Mike Huckabee’s loss to John McCain in the South Carolina primary and fourth-place finish in Florida might appear at first glance as yet another sign of the faltering fortunes of the religious right. But Huckabee’s post-Iowa slide doesn’t necessarily represent the movement’s waning significance; instead, his competitiveness shows how it has evolved and, despite the growing diversity of evangelical political thought, still maintains a formidable army of ground troops animated by biblical literalism and a crusade for a medievalist merger of church and state.
Huckabee lagged far behind McCain and Mitt Romney in Florida, and his role in the campaign now appears to be keeping the base animated and siphoning votes away from Romney, who has more actively courted the religious right than McCain. Some have even speculated that McCain, should he get the nomination, would choose the former pastor as his running mate. In the service of stopping Romney, the co-chair of Huckabee’s Faith and Values Coalition, radio host and activist Janet Folger, is the president of the recently formed anti-Romney 527 group RoeGone.org.
Huckabee’s successes have been driven by loyal, Christian-right soldiers and his failures by those who doubt his commitment to the other conservative mantras of low taxes and strong national defense. The divide between them exposes a split between pragmatists bent on winning elections and irrational minions dedicated to biblical literalism. On the pragmatist side are battle-worn commanders like Phyllis Schlafly, whose loud opposition to Huckabee has contributed to the lukewarm reception he’s received from many prominent religious-right leaders. Paul Weyrich, one of the founding members of the religious-right machine in the 1970s, endorsed Romney, as did a contingent of key players in the judiciary wars. These longtime activists know that a loss in November, combined with a Democrat-controlled Senate, could derail their march toward solidifying a reactionary majority on the Supreme Court.
While social conservatives still make up about a third of the GOP base, according to Republican strategist Reed Galen, they are divided between picking a winner, hewing to one of their own and balancing their religious concerns with fiscal and national security issues. Galen, who worked for McCain’s campaign last year but currently is unaffiliated, said that a Huckabee loss in the primaries would not “necessarily mean that that particular bloc has lost any power.”
For the über-religious minions, what comes first are Huckabee’s “biblical values.” They, like Iowa activist Chuck Hurley, claim to understand his “heart,” prize his “authenticity” as a born-again Christian and admire his willingness to profess belief in the “Christian nation” mythology. Hurley saw Huckabee speak at one of the “Pastors’ Policy Briefings” hosted by “Renewal Projects” in several states, including Iowa, South Carolina and Florida, which have circulated his views on biblical government to the movement’s most dedicated believers. Other candidates did not speak at the events, and in Iowa, at least, Huckabee’s multiple appearances in front of hundreds of pastors were thought to have helped him turn out caucusgoers and beat Romney’s considerable ground operation. The effort fell short in South Carolina, where McCain managed to garner about a quarter of the evangelical vote, and in Florida as well. Nonetheless, Huckabee’s most significant support in Michigan, South Carolina and Florida came from voters who identified themselves as “very conservative” and from evangelicals who attend church more than once a week.
The Renewal Projects, which reflect the hard core of the religious right, feature AFA’s Don Wildmon, known for his hysterical boycotts against the “homosexual agenda’s” invasion of television, film and public schools; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who uses his book, Rediscovering God in America, as the briefing’s theme; David Barton, architect of the revisionist history that claims the founders intended a “Christian nation”; and Armageddon fabulist Tim LaHaye. John Hagee, the San Antonio televangelist and Christian Zionist activist, spoke at the Renewal Projects’ Florida event. Hagee believes that the Book of Ezekiel, which foretells the showdown at Armageddon, contains more accurate information about current events than the newspaper and has said that welfare is satanic. When Huckabee spoke at Hagee’s church in December, he called Hagee “one of the great Christian leaders of our nation.”
Even if Huckabee loses in the Bible Belt states on Super Tuesday, his loss wouldn’t signal the demise of the religious right, or even of Huckabee. Many evangelicals may be willing to “hold their nose” and vote for McCain, who seems to be emerging as a front-runner, and the Huckabee die-hards will only help him by draining Romney’s support. But a Republican with an imperfect record on evangelicals’ core issues shouldn’t take them for granted, warned Harry Jackson, chairman of the High Impact Coalition, one of the sponsors of the Values Voters Summit. A third party, said Jackson, although abandoned as an option in this cycle, “is not out of the question as a long-term solution.”