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.”