(Holy) Oil and Water

At the Corner, Rich Lowry is feeling estranged.

Remember how evangelicals had “matured”? Remember how the war on terror had replaced social issues? It shouldn’t be hard, since all those things were being said a couple of weeks ago (heck, still being said maybe even a few days ago). Part of what seems to be going on with the Huckabee surge is evangelicals sticking their thumbs in the eyes of the chattering class—we’re still here, we still matter, and we still care about our signature issues.

I don’t remember hearing that evangelicals had “matured.” Nor have I noticed that Rich Lowry had “matured.” I infer that “matured” means evangelicals were expected to put aside their social and religious views in favor of other issues.

Remember the lack of excitement in the Republican race, especially among dispirited social conservatives? Well, now there is some excitement, and it isn’t over free market economics or the war on terror, but a candidate who doesn’t speak compellingly about either of those things but instead about social issues. As a friend I was talking to a little earlier points out, the most important moment of the campaign so far came when a social conservative excited a social conservative audience—Huckabee with his “I come from you” speech at the “values summit.” This friend argues that the Huck surge makes it harder, not easier, for Rudy to win the nomination. Now that many evangelicals have a horse in this race, it would be very hard to tell them that not only will their guy not get the nomination, but they’ll have to settle for a pro-choicer. I don’t know about that, but Huck has certainly trashed about nine months-worth of conventional wisdom on the changing nature of social conservative voters.

Excuse me, but … whose conventional wisdom on the changing nature of social conservative voters? Especially if that “wisdom” is they will drop conservative Christian values in favor of the Republican Party’s interests? I recall no such “conventional wisdom.” Perhaps Lowry mistakes his own wishful thinking for “conventional wisdom.”

For years members of the right-wing “chattering class” believed they owned the copyright on Christianity. They’ve smugly lectured us lefties that we have a religion problem. The Narrative — never forget the Narrative — is that conservatives honor religion and liberals don’t. It says that conservatives march in the bright light of moral clarity to fight Evil wherever it exists, while liberals stumble about in a fog of relativism and play on Evil’s bowling team.

Of course, there’s the Narrative, and there’s the Reality. But let’s put that aside for now.

Evangelicals are not a monolith. Not all are fundamentalists, and even among fundamentalists there is a contingent more eager to kick-start Armageddon in the Middle East than to overturn Roe v. Wade. In America, nationalism, jingoism, and fundamentalism have been fused together for generations. But the Republican Party was not part of this fusion until relatively recent times. Fifty years ago a nationalistic fundamentalist whackjob was as likely to be a Democrat as anything else. Nor, do I believe, did viable contenders for a major party presidential nomination explicitly court the fundamentalist vote until the past quarter century or so.

This is not to say that religion hasn’t played a role in presidential politics; of course, it has. Before John Kennedy, both parties catered to anti-Catholic prejudice, for example. But I know of no other time in our history when one party claimed Christianity as its own exclusive property and used it to club the other party.

Since Reagan, and especially since Rove, the GOP has brandished the white evangelical vote to swing elections in its favor. As Thomas Frank explained so well in What’s the Matter With Kansas, the GOP manipulated white evangelical voters into undermining their own lives, jobs, futures, civil liberties, access to health care, pensions, education, etc., in order to strengthen a financial/corporate/political aristocracy headed by King George W. Bush.

This system worked just dandy as long as candidates could cater effectively to the Christian right while serving the interests of the corporate and military-industrial establishments. Unfortunately for the GOP, none of the current presidential candidates seems able to do that. Instead, the top three candidates appeal to separate slices of the Reagan Coalition pie. You’ve got Rudy Giuliani, who has become the great white hope of the neocons. You’ve got Mitt Romney, who has some support among moneyed interests. And you’ve got Mike Huckabee as the Christian candidate. Pat Robertson’s endorsement notwithstanding, Giuliani is simply not going to get the so-called “values” voters. Romney faces hot anti-Mormon prejudice. And apparently Huckabee doesn’t know “The Islamofascist Enemy” from spinach.

Lowry is perplexed that “values” voters care more about their hot-button sex-and-death issues more than they care about the Republican Party or the corporate status quo. His problem is not that white evangelicals have changed, but that they haven’t. However, by giving Christian conservatives so much clout, the Bush Administration has spooked the moneyed interests that have been its foundation since at least the 1920s.

Poor babies.

Today Romney is preparing to deliver a speech intended to defuse his Mormonism as an issue. Judging by the parts he has released, the speech is going to be a weightless rhetorical froth drizzled with lines like “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom” and “Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.” Millennia of human history in which religion did just fine without freedom are cheerfully ignored.

Romney’s problem is that he has to simultaneously ask for religious tolerance while appealing to religious intolerance. Jeremy Lott compares the task ahead of Romney to the way John Kennedy defused the Catholic issue in 1960:

[Kennedy’s] speech has been remembered as a cry for religious toleration and an excoriation of religious bigotry. It contained those elements – “[I]f this election is decided on the basis that 40 million Americans lost their chance of being president on the day they were baptized, then it is the whole nation that will be the loser…” – but the thrust of it was Kennedy’s promise that he wouldn’t be a particularly Catholic president. …

… If Romney were to give even a watered-down version of that speech today, he would not be the nominee of the Republican party. Evangelical primary voters may distrust Mormonism, but they have a greater fear of secularism. In that, they’re not too different from the country as a whole – many Americans would rather have a Muslim as president than an atheist.

Lott suggests that Romney “drop the consultant-speak for a few moments to tell voters exactly what it is that he likes about his faith, and where they can go if they’re unwilling to accept that.” Don’t hold your breath waiting for that. Mitt Romney is to authenticity what oil is to water. (See also Andrew O’Hehir and Walter Shapiro.)

Mike Huckabee, meanwhile, has packaged himself as Jesus’ candidate. But Huckabee is being spun by the war-and-profits Right as bad for business and soft on Islamic terrorism. Righties are comparing him to Jimmy Carter — which, in Rightie World, is lower than pond scum.

Now Republican voters are plagued by epic indecision. And Rich Lowry is perplexed that Christian conservatives are less interested in his favored issues than in their own. He sees this as a sign of evangelical “immaturity.” One might infer that, all along, he thought abortion, school prayer, gay marriage, and other issues dear to Christian conservatives were kid’s issues, and that evangelicals were to be humored, not taken seriously. Who’s got a problem with religion, Rich?