Huckabee Rise Exposes Conservative Rift

The stunning and rapid ascendence of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has shocked prominent old-guard Washington Republicans and conservatives, leaving them shaking their heads, wondering how a social conservative with a fairly liberal record on issues like immigration, education, taxes and spending can possibly be commanding the allegiance of so many Christian conservative voters.

But to those with a memory of the political scene that predates Ronald Reagan, the answer to the mystery is simple: Mike Huckabee is the political equivalent of a World War II conscript who emerges from hiding in a Philippine jungle with no memory of the last 50 years. For Huckabee is an unreconstructed and unapologetic pre-1980 Republican who has more in common with William Jennings Bryan than Ronald Reagan and whose views expose the deep rift that has always existed between social and economic conservatives.

Bryan, though a fundamentalist Christian, was a two-time Democratic nominee for president who opposed Darwinism and pushed for Prohibition while at the same time arguing for the nationalization of the railroads, the dissolving of the trusts, and lobbying vigorously against the moneyed interests of his time.

The fact that it took 28 years for that rift to reappear is testament to Reagan's unusual political skills, which held the conservative movement together and even managed to win over social conservatives (for a time anyway) to his free-market approach on economics and convince them that they, too, were economic conservatives.

But the emergence of Huckabee and his hybrid conservative/liberal style may finally produce the much ballyhooed conservative crackup that so many commentators have been predicting.

Today many Americans consider Evangelical Christians to be excessively political and too closely aligned with the Republican party, but this was not always the case. Many Evangelicals were once firmly in the Democratic camp, and many prominent leaders of the so-called Christian right, including Reagan, Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham, were once proud Democrats.

In fact, a brand of muscular Christian activism and liberal populism once championed by the likes of Bryan held sway over millions of Evangelicals for much of the 20th century. That was rivaled only by an equally strong strain of political dropoutism that caused many men and women of Christian conviction to conclude that politics was so evil that the best solution was not to participate in the political process at all.

For other Evangelicals, especially in the South, being a Southerner was synonymous with being a Democrat. Taken together, these three groups of Evangelicals led to a strong Democratic hold over millions of Fundamentalist and Evangelical Americans that was not fully broken until Reagan's election in 1980.

In 1979, as he prepared his run for president, Reagan was facing an Evangelical electorate that had been mobilized, thanks to the efforts of preachers like Falwell and thinkers like Francis Schaeffer. The latter's film, "How Should We Then Live?", had made the rounds at thousands of churches and led millions of Evangelicals to the inescapable conclusion that their political inattentiveness had directly produced a political and social culture in which school prayer was outlawed in public schools, abortion was legalized nationally and, in general, a culture in which secularism was on the march.

That, coupled with the severe disappointment that was Jimmy Carter, a man who famously argued that he was able to separate his private beliefs about abortion from his public actions as president, left Evangelicals hungry for a political savior. They found him in Ronald Reagan, who famously declared to a Christian group, "You can't endorse me but I endorse you."

But that support came at a price. The grand bargain was that Reagan would be their champion on social issues dear to their hearts, but they would leave behind their affections for a Bryan-style liberal populism and sign on to Reagan's program of free-market capitalism.

Reagan had famously been won over to supply side economics, a theory espoused by the economist Arthur Laffer, but he explained it to Evangelicals in moral fashion: Excessive taxation was akin to stealing, and the Bible condemned thievery. After all, even God himself had "taxed" only at a rate of 10 percent.

On foreign policy, Reagan effectively told Evangelicals that it was time to take a more Old Testament approach to one's enemies after four years of Jimmy Carter's permissive foreign policy, which seemed to take Christ's injunction to "turn the other cheek," arguably directed at individuals and not entire nations, and effectively make it the foreign policy of the United States, particularly in dealing with the Soviet Union and the Iran Hostage crisis.

And when it came to social spending and government programs for the poor, Reagan firmly rejected the approach that had been favored by left-leaning Evangelical political leaders like Mark Hatfield, urging a more hard-headed approach to poverty that reflected the New Testament injunction by the Apostles that "he who does not work shall not eat."

In short, Reagan, making arguments that appealed to their Biblical heritage, argued for a wholesale reversal of decades of soft-hearted Evangelical politics and convinced millions of American Christians that they were in reality full-throated conservatives with more in common with William F. Buckley than William Jennings Bryan.

Now the rise of Mike Huckabee appears to have changed all of that, and long-time activists on the Evangelical left like Ron Sider, Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis, who for years were in the political wilderness, combined with the efforts of advocates like Bono of U2, have successfully convinced a significant number of especially young Evangelicals that they have a responsibility as citizens not just to help the poor personally, but to make sure that the tax dollars of fellow citizens are used to alleviate suffering at home and around the globe.

Huckabee, though not in league with such activists, is clearly connecting with their followers by marrying his traditional outlook on social issues with their burgeoning left-leaning taxpayer-funded evangelical activism.

Although unlikely to get the GOP nod this time, Huckabee may very well be an attractive VP nominee for a candidate like Rudolph Giuliani or John McCain, who may be looking to shore up a shaky right flank. Whatever the outcome, Huckabee's brand of pre-Reagan Evangelical populism may be here to stay, and with no Ronald Reagan around to explain to Evangelical Christian voters the theological foundations that undergirded his approach to economics and foreign policy, the Evangelical flirtation with across-the-board conservatism and the alliance that brought together a powerful coalition of economic, social and defense conservatives may soon be a quaint relic of a bygone era.

Mark Joseph is a TV, film and music producer, strategist and president of the MJM Group. His books include "Pop Goes Religion" and "Faith, God and Rock 'n Roll." He has written on politics, pop culture and religion for Beliefnet, NRO and The Huffington Post.

Mark Joseph is a film producer and marketing expert who has worked on the development and marketing of 25 films. His most recent book is The Lion, The Professor & The Movies: Narnia's Journey To The Big Screen.