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The Last Culture Warrior

Why Mike Huckabee will lose, and what it means for evangelicals

Scott Olson / Getty Images

Mike Huckabee is running for president. He will not win. But when he inevitably bows out of the Republican primaries, it will only be one more loss in a greater, longer defeat in America's culture wars.

Prior to his post as the governor of Arkansas, Huckabee was a communications director for James Robison, one of those quintessential televangelists of the 1970s and '80s with the long dense sideburns and an ever-present sheen of stage-light sweat. Robison, along with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, were among those enterprising evangelicals who managed to convert Billy Graham’s right-wing-funded gospel empire into the confederation of conservative Christians known as the Religious Right. In the ensuing romance between the evangelical voting bloc and the Republican Party, Robison and President Ronald Reagan enjoyed a cozy relationship, the sort that typified all the GOP believed it could get out of evangelical voters, and all evangelicals supposed they could accomplish through Republican leadership. Together, they were on the offensive in the culture wars, which they were determined to win.

This bond of mutual expectations lasted well into the Bush era, with President George W. Bush continuing the tradition of getting tight with celebrity pastors by taking Ted Haggard, the superstar pastor then at the helm of Colorado megachurch New Life Church, into his confidence. (Haggard in turn did a great deal to endear Bush to the millions of evangelicals who formed the National Association of Evangelicals, over which the pastor presided from 2003 to 2006.) Bush received his highest level of support from any demographic group from white evangelicals in 2004, earning 78 percent of the white evangelical vote. And, even when things got bad, when no weapons of mass destruction turned up in Iraq and grotesque pictures from Abu Ghraib prison hit newsstands and nearly two thousand people died in Hurricane Katrina, evangelicals still approved of Bush at higher levels than the population at large. But their confidence was slipping.

Looking back on this period is a strange thing. Jesus Camp, the 2006 documentary by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, seems now a kind of time capsule, the entire religious texture of the Bush era condensed into a couple hours’ footage of evangelical kids at worship. In a now-infamous scene, a youth pastor brings a cardboard cutout of then-president Bush before a throng of swaying evangelical children, who are then instructed to bless the president in effigy, and perform spiritual warfare over him.

What is curious now is the enthusiastic certainty that permeates the whole film, attached to Bush and the Republican establishment but not exclusive to it; at that time, evangelicals really believed that the reclamation of America for God was at hand. As Huckabee proclaimed in his 2006 Values Voters Summit speech, “I was not a person of politics who embraced faith, I was a person of faith who decided that we needed more of us in politics, and that's why I'm here.” He concluded his speech by saying, “I would suggest that we need an evangelical version of ‘shock and awe.’”

By 2008, Huckabee was well positioned to inherit the allegiance of such Jesus Camp culture warriors, with all their triumphalist zeal. Evangelicals were not thrilled with Senator John McCain, but they liked Mike: in both South Carolina and Florida, Huckabee sewed up the white evangelical vote, beating McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney. With an endorsement from James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, as well as Jerry Falwell Jr., Huckabee’s broad shoulders seemed perfectly primed to slip on the mantle of evangelical-in-chief. But things went awry.

Like his spiritual predecessor Bush, Huckabee counted on support from churches and religious organizations, like Liberty University (a Falwell property) to gin up votes and funding for his campaign. But the IRS had wised up since the Bush years, and assessed the involvement of churches in political campaigns with renewed scrutiny. Huckabee did not update his playbook: even as televangelist Kenneth Copeland, a megastar of the odious prosperity gospel movement, came under federal investigation for shady dealings with his ministry's money, Huckabee still enlisted him as a key fundraiser, with Copeland using a national ministers' convention to generate donations and pledges to the Huckabee campaign. With the federal investigation of Copeland under way, Huckabee remained steadfast in his support for the pastor, but the scandal was already afoot.

A cozy friendship with evangelical superstars no longer seemed capable of generating the political momentum as it had for Reagan and Bush. Nor did Huckabee’s rapport with evangelical pastors and their sizable congregations at last produce the income he needed to take 2008: By January of that year, reports surfaced that his campaign was broke. With federal investigators closely monitoring donations made by churches and pastors, Huckabee’s funding dried up, and his campaign shut down. (This funding disaster is perhaps why Huckabee has since vociferously argued that churches should beat the feds to the punch and give up their tax-exempt status voluntarily; needless to say, churches haven’t taken the bait.) McCain won the 2008 primary, but never captured the hearts of evangelicals like Bush did. And, to add insult to injury, he lost the presidential election.

Since 2008, America has changed in ways largely out of the hands of evangelicals and their friends in office. Dedicated litigants have advanced gay marriage all the way to the Supreme Court, which will soon issue an opinion that may legalize same sex marriage nationally, which is what the majority of Americans want. Huckabee’s old friend James Dobson has greeted the possibility of nationwide same sex marriage as a harbinger of the downfall of western civilization, and Huckabee himself has warned that Christianity is on the brink of criminalization in America. “Once the courts have been allowed to run over us and nobody stands up for us in the other two branches of government, then God help us all,” Huckabee said in an April 23 conference call organized by the Family Research Council. It’s a foreshadowing of his presidential bid on a number of levels, none of which bode particularly well for him.

Compared with the rhetoric Huckabee was pushing in 2006, when he thought he had a good shot at the 2008 presidential election, Huckabee’s dreary and defensive tone is remarkably downbeat. In his 2006 Values Voters Summit speech, Huckabee said,

“I don't agree with almost anything the feminists are about in terms of their agenda, but if we could work even with feminists to oppose pornography and the battering of women and their exploitation, then we should do it. I don't agree with those who advocate same sex marriage. I've made that clear not only in what I say but what I've done, but if it means that we work with them on the consensus to combat the spread of AIDS, it's a worthy objective.”

In other words, Huckabee was prepared to take power, turn America around, fight pornography and the spread of AIDS, and he was so certain of a strong evangelical presence in the halls of power that he saw no problem with certain alliances with feminists and LGBT activists. He was ready to be generous with them, if it meant securing evangelical objectives, which seemed then reasonably within reach. Now, Huckabee’s goals are markedly foreshortened: He is devoted to religious liberty laws, the kinds of statutes that would exempt Christians from legal penalties for refusing to participate in gay weddings in one capacity or another. These laws aim, in effect, to create enclaves of protection for the practice of conservative Christianity, a far cry from the aspirations of the evangelical politics of yesteryear, which generated enthusiastic support precisely because they sought to rescue America wholesale, and to stop the evils that begin with the cultural ruptures of the 1960s.

But the culture wars are over, and things did not shake out in evangelicals’ favor. As Professor Andrew Hartman writes in his new history of the culture wars, A War for the Soul of America, “Those who identified with the normative Americanism of the 1950s fought for its survival. But by the twenty-first century, memories of this lost world have faded. A growing majority of Americans now accept and even embrace what at the time seemed like a new nation. In this light, the late-twentieth-century culture wars should be understood as an adjustment period.” The last two decades of the twentieth century and the first few years of the twenty-first were, it now seems, a denial-like phase of adjustment. But that moment has passed. Evangelicals are now well aware of the situation America is in both legally and culturally, and are seeking only to be left to their own individual practices in the spaces they still hold.

It is to this constituency Huckabee will now turn for support. The trouble is that likely every single one of the GOP primary candidates will expound at length about the importance of religious liberty. And, unlike Huckabee, several of his competitors have actually spent the last several years enmeshed in governance, rather than running a Fox News talk show that’s the equivalent of a cross between “Howdy Doody” and “The 700 Club.” With the culture wars in the past, the inspirational evangelical attitude of the Bush era mostly faded, and no end to his recurring money troubles in sight, it’s unclear how Huckabee will distinguish himself as a top candidate even to the most ardent evangelical voters, or whether it will seem worthwhile to wealthy ministries to jeopardize their tax-exempt status to fund a candidate whose position on religious liberty matches that of every other Republican hopeful.

Evidently aware that he can no longer count on fundraising in sanctuaries, Huckabee has turned to shilling for bullshit diabetes cures on internet infomercials to bring in cash. This, too, is an old trick in the celebrity evangelical book: After notorious televangelist Jim Bakker was jailed for multiple counts of fraud, he returned to the airwives to hawk survivalist food kits for the apocalyptically minded. Celebrity evangelicals have always been good at making money, in part because of what they're willing to do for it. But the age of their outsized political influence seems to have ended.

The fact is that Huckabee is a candidate who has outlived his time. The days of just kings and their trusty prophets have passed, as has the era of TV pastors achieving influence beyond the (admittedly daunting) reach of the Oprah Winfrey Network. Evangelicals are frightened and angry and looking for the sort of president who will protect them from the onslaught of the world around them, which is still rapidly changing. Huckabee, with his folksy charm and church basement coffee-talk demeanor, was their preferred protector in 2008, and perhaps always will be. But he won't get anywhere near the White House.