1. Huckabee and Religious Populism
There's been a lot of talk of late about how Mike Huckabee's candidacy demonstrates the fractures not only within the Republican Party, but within the religious right. He's been compared to Pat Robertson and William Jennings Bryan, and is thought by some to be channeling God. But none of that is really helpful in trying to understand whether he really is an economic populist, or as some have wondered, some sort of 21st-century "religious populist."
His speech on Monday urging the amendment of the Constitution "so it's in God's standards rather than try to change God's standards so it lines up with some contemporary view" was a clarion call to this religious base. Although Huckabee has denied that he is a dominionist, it is the religious right's quest to Christianize government (and the GOP) that has driven the groundswell for his candidacy.
The ground troops in Huckabee’s populist march have been cultivated in mega-churches, through televangelism, and through a mass-marketed, consumer-style religion. These soldiers in "Huck’s army" consume the dominionist message, believe that they need to evangelize the country and the world, and believe that they are doing God’s work through their vote. Through a panoply of mediums -- church, television, magazines, conferences, the Web, and even movies -- they are activated on a daily basis to political action. Networks tying pastors to political activism propel the process; when Huckabee spoke at John Hagee's church in December, for example, he reached about 10,000 people, was promised an airing of the sermon on television, and potentially reached Hagee's network of thousands of pastors, and their own followings of thousands.
This viral marketing approach is what's rendering people like Focus on the Family's James Dobson, the Southern Baptist Convention's Richard Land, Family Research Council's Tony Perkins, and American Values' Gary Bauer -- all leaders of the influential Arlington Group that has failed to coalesce around a candidate -- largely irrelevant to Huckabee's remarkable success. And they are shell-shocked that the train has left the station without them. They are left standing on the platform, emasculated by Chuck Norris.
In the Times on Sunday, David Kirkpatrick suggested that this runaway train represented a divide between the old guard and the young turks, but really it's a divide between Washington insiders and the grassroots, between the pragmatists who fear the fall of the three-legged stool and the Huckabee supporters who believe they finally have a candidate who not only represents their interests but is an embodiment of them. Not just a guy who one day will cite Jesus as his favorite philosopher and the next day cook up a phony faith-based initiative to throw them a bone, but a guy who, they believe, lives and evangelizes just like they do. Which is why, if Huckabee did become president, he would do far more for the religious right than Karl Rove ever dreamed of for Bush. Huckabee is one of them; Rove was playing them.
So if Huckabee is indeed a religious populist, the prospect of a Huckabee presidency is a far greater threat to the separation of church and state than Bush's.
2. What About His Economic Populism?
Campaigning in economically troubled Michigan, Huckabee has stressed his economic message more than ever. But his Main Street versus Wall Street mantra has an odd dissonance given his embrace of the prosperity gospel televangelists, who get rich off the donations of their less prosperous followers.
In Michigan, Huckabee has the support of Keith Butler, pastor of the Word of Faith International Center in suburban Detroit. Butler, who himself ran unsuccessfully in the Republican primary for Senate in 2006, is a long-time GOP operative who also preaches the prosperity message. He's a protégé of Kenneth Copeland, who is under investigation by the Senate Finance Committee, and a frequent guest on his television program. (Huckabee appeared on Copeland's program for a week-long stint last November.) And after Huckabee sermonized at Hagee's church in December, Butler hosted Hagee's Night to Honor Israel at his church.
The prosperity gospel message is decidedly not in favor of the little guy. Hagee preaches that his congregation must tithe to him before paying the rent (otherwise you're stealing God's money), and that the tithe -- i.e., "sowing a seed" -- will result in a financial harvest of its own. "In tithing," Copeland writes in his book, The Laws of Prosperity, "you are laying the foundation for financial success and abundance... If your back is against the wall financially now, don't wait to begin tithing. You cannot afford to wait! The tithe belongs to God in the first place."
But the prosperity movement is not just driven by the pressure to tithe; its underlying system of belief is informed by the deeply irrational Word of Faith movement. To explain that, I'll offer a little sneak preview from my book, God's Profits, available this month:
The main tenets of Word of Faith are revelation knowledge, through which the believer derives knowledge directly from God, rather than from the senses; identification, through which the believer is inhabited by God and is another incarnation of Jesus; positive confession, or the power of the believer to call things into existence; the right of believers to divine health; and the right of believers to divine wealth. The believer, a "little god," is anointed and therefore can reject reason in favor of revelation, a "higher knowledge that contradicts the senses." It is through revelation knowledge that the Word of Faith movement has created its alternate universe in which rational thought is rejected and where the media, intellectual thought, science, and any type of critical thinking are scorned. Drawing on the Pentecostal tradition of casting out devils, pursuits associated with the Enlightenment are denounced as the work of Satan.
So in this world, debating the finer points of Huckabee's five-point economic plan won't much matter.
3. Huckabee Keeps Going to Church, and Giuliani Resorts to Praying
Huckabee spoke at churches in South Carolina and Michigan this week and closed the events to the press. As he has with previous church appearances, he stated disingenuously that the appearances were not campaign events but religious ones. In an effort to keep up, Rudy Giuliani spoke at a mega-church in Florida -- and showed just how desperate he is now by not asking for the congregants' votes, but for their prayers.
God in America the Wedge
John Stemberger, the Orlando attorney who led the charge to get a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage on the Florida ballot in November, is now struggling to fix a 22,000-signature deficiency on the petitions his group, Florida4Marriage, submitted to the state board of elections. Calling the shortfall a "constitutional emergency", Florida4Marriage is scrambling to get the necessary additional signatures collected in the next two weeks in order to keep the measure alive.
Conveniently for Florida4Marriage, Stemberger's affiliated organization, the Florida Family Policy Council (a state affiliate of Focus on the Family), is promoting a "Rediscovering God in America" Pastors' Policy Briefing next week. Past events have featured Huckabee but none of the other presidential candidates. Mitt Romney's is the only Republican campaign that has confirmed that its candidate has not even been invited to any of these "Pastors' Policy Briefings." When I asked a Romney campaign insider, who said he was not authorized to speak on the record, whether the support of pastors who saw Huckabee speak at the Iowa briefings helped Huckabee beat Romney at the ground game there, this person replied, "It didn't hurt."
Oh, and by the way, Stemberger just switched his support from Fred Thompson to Huckabee.
5. Soulforce Seeks Dialogue Between LGBT Families and Mega-church Pastors
On the other side of the spectrum, seeking open instead of closed minds, is Soulforce, the LGBT rights advocacy organization behind the annual Equality Ride, which for the past two years has brought young LGBT people to Christian college campuses for dialogue. Soulforce is now turning its attention to the nation's leading mega-church pastors by asking Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Harry Jackson, and Eddie Long to participate in an American Family Outing during which LGBT families will engage in (hopefully) constructive dialogue with church members.
According to Soulforce Executive Director Jeff Lutes, the group selected the six pastors based on their influence (in the case of Osteen, Jakes, Hybels, and Warren) and for the stridency of their anti-gay rhetoric (in the case of Jackson and Long). Of the first four, Lutes said although they have made an effort to use a "less strident tone" on homosexuality, and don't use it as a wedge issue, they maintain the same theological attitude that homosexuality is an irredeemable sin. Soulforce is rooted in the belief -- correct, in my view -- that most of the misunderstanding of the LGBT community stems from religious fundamentalism.
Soulforce's hope is that by engaging church members in conversation, families with two dads or two moms can sway what Lutes called the "movable middle." While the Equality Rides didn't move the administrations of the schools visited, Lutes said that "at every single school, there were students who were hungry for that conversation," and he's hoping for the same if the pastors agree to host the conversations. So far, Lutes said, Soulforce has not heard back from any of the pastors but will continue to try to engage them.
"There's so much division in America around this issue," said Lutes. "Our hope is that we can forge new relationships where the conversation can continue between our families and theirs well into the future."
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