The Republican formula to snag Christian votes is unraveling
Or, as Trump put it, "I even brought my Bible — the evangelicals, OK?"
Mike Huckabee is not happy.
Once a rising star in the Republican Party who successfully leveraged his background as a pastor for political advantage, Huckabee's 2016 presidential run has proved a disappointing sequel to his respectable third place showing in 2008. With underwhelming fundraising numbers and a bump to the kiddy table after the third GOP debate, most voters are no longer paying attention to the former governor's campaign.
Asked about this betrayal in a radio interview, Huckabee struck back. "A lot of them, quite frankly, I think they're scared to death that if a guy like me got elected, I would actually do what I said I would do," he alleged — and that would be bad for business.
"A lot of these organizations wouldn't have the ability to do urgent fundraising because if we slay the dragon, what dragon do they continue to fight?" Huckabee continued, "And so, for many of them, [my victory] could be a real detriment to their organization's abilities to gin up their supporters and raise the contributions."
Huckabee pressed on to the final blow: Conservative evangelicals who don’t support him must be motivated by "secular" concerns like personal gain, because if they were truly acting in faith and prayer, they'd support him over their current candidates of choice.
In other words, if they weren't so sinful, they'd listen to God and vote Huck.
Huckabee's expression of his frustration is uncivil and theologically suspect, but from a political perspective the frustration is reasonable. After all, the formula to be the GOP's "Christian candidate" used to be pretty straightforward: Give special attention to culture war issues like gay marriage, school prayer, and abortion; invoke God and scripture regularly; and tell your faith story in a compelling manner. This worked for Huckabee in 2008, just as it worked in 2012 for another 2016 also-ran, Rick Santorum.
But these days there are a lot of candidates trying to capture the GOP evangelical vote. And their success doesn't seem to have much to do with their actual faith. Witness Cruz, for example, who quotes liberally from the Bible on the stump. His campaign asks supporters to join his national prayer team so there’s a "direct line of communication between our campaign and the thousands of Americans who are lifting us up before the Lord." (The sign-up form also includes a box you can tick if you "publicly endorse Senator Ted Cruz for President!")
While the Cruz camp insists there’s no "political or tactical angle" to joining the prayer team, their candidate's public prayer requests all but equate his own electoral victory with divine salvation for America. Cruz even has the audacity to call his candidacy a "revival" and "awakening" — as in, the Great Awakenings — and many Christian audiences are eating it up.
Marco Rubio is trying to follow the formula too. In a recent campaign ad, for example, Rubio recites a string of Christian catchphrases and biblical allusions so generic that they offer zero insight into his personal faith.
And then there's Donald Trump, who is interested in the evangelical vote formula exactly insofar as it helps him be the best, hugest, most successful candidate ever — and no farther. Trump knows he needs to say some Christian stuff, but he’s doing the absolute minimum to pass this test.
I know this because that's what he word-vomited at a rally in Iowa the last week in December. "I even brought my Bible — the evangelicals, OK?" Trump said. "We love the evangelicals and we're polling so well."
In case the point of waving around the Bible wasn't perfectly clear, he added one more time: "I really want to win Iowa — and again, the evangelicals, the Tea Party — we're doing unbelievably, and I think I'm going to win Iowa."
Trump's transparent pandering has been controversial among conservative evangelicals but oddly successful. To be sure, many Christians, including yours truly, have questioned or criticized Trump’s candidacy on moral grounds. Writing at The New York Times, for instance, Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore argued that for evangelical Christians to support Trump means "we’ve decided to join the other side of the culture war, that image and celebrity and money and power and social Darwinist 'winning' trump the conservation of moral principles and a just society. To back Mr. Trump," Moore summarized, "[evangelical] voters must repudiate everything they believe."
Huckabee's outburst and Trump's farce are two sides of the same phenomenon: the inevitable unraveling of an election dynamic that has become too absurd a caricature to continue. While Cruz seems on track to execute a classic fulfillment of the "Christian candidate" formula, his performance may well be one of the last of its kind. Huckabee might be right: The best GOP candidate for conservative Christians' political goals may not be the best actual Christian.
That may seem like a frightening prospect for a post-Obama Republican Party searching for its identity as it loses demographic ground. But however the next few elections shake out, disintegration of the GOP's wrong-headed obsession with the "Christian candidate" is much overdue.