The Common Good

Purpose Driven Progressive

Date: March 7, 2008
He may be down and finally out but Mike Huckabee's longevity in the presidential race has been the surprise of campaign season. He was the favorite of evangelicals, finished with a much higher than expected delegate count, and outlasted such better-funded rivals as Mitt Romney.

Huckabee lost because he never connected with non-evangelical Republicans, particularly economic conservatives who doubted his commitment to limited government. On the campaign trail, Huckabee mused about fighting poverty and signing a national smoking ban. In Arkansas, he approved tax increases.

But these weren't just the candidate's personal tics. Hucakbee was following his evangelical flock. Supportive of activist government but still pro-life and pro-marriage, they're not you're father's social conservatives. Enter the emerging evangelical populist. Providentially, it seem, Huckabee answered their call.

Up until a few years ago, the typical mainstream evangelical conservative found himself inspired by James Dobson's daily radio show and Jerry Falwell's ability to gather the politically powerful believers. This brand of social conservative signed up with his fellow Christians to fight hard-edge -- and hardly uncontroversial -- social issues like banning gay marriage and overturning Roe v. Wade.

Now Falwell is dead and Dobson's last-minute attempts to derail McCain failed. The Christian Coalition and the old Christian Right have atrophied to the point of irrelevance.


NEW EVANGELICAL LEADERS like Bill Hybels, pastor of the mega-church Willow Creek Community, and Rick Warren, best-selling author of The Purpose-Driven Life, and pastor of Saddleback Church, have different priorities.

They are certainly socially conservative and concerned with the spiritual needs of their flock. But these emerging evangelical populists prefer to focus on issues that aren't expressly Biblical: curing AIDS, saving Darfur, and going green environmentally. (W.W.J.R.: What would Jesus recycle?)

All of the causes are much trendier than banning abortion and gay marriage. Warren generally doesn't step into the political fray, with rare exceptions like inviting Sam Brownback and Barack Obama to his church for an AIDS conference. However, the superstar pastor stopped just short of endorsing Huckabee, calling him "a man of vision, compassion, and integrity...and definitely Presidential material."

In the New York Times Magazine last fall, David Kirkpatrick described the cultural shift: However the "evangelical crack-up" could be characterized, the result is a "new interest in public policies that address problems of peace, health and poverty -- problems, unlike abortion and same-sex marriage, where left and right compete to present the best answers."

Pose the question of how to solve human-interest and environmental issues to today’s postmodern churchgoers and for many, the answer lies within the government. To paraphrase the lone evangelical on the left, Jim Wallis: If "the poor you shall always have with you," why not take some from those who are "blessed," and give it to those who need more blessing?

Some of the ideas have gained currency outside the religious left: A May 2005 Pew Research Center report, identified evangelicals as a major group among "Pro-Government Conservatives" who "deviate from the party line in their backing for government involvement in a wide range of policy areas, such as government regulation and more generous assistance to the poor."

With his bass guitar in hand and dimpled, friendly grin, Huckabee was the answer to many of these voters' prayers -- perhaps literally. While he may not be the leader of this evangelical shift, he is its biggest electoral manifestation. Unfortunately for Huckabee, the very things the impressed the new evangelicals -- his softer stance on foreign policy, liberal views on taxes, and overall friendliness with big government -- turned off the rest of the Republican Party.

But the big problem for the GOP isn't Huckabee's populist views. It is the fact that so many of his followers, who make up the party's biggest single voting bloc, seem to share them.