he says, are "defining what is conservative and what is evangelical." But those predicting the demise of the religious right just aren't keeping track. Evangelicals, including Pentecostals, are the fastest-growing segment of Christianity in America, Cromartie says, and they vote.
"If the movement were dead," says Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, "Mike Huckabee would not be in the race." Broadening the social conservative agenda is "natural and normal," Perkins says, and will attract more to the cause. Speculation that the movement is falling apart surfaces every six or eight years, he says, "and it's not."
The divide between older leaders and new-generation rivals might not be as deep as some suggest. After all, strong opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage remains a defining characteristic of all evangelicals. But how this current flux plays out—whether it simply reflects political maturation or a struggle that could result in bitter divisions—is the subject of intense debate within the community. A community that Huckabee has inspired and that McCain can't ignore.