Pondering the increasing likelihood of Mitt Romney 2016, Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight recently produced a five-circle Venn diagram of prospective GOP candidates for 2016, aptly titled, "The Republicans' Five-Ring Circus." There was a telling inclusion: "Christian Conservative" was one of the five rings.
Silver places Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and, to a lesser degree, Mike Pence, Rick Perry, and Bobby Jindal in this Christian Conservative category. I might add Ted Cruz and Ben Carson, at least on the margins, but Silver's labeling scheme is basically right.
Religion matters for Democrats, too. But the awarding of the "Christian candidate" designation is a veritable tradition in Republican presidential politics. Santorum and Huckabee easily claimed this role in the last two elections, and in 2016 it looks like we may get a double (or septuple) whammy. Of course, nearly all GOP contenders profess Christianity, preferably a Protestantism that doesn't stray to any polarizing extremes. But for some candidates, Christianity is less a required feature and more a primary campaign theme.
While the average voter is increasingly less concerned about candidates' religious affiliations — and 2012 showed that most Republicans will vote party line even if the nominee doesn't exactly share their beliefs about God — data from the early primaries in 2012 and 2008 indicate that candidates' profession of religion still makes a big difference for one large chunk of the Republican base: white evangelical Christians.
And thus the GOP's obsession with crowning the conservative "Christian candidate," functionally a nomination process within a nomination process.
So whichever of these men elect to run for president, at least three things are clear:
* They will each attempt to claim the title of this cycle's "Christian candidate."
* They will each liberally sprinkle Christianese into their stump speeches and ad campaigns, capturing the support of tens of millions of my fellow Christians via the Republican Party's primary form of identity politics.
* They will each fail to win the White House, as all are perceived as too overtly religious to triumph in the general election.
And this entire race to be the GOP's most Christian candidate is so wrong-headed — bad politics and bad theology both.
It's politically damaging for Christian voters because these strenuously religious politicians distract many of us from other candidates who are less overtly churchy, but perhaps more politically appealing. Yes, the "Christian candidates" are opposed to abortion, a key issue for many conservative Christians. But so is every viable contender for the GOP presidential nod. Indeed, these Christian candidates' positions are often based more in their Republicanism than their Christianity. Faithful, orthodox Christians in America (and around the world) hold an almost unlimited variety of political views — and there are strong cases for biblical compatibility with many of them. Huckabee, Santorum, and Co. clearly do not operate out of that diversity. These politicians' agendas are orthodox. But it's a Republican rather than Christian canon with which they comply.
That's not to say that Christians can't support these overtly Christian candidates (though personally I have a number of reservations about them). But it is to suggest that we should be clear about the nature of such support. It's not possible to assess the authenticity and depth of someone's faith from the presidential debate stage, so we should vote on candidates' platforms and policies, not their religious rhetoric.
But more important than the political implications of the "Christian candidate" are the grave theological effects this preoccupation produces. The explicit identification of one man as the candidate for Christians to support (and, though this corollary is usually left unspoken, the candidate God supports) fundamentally misdefines what it means to follow Jesus.
This was most succinctly typified by a pre-presidential campaign Mike Huckabee, who in 2004 "took a phone call from God" while on stage at a Republican Governors Association event. The skit featured God telling Huckabee to deliver a message on his behalf (the conveniently vague "Take care of the family, and marriage, and the people of America, and all the people, and the children"). Huckabee replied, supposedly to God's pleasure, "We know you don't take sides in the election" — the audience laughs at such a silly humility — "but if you did we kinda think you'd hang in there with [the Republicans], Lord, we really do."
And thus, while saying the exact opposite, Huckabee in three minutes reduces the Christian God to an American tribal deity and the Christian faith to a tool of political success.
It's a reduction that flies squarely in the face of the conspicuously nonpolitical, universal Kingdom of God that Jesus said he was building. While Jesus proclaimed, "My Kingdom is not of this world," the "Christian candidate" effectively says, "I'm to be the viceroy of God's worldly kingdom."
And while Christianity finds the hope of the world "exclusively in Jesus Christ and the willingness of his people to partner with him in bringing about God's will 'on earth as it is in heaven,'" Huckabee and pals take that job for the government as they promise to "Take care of…all the people" if only we'll give them our vote. That mentality at best misses the central message of the Christian faith, and more often abandons it altogether, subsuming Christianity into the temple ceremonies of the state.