These days, Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor, Baptist minister, and current Florida resident, has among the highest favorability ratings among GOP presidential contenders. He is a natural fit for a party that has grown ever more Southern, and one which has become the political venue for White America at Prayer. As a reminder, in 2012 evangelicals cast half of all votes in contested Republican presidential primaries, up from 44 percent in 2008.
Yet the very things that give Huckabee credence with the Republican base may prove to be a hindrance with an electorate that’s growing ever more secular and single, and in which unmarried women now numerically equal regular churchgoers as a voting bloc. Indeed, just last week, a cluster of polls showed that deism is on the upswing in America. (Deism is the belief in a supreme being who is a creator who does not intervene in the universe.) All of this should make any presidential aspirant who would wear his religion on his sleeve step back and take notice.
For the first time in more than three decades, less than a majority of Americans think of the clergy as ethical or honest, with the numbers showing a stark divide based upon political affiliation. Republicans view the clergy more favorably than do Democrats or independents, and that is no surprise.
But more disturbing for Huckabee and the GOP is that America’s diminished satisfaction with its religious leaders is not just about errant ministers, priests, and rabbis. Rather, it’s about religion itself.
Nowadays, less than three-quarters of Americans believe in God, and even a majority of Catholics reject the idea that God intervenes in daily life. More than a fifth of Americans describe themselves as not at all religious, while fewer than half of Republicans believe in creationism.
Attitudinally, a mainstream politician like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie can greet these numbers with a shrug, and get on with his campaign and his life. But it’s a challenge for a faith-based candidate like Huckabee, for whom religion is a significant part of his agenda and identity.
Going forward, if Huckabee’s message is simply about religion, he will have an uphill climb on Election Day, assuming he were to win the Republican nomination. Historically, voters have been uncomfortable with politicians whose religious or regional identities overwhelm their candidacies, with William Jennings Bryan, Al Smith and Jimmy Carter offering the clearest examples. Of the three, Carter was the only one to win and then only by a narrow margin, and he was a one-term wonder.
Bryan twice lost to William McKinley, in 1896 and 1900, and then again in 1908, to William Howard Taft. Bryan is best remembered for his “Cross of Gold Speech,” in which he made his stand as an economic populist, and for his role at the Scopes trial, in which a Tennessee schoolteacher went to jail for teaching evolution. Bryan aided the prosecution and testified that the flood recorded in the Book of Genesis occurred precisely in 2348 B.C.
Smith, a four-term governor from New York, lost to Republican Herbert Hoover in a landslide after Smith had made “Sidewalks of New York” his campaign song, while his opponents battered Smith over his Catholicism. In the end, Smith even failed to carry his home state.
In 1976, Carter, who was then Georgia’s governor, became the first known born-again Christian to win the presidency. On the trail, Carter repeatedly injected his faith into the race. But even in the aftermath of Watergate, Richard Nixon’s resignation, and Gerald Ford’s pardon of Nixon. Carter won with just 50.8 percent of the popular vote against Ford.
So what should Huckabee do if he cares about reaching beyond his cultural core? For starters, he should actually take a page from Bryan’s playbook and talk about the concerns of working Americans—the GOP’s base.
Huckabee should deliver a jeremiad lambasting Washington for its role in fostering the housing collapse and the Great Recession. He should hammer home how the government precipitated economic calamity by juicing up the housing market, and turning housing policy into a taxpayer-funded vehicle for vote-buying. And Huckabee should not hesitate to use the recent words of federal judge Jed Rakoff, who was appointed by Bill Clinton to the federal bench to make his point.
In Rakoff’s telling, “in the year 2000, HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo increased to 50 percent the percentage of low-income mortgages that the government-sponsored entities known as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were required to purchase, helping to create the conditions that resulted in over half of all mortgages being subprime at the time the housing market began to collapse in 2007.” The judge leaves no doubt as to who is to blame.
Still, playing on resentments has its limits. Criticizing Natalie Portman for first becoming a mother and then a wife—as Huckabee did in 2011—is bad politics. According to the Pew Research Center, single mothers make up one in four households with children under 18; and, as Chris Cilizza of The Washington Post notes, they vote overwhelmingly Democratic.
So Huckabee needs to show some non-judgmental leg on modernity, and going after Portman is not the way to do it. Instead, he should also talk about launching a war on Alzheimer’s disease, as baby boomers now file through retirement. Just as FDR set in motion the March of Dimes to eradicate polio and Puritan minister Cotton Mather went after smallpox in early 18th-century Boston, Huckabee should make eliminating this malady a stated priority. If 2012 teaches the Republicans anything, it is that simply bashing Obamacare is not enough to get you to the White House.
To get beyond the Iowa Caucuses and the South Carolina primary, Huckabee also must be prepared to articulate a synthesis of modernity and religion. Is he up to it? As Ron Fournier of the National Journal retweeted, “Last time I underestimated Huckabee was when he wandered into my Arkansas office, an unknown minister and first-time pol.”