Just after the results of their straw poll were announced at the Family Research Council’s Values Voters Summit in Washington, DC, in October, Janet Folger was seething. Folger, a protégée of the late televangelist D. James Kennedy, had been snubbed in September when none of the leading Republican candidates showed up for her Values Voters debate in Florida. So when Folger’s man–in fact, the man Folger has declared to be chosen by God–was just thirty votes shy of first place behind Mitt Romney, Folger was furious. “Huckabee’s gonna win,” Folger sputtered. “They [the Romney campaign] flew people in–Mormon groups in from Arizona. He’s got more money. Huckabee is almost right on the money. He really is the true winner.”
The Christian right, a movement built on the politics of resentment, now finds itself embroiled in its own internal culture war. On one side are the true believers, the standard-bearers who–in the primaries, at least–won’t compromise principle for expediency and are bewildered by their leaders’ declining to get behind former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, the only Republican in the field who is “one of us.” On the other side are the pragmatists, who are looking for a candidate who can also satisfy the antitax and neoconservative wings of the party.
If the Values Voters Summit did not produce a consensus candidate, it did clarify the options for the Christian right. Before the conference, Fred Thompson was seen as a serious contender, but his lazy speech, devoid of evangelical code about personal faith and the culture war, barely kept the audience awake. Rudy Giuliani charged hard to his right, but his lame reminiscences about his Catholic boyhood fell flat. “I would have to pray on that,” one woman told me when I asked if she could vote for him in the general election. And although Focus on the Family’s James Dobson had earlier made noises about a third-party candidacy, most attendees, and even Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, made it clear that a third-party run is off the table. They know political suicide when they see it.
That the movement’s choices have come down to Huckabee and Romney places long-simmering class tensions within the Christian right into stark relief. Huckabee is a former Baptist preacher with a portfolio of heartwarming tales of his impoverished childhood in the rural Bible Belt. He has lashed out against the “establishment Republican” who is a “wholly owned subsidiary of Wall Street.” In contrast, Romney is a multimillionaire former CEO whose portfolio is from the upper echelon of venture capitalism. To Huckabee supporters, Romney has bought his authenticity from consultants, while Huckabee is surging on a shoestring budget. Any Huckabee success embodies the up-by-the-bootstraps narrative his supporters crave. If Romney prevails, it will confirm all their resentments about the privilege and wealth that control the Republican Party.
It’s not just that Huckabee the preacher more naturally speaks their religious language. It’s that he’s more like them than the country club GOP types the Christian right believes have paid mere lip service to its issues. Although there’s little discernible difference in their positions on the basic issues of abortion and gay rights, Huckabee made clear Romney’s Johnny-come-lately status when he said, “It’s important that people sing from their hearts and don’t merely lip-sync the lyrics to our songs.”
Eric Lupardus, a student at Southern Illinois University and a Huckabee supporter, told me that Huckabee “branches away from the stereotypical Republican–rich white guy who dumps toxic waste into the river. He’s not that guy, he’s a normal guy.” Huckabee is better than most Republicans, said Filipe Dacosta, who had traveled from Georgia because “people can relate to him–people like me, who grew up poor and made it in life. He knows how people feel, unlike most Republicans, who grew up with a silver spoon in their mouths. They can’t relate to the middle class or poor. Huckabee can.”
Dacosta said he was angry that the Christian-right leadership, particularly FRC’s Perkins, Southern Baptist Convention’s Richard Land and American Values’s Gary Bauer, had not only withheld an endorsement of Huckabee but had sent signals before the summit favoring Romney. Dacosta added, “They’re trying to force it down our throats. Makes you wonder, why are they doing it? This guy is a billionaire.” Dobson also has yet to endorse a candidate. Huckabee’s backers are dismayed that so far he’s refused to give their man his blessing.
Huckabee’s supporters at the conference are the core of the hard core, the unabashed conservatives enthralled with hyperbolic fearmongering about “the homosexual agenda,” illegal immigrants and what Jack Abramoff pal Rabbi Daniel Lapin called the “sordid stain of secular socialism.” Romney’s supporters are more subdued and even embarrassed by some of the movement’s more outlandish antics. Charles Mitchell, who blogs at evangelicalsformitt.com but is not formally affiliated with the Romney campaign, said, “We don’t just want you to get up there and pound your foot and say, ‘I’m prolife!’ ‘Let’s go after gay marriage!'” He also said that evangelicals like him are frustrated by publicity stunts like Judge Roy Moore’s defiance of a court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from his courthouse. “Where did that get us?” Mitchell demanded. “It got him on TV, and it made us look like fools.” Evangelical supporters of Romney, Mitchell suggested, are mortified by that sort of polarizing showmanship, which serves only to rally the shock troops in the Christian right’s activist army.
So far Romney has racked up more endorsements from Christian-right leaders than Huckabee, and a slew of prominent figures have either explicitly or implicitly given their followers permission to vote for a Mormon. Most people I spoke with–including Huckabee supporters–seemed to accept such a vote as a last resort for the general election but not for the primary. There also seemed to be no doubt they would vote for Romney over any Democrat (especially Hillary Clinton).
But the cracks in the Christian right’s armor signal discontent between the privileged and the grassroots. The notion that the “grasstops” would shun one of their own because his rival– a Mormon, no less–has more money is insulting to them. But because they’ve been persuaded that Democrats are anti-Christian and un-American, they’ll be stuck once again with voting for GOP elites, unless Huckabee pulls off an upset.
Dacosta was ready to inflict the punishment he knows will speak to the leadership he believes has betrayed him. “As for Gary Bauer and Tony Perkins,” he said, “they will not get another red cent from me.”