The unchurched, agnostics and atheists now outnumber Bible thumpers like Mike Huckabee and the voters who support him. With this trend set to continue well into the future, it’s no wonder the Fox huckster is rushing to explore the campaign trail.
Mike Huckabee speaks at the Conservative Political Action Committee annual conference in National Harbor, Md., March, 2014. Photo: Susan Walsh/AP
As the year turned a member of Fox News’ stable of in-house former conservative politicians tendered his resignation in preparation for a presidential run in 2016. Like another former governor of Arkansas, he put on his best “aw, shucks” routine and explained how the only honorable thing he could do was to leave his high-paying job as a TV huckster in order to wander the land, seeking out support from those real Americans who still loved America. Then, with a simple “stay tuned,” Mike Huckabee signed off and walked back into the rough-and-tumble world of American politics.
Huckabee: Past and present
Not that he ever really left that world, of course. Huckabee stayed in the spotlight after his failed presidential run in 2008 by making the rounds as a pundit in the conservative media establishment — first with the show on Fox, then later as a radio fill-in and replacement for the legendary Paul Harvey. Huckabee even had a radio show opposite Rush Limbaugh in some markets, and while he never posed a threat to the conservative talk icon, Huckabee nonetheless proved his mettle in the on-air war of words.
Indeed, in his time in the world of professional conservative talk Huckabee repeated the slur that the president actually grew up in Kenya as opposed to the United States. He also accused actress Natalie Portman of undermining the moral fabric of America by glamorizing unwed motherhood. Then, after the massacre of children at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, Huckabee blamed the killings on the systematic removal of God from U.S. schools, though how school prayer might have stopped a madman’s bullets wasn’t something the former governor cared to articulate.
Par for the course, one might think, for someone on the American Christian right, but one should remember that before Huckabee began tilting at White House windmills he was a relatively well-respected chief executive who did well by his state. Although a Republican, during the 1990s he straddled the relative middle by paying attention to bread-and-butter issues and reaching out to Arkansas’ black voters. Indeed, during his governorship he signed into law legislation extending medical insurance to the state’s needy children and pumped money into its Head Start program. Although Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, did much to expand the influence of religious organizations in the state, altogether one might argue that during his tenure as governor his faith did more to temper his conservative inclinations with empathy than harden them along partisan lines.
Of course, all of that was before our current era of intense partisan polarization and Huckabee’s relatively moderate — at least for a conservative Southern governor — record is ancient history by now. So, if Huckabee 3.0 makes a go at the White House, what should we expect? The smiling preacher who, while conservative, nonetheless had a pretty good record as governor of Arkansas, or the right-wing TV culture warrior who seems to have grown more ideologically rigid as he has aged? That is something Huckabee himself will have to establish as the 2016 campaign evolves — if, that is, he’ll have the opportunity to do so before being buried by a better financed candidate.
A deal with the devil
Regardless of which Huckabee shows up on the campaign trail, his Quixotic presidential ambitions seems to be more a now-or-never type of thing, rather than a hard consideration of his actual chances. Perhaps that’s the case with every presidential campaign, but for Huckabee and the larger social movement he represents, this may truly be the case. Although they turned out well enough in 2014, as time goes on the GOP will find that its vast army of right-wing Christian voters will become less capable of winning elections every year, ending a 40-year period in which evangelical Christians rocketed to the top of America’s political calculus of power.
Evangelicals began their foray into politics by initially helping to catapult one of their own into the White House in 1976, when Jimmy Carter, also a Baptist minister, beat Gerald Ford. Today, it seems impossible to consider a time when America’s “Born Agains” voted Democrat, but they did so in droves when their great political wave started nearly 40 years ago. White evangelicals quickly changed their tune in 1980, however, and by the 1990s, they had become an increasingly important pillar of Republican politics, especially in the South. They helped turn the once solidly Democratic South into a bastion of Republican conservatism and, via their alliance with culture-war Catholics and increasingly mainstream Mormons, created a broad, deep and powerful religious-right alliance that fought hammer and tongs with secular progressives.
Of course, in doing so the anti-progressive religious right had to make common cause with a conservative political establishment that espoused a form of radical capitalism and increasingly militaristic nationalism that would have made Jesus shudder, but so long as the enemy at home and abroad — Moscow and the Communist bloc — those contradictions could be papered over.
Unfortunately, the end of the Cold War changed things: For one thing, the face of America’s enemy abroad — both in the Islamic world and in an increasingly pugnacious Russia — is no longer godless atheism, but an avowedly pious foe that looks uncomfortably a lot like America’s own religious far-right. For another, the religious right’s embrace of unfettered capitalism in an era of increasing economic inequality looks a lot more like God, or his self-serving followers, serving Mammon, rather than the other way around.
More than newly visible hypocrisy, the real reason that the power of the Christian right is ebbing is simple demographics. During the last half of the 20th century scholars of American religion discovered that of the many sects of American Christianity, the more liberal and centrist branches had largely stopped growing and had begun shrinking. Meanwhile, Conservative churches — like the evangelical churches that were becoming increasingly powerful in Republican politics — were growing. Part of the reason right-wing evangelical Christianity became so much more powerful than it had been before was simply that by late 1980s and 1990s it had attracted and retained a whole lot more people.
At the time, this fact was used as evidence that the U.S. was immune to the great secularizing trend that took over the West during the 20th century, and it became part of the mantra of American exceptionalism that conservatives liked to bandy about as explanation as to why the U.S. was so different. Unfortunately for them, what was taken as a matter of faith — that conservative Christianity was an enduring part of American culture that could forever resist the forces of secularization through the sheer power of competitive dynamism — would be found to be as unfounded as the supply-side economics right-wing churches ended up supporting. As it turns out, evangelical churches in the latter half of the 20th century were growing in membership not just because they were attracting members from more staid, mainline Churches that had grown soft on doctrine, but because the regions and populations they served were overwhelmingly more backwards, poor and undereducated compared to the regions and populations served by America’s mainline churches.
Indeed, as has now become increasingly clear, demand for conservative religion of the type offered up by right-wing evangelicalism is largely a function of how well people in a given region are doing. When life is secure, people are prosperous, war is distant, politics are free and opportunity abounds, strict, conservative religion everywhere fails to attract individuals or keep those born into them. As conditions change for the better, therefore, people — especially the young — give up their stricter faiths and become either more liberal in their religious persuasion or secular in their beliefs and actions.
It may sound cynical, but the empirical reality is that the harsh God of the Old Testament is only turned to when conditions are tough and fear and desperation so great that it leads people to adopt strict social codes in order to survive.
An endangered species
In the U.S. context, wide swathes of the American Bible Belt, which traditionally used to be much poorer, tougher places to live, are now starting to be pulled into something looking like secular modernity. Decades of economic progress have remade Bible Belt cities, regions and states, and the ranks of the college educated who hail from these devout former backwaters have greatly increased. As these changes for the better have occurred the young are abandoning their strict, dogmatic churches in increasing numbers — and, it should be noted, more or less just as theory predicts.
That’s right: Although they are still a powerful force in American politics, evangelical Protestantism is increasingly a spent one. The demographic wind in its sails has been trimmed, and instead of leading the pack to the polls, right-wing ministers and preachers are instead worried about keeping them in the pews.
Lest one think this is overstating the case, consider the fact that in the most recent Pew Research Center survey of the nation’s religious attitudes, taken in 2012, only 19 percent of Americans identified as white evangelical Protestants. Just five years earlier 21 percent had identified themselves as evangelicals — a rather larger decline in a short period of time.
This drop in self-identification is just the tip of the iceberg. In a book currently making the rounds in evangelical circles, an analyst describes the once-powerful movement as divided, increasingly broke, and losing its younger people at catastrophic rates. What’s worse, this is occurring as the ranks of the secularists have swelled, and today slightly more Americans (19.6 percent) self-identify as unaffiliated with any religion at all — this is the first time that group has surpassed evangelicals.
So, although you may not have heard about it on cable news, the unchurched, agnostics and atheists now outnumber Bible thumpers like Mike Huckabee and the voters who support him. Little wonder then that Huckabee is looking to run for president — in another four or eight years there simply won’t be a large enough group of consistently right-wing Christian conservatives to win anything at the ballot box except local and state elections — and those only in smaller, more rural states that rarely serve as a launching pad for national aspirations.
With this in mind, look at Huckabee and his campaign not as a sign of things to come but as lingering symbol of what once was: an empty cathedral built by a movement that increasingly belongs to history.