John Fea: Are Christian Conservatives “Christian” or “Conservative?”
[John Fea teaches American history at Messiah College in Grantham, PA.]
A recent Rasmussen Report reveals that Mike Huckabee now has a slight lead (28%-25%) over Mitt Romney in Iowa. With only a little more than a month remaining before the Iowa caucuses, a Huckabee victory in the Hawkeye state is not out of the question. His performance recalls another folksy evangelical southern governor, Jimmy Carter, who rode his victory in the Iowa caucuses all the way to the White House in 1976.
Most of Huckabee’s support in Iowa comes from evangelical Christians. According to the Rasmussen poll, nearly half of the state’s evangelicals will caucus for the former Arkansas governor. What is most interesting about Huckabee’s surge is that it has occurred in spite of the fact that he has yet to receive a major endorsement from an evangelical leader of national prominence. Pat Robertson has backed Giuliani. Bob Jones University endorsed Mitt Romney. James Dobson would rather stay home than throw his support behind Huckabee. Even the National Right to Life has taken a pass on Huckabee in favor of Fred Thompson. At the moment, Huckabee’s most high-profile backers are former action hero Chuck Norris and fifty-nine year old professional wrestler “Nature Boy” Ric Flair.
Most evangelicals united behind George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, but today there is no such political unity among the Christian Right. While the movement’s leaders are divided over the candidate they think can beat Hillary next November, they seem to be united in the belief that Mike Huckabee, a former evangelical Baptist minister with the best pro-life credentials of all the candidates, is not him.
Yet ordinary evangelicals continue to climb aboard the Huckabee bandwagon. Twenty-eight percent and counting….
Could it be that Dobson and others do not support Huckabee—the most obvious Christian candidate in the race-- because he is not conservative enough? If this is indeed the case, I wonder whether today’s Christian conservatives are more “conservative” than they are “Christian.” Let me explain.
Most evangelical Christians that I know—and that includes members of my largely working-class family, the people with whom I go to church, and the students I teach at Messiah College—describe themselves as “conservative” based upon their convictions on moral issues such as abortion, gay marriage, or stem-cell research.
Fair enough. But what most of these evangelicals do not realize is that these moral concerns have only become part of the conservative movement in the last thirty years or so.
Historically, conservatism has been less about abortion and “family values” and more about freedom from government’s intrusion on one’s individual rights. The conservative agenda has always played out practically in the support of big business, free-market solutions to social problems such as poverty or health care, reduced government spending, and cutting taxes, especially for the wealthy. Most conservatives today would agree with Thomas Paine when he said at the beginning of Common Sense that “government even in its best state is but a necessary evil.”
It is indisputable that Mike Huckabee holds traditional views on social issues, but he fails to meet conservative standards when he talks about the purpose of government. Recently Robert Novak, the Washington Post columnist who no one would mistake for a liberal, denounced Huckabee as a “false conservative,” calling attention to his “tax and spend” approach to government while he was governor of Arkansas. Jonah Goldberg of the National Review hammered Huckabee for the same reason in a recent Los Angeles Times column and in a video conversation with Peter Beinert on the New Republic website. Many of these conservatives consider Huckabee dangerous. Their attacks are similar to the ones that the Right level regularly on Bush for his lack of control over government spending.
According to Novak, Goldberg, and others, Huckabee is little more than a liberal with a culturally conservative moral agenda. And they are probably right. He represents the second coming of Bush’s compassionate conservatism—a brand of conservatism (if you can call it that) that his former speechwriter Michael Gerson continues to hawk.
Huckabee wants to use the power of the state to end abortion (as opposed to many of his Republican/Federalist rivals who want to turn the matter over to the states), help the children of illegal immigrants, end gay marriage, ban smoking, and aid the poor. Though I would not push the analogy too far, Huckabee can occasionally sound a lot like Lyndon Johnson, whose Great Society reforms were also driven by the virtue of “compassion.”
Perhaps the lack of support for Huckabee among leaders of the Christian Right can be explained by their refusal to support a candidate, despite his convictions on abortion or same-sex marriage, who does not toe the Goldwater-Reagan conservative line. Which brings us to the pressing question: Is it more important for the leaders of the Christian Right that a candidate be pro-life or a true conservative?
If it is true that prominent Christian leaders will not support Huckabee because he is not loyal to the conservative movement, then it is also true that the people of Iowa are not buying it. Huckabee is their man because of his views on social issues. Most of them want to end abortion and could really care less about whether it is accomplished by the states or the federal government. If big government is the way to accomplish their moral goals for the nation, then so be it. And if a host of commentators, including the New York Times’s David Kirpatrick, are correct, then these ordinary evangelicals are also concerned about fighting poverty and caring for the environment--not historically conservative causes.
Huckabee’s ability to draw supporters without a major endorsement from an evangelical power-broker (and in some cases the outright rejection of his candidacy by Christian Republicans) tells us that the evangelical rank and file have a mind of their own. They will support candidates that their religious and moral convictions and common sense tells them are right, regardless of what Dobson or Robertson or Bob Jones or the people at National Right to Life have to say on the matter. Huckabee may not be the most conservative Republican candidate, but he is certainly the most Christian Republican candidate, and that is the kind of person that many ordinary evangelical Republicans, in Iowa and elsewhere, want in the White House.
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Sergio Alejandro Méndez - 12/12/2007
"To discriminate against a particular class of drug users (and thieves, burglars, zombies, murderers,etc) is to violate the whole rights edifice that MLK and all the heroes fighting for the fulfillment of the true American dream died for. Anyone who wishes for crackheads and crack dealers to be off the streets is a fascist law and order nut trying to reverse the evolutionary progress wrought by the degenerate supporting Burger Court."
Since drug consumers and traders are not violating ANYBODY´s right just for selling and consuming drugs (crack or whatever), how is that you compare them to "bulgars and thieves", who violate the right of private property? So yes, war on drugs is a fascist policy, and for your sake is championed not only by fascist christian conservatives but also by democrats.
Sergio Alejandro Méndez - 12/12/2007
"For a long time in AMerican History there was no contradiction between minimal government conservatism and social, cultural and moral conservatism. It was when court decisions began mandating left wing social, cultural and moral values and prohibited state and local governments from representing the actual moral, social and cultural consensus of their constituents, that social, moral and cultural conservatism became more about getting control of the government."
So, basically, when christian conbservatives were forbidden to impose their own cultural values using LOCAL goverment by the federal goverment, poor christians conservatives where forced to abandon their "small goverment" posture toward a one that aimed to control the big federal goverment? That argument is a joke, cause it simply ignoe that "christian conservatives" were already using a big goverment philosophy to impose their own standards of goverment over the rest of the population (even if Mr Kreuter wants to disguise it behind the rethoric of "representing their values")
Jason Blake Keuter - 12/12/2007
A recent court ruling has championed the end of discrimination for crack cocaine users. It's high time we lived up to the promise of America and made criminal sentencing for Crack Cocaine users equal to that for Powder cocaine users. To discriminate against a particular class of drug users (and thieves, burglars, zombies, murderers,etc) is to violate the whole rights edifice that MLK and all the heroes fighting for the fulfillment of the true American dream died for. Anyone who wishes for crackheads and crack dealers to be off the streets is a fascist law and order nut trying to reverse the evolutionary progress wrought by the degenerate supporting Burger Court.
The Court's Motto: No Cuffs on the Wrist- Just a Slight Slap
Jason Blake Keuter - 12/12/2007
That Christian fundamentalists are not traditional American Conservatives (who could best be described as classic liberals!) is not as contradictory as critics of American Conservatism relish in pointing out.
For a long time in AMerican History there was no contradiction between minimal government conservatism and social, cultural and moral conservatism. It was when court decisions began mandating left wing social, cultural and moral values and prohibited state and local governments from representing the actual moral, social and cultural consensus of their constituents, that social, moral and cultural conservatism became more about getting control of the government.
The essential historical development here is that the increase in government power so long advocated by the left was achieved by the left. The left was blind to the adverse consequences of centralizing political power (and even blinder to the profound lack of consensus on left wing social, cultual and moral matters). For conservatives who cherished liberty, losing the power to elect governments that reflect their social, cultual and moral values and norms was the loss of the exercise of that liberty.
Liberals rely on courts still to maintain the status quo that ended the Democratic party's permanent majority status. Notice, however, that they don't rely on the Constitution. Believers in abortion rights, they rely on dubious Constitutional interpretation but would never propose an amendment. They know well that such an amendment would never be approved.
What does this teach us? That liberals do not understand the value of the laborious and difficult amendment process. That if you find what serves you in the Constitution, without regard for the actual content of the document, you defy the general consensus of the society. That is what the Supreme Court did throughout the 1970's and what subsequent courts have done. The result has been to galvanize the most aggressive proponents of the values that the courts and the culturally and socially radical left minority they represent.
In other words, if you're wondering where the "extreme" right came from, look no further than the extreme left.
J. Feuerbach - 12/10/2007
"Are Christian Conservatives 'Christian' or 'Conservatives'" is the title of the blog. My answer: neither.
It's amazing to see how ideology is informing and deforming theology. Separation of church and state isn't enough. Christians of all persuasions need to start working on the separation of ideology and theology. It's pitiful to see how Christians have lost their critical and independent minds and are resorting to non-theological tools to read and act upon reality. They are also being used by the political establishment to advance their own agenda.
Again, instead of allowing theology to inform people's political agenda, ideology (in this case "conservatism") is deforming people's theology. For instance, Evangelicals are selective in picking relevant and "Christian" social issues (mainly abortion and homosexuality). The last time I read the Bible it made direct and indirect reference to other social issues (i.e.: poverty, many "isms," etc.) that require the undivided and immediate attention of all communities of faith. Most importantly, it's very difficult to say that God takes sides on many of them (i.e.: immigration).
Bottom line? It's ok to actively participate in politics and to vote for a particular party (i.e.: Republicans, Democrats, etc.). Christians aren't just spiritual beings. They have civil duties too. But by no means a particular political platform can capture the spirit of a sacred book, in this case the Bible. The day Evangelicals realize this, they will stop identifying with a particular party or with particular issues, a very unChristian thing to do.
Michael Glen Wade - 12/10/2007
Wow, Huckabee attacked by the scurrilous Robert Novak. Hard to find a better recommendation than that.
Mr. Fea, and his readers, might also consider that conservative christians, or whatever they are, are not Huckabee's only supporters. One does not have to be either conservative or christian, or biased, to consider illegal immigration a pressing national issue. Finally, straight talk is non-partisan, and also appealing.
Harold Paul thompson - 12/10/2007
Maybe the issue is that Christian Americans at the grassroots level are tired of their Christianess being defined politically only as taking stands 3 or 4 issues. Maybe they are tired of being pimped by the "leaders" of the Christian Right and are becoming more mature in their views, realizing the Bible speaks to many more issues than just abortion and "family values." They are looking for a Christian candidate who can weave together traditional biblical values on subjects like abortion and gays, as well as biblical precepts that address our relationship with the environment and how society treats the poor and helpless people.
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