The Christian Right's New Man

Just a few weeks before the Iowa straw poll, a prominent evangelical publication identified the Republican presidential candidate whom it thought most resembled Ronald Reagan and deserved the support of evangelical voters. That candidate was not the actor turned politician Fred Thompson, but rather the Baptist minister turned governor, and now presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee.

The endorsement came from New Man, one of eight magazines published by Strang Communications, whose founder and president, Stephen Strang, is a highly influential voice among charismatics -- evangelicals who attend non-denominational churches such as those of John Hagee or Rod Parsley, as well as denominational Pentecostals. New Man, which started out as the magazine of the Bible-macho Promise Keepers movement, today reaches 100,000 subscribers with its advice on questions such as whether masturbation is an acceptable way to preserve one's virginity before marriage (no) or whether the Bible dictates that men exercise authority over their wives (yes). Huckabee graced the cover of the July/August issue of New Man, which declared him "one of our own."

Strang is no newcomer to Republican politics. He helped George H.W. Bush in his 1988 campaign, and after being an early supporter of John Ashcroft in the 2000 race, later became an avid George W. Bush backer. His own imprint published Stephen Mansfield's glowing campaign biography, The Faith of George W. Bush, and he has continued to be a cheerleader for Bush and the Iraq War, even as the public's support for both has hit rock bottom.

While Strang shares fellow conservative evangelicals' reactionary views on abortion and homosexuality, he also has been at the forefront of pushing for apocalyptic war in the Middle East, which he, like his friend Hagee, cloaks in supposed "support" for Jews and Israel. His publishing house is responsible for many of the leading books, including Hagee's, about the alleged Biblical imperative for Christians to "support" Israel in the form of world-ending wars and the Second Coming of Christ, and he serves as a regional director for Hagee's Christians United for Israel (CUFI).

In a nod to all of that, Huckabee wowed Iowa supporters by movingly recounting his visit to Israel's Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem, imploring Christians not to "look the other way" (presumably from that "modern-day Hitler" for the CUFI crowd, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad).

Before Strang, Huckabee's most prominent Christian right endorsement came from Michael Farris, president of the Home School Legal Defense Association and co-founder of Patrick Henry College, the Virginia university bankrolled by Christian right moneybags that funnels previously home-schooled kids through college and into government jobs in Washington. Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, also has the support of Texas televangelist James Robison, under whom he studied in the 1970s. Robison was an early Bush supporter in the 2000 campaign, and it was to Robison that Bush confided God's calling to him to run for President.

Like every successful Republican presidential hopeful for the past two decades, any one of the candidates hoping to win the nomination will have to navigate the egos and sensitivities of a variety of conservative evangelical factions. Strang's backing is one important step toward gathering all the necessary -- and often behind-the-scenes – support. His endorsement is critical for Huckabee's cultivation of charismatic and Pentecostal voters.

The membership of Huckabee's own denomination -- the country's largest Protestant denomination -- has been static over the past few years, while the number of charismatics is growing. As a sign of the looming influence of the charismatic movement, this year the Southern Baptist Convention voted to reverse its long-time ban on speaking in tongues, a hallmark of charismatic religious expression. (Many Southern Baptists believe speaking in tongues is satanic, but many evangelicals publicly dismiss any dispute as a difference in religious expression rather than religious belief.)

The New Man endorsement, along with Strang's accompanying editorial in his flagship Charisma magazine, which has a paid circulation of 250,000, is making Strang look like he's got his finger on the pulse of an evangelical movement hungry for a grassroots candidate. These voters, although malleable and obedient to the word of their politically connected leaders, will not unquestioningly respond to candidates presented to them by beltway operatives (such as Jay Sekulow's maneuvering for Mitt Romney) or to Johnny-come-latelies showing up at Pat Robertson's digs (Rudy Giuliani) or attendees of Hagee's Armageddon confab (John McCain). Several activists at the CUFI Summit last month were enthusiastic Huckabee supporters, and were decidedly lukewarm about the perceived front-runners, including McCain, even though Hagee had invited him to speak.

After Huckabee came in second to Romney in the Iowa Straw Poll, despite being outspent by at least an order of 10, overnight he became the new man Strang had been cultivating. Sam Brownback, a long-time Christian right favorite and a friend of many of Strang's allies in the charismatic movement, began fretting that Huckabee might be stealing his evangelical mantle. The Kansas senator, who came in only a few hundred votes behind Huckabee, lamely protested that senators make better presidents than governors do, a statement that might be subject to verification if a senator had been elected president in the last four decades. Meanwhile, Huckabee made the rounds on cable television shows, where pundits marveled at his strong showing in Ames.

Beltway opinion-makers, it turns out, were behind Strang's curve in catching Huckabee fever. A week before the Ames poll, Newt Gingrich called Huckabee "the most interesting dark horse" in the GOP field. (This was shortly after Strang's endorsement, and after Gingrich shared a stage with Strang and other charismatics at the CUFI "Night to Honor Israel" in Washington.) Michael Medved, a right-wing radio talk show host, crowed on Town Hall this week that Huckabee "could be the exciting, unifying conservative standard bearer the GOP base has been craving." The National Review's Rich Lowry called on Brownback to drop out of the race, echoing the New Man endorsement in charging that Huckabee "has more political appeal than Brownback ... Huckabee has shined in the debates, is a natural orator, and has considerable crossover appeal to the media. None of this can be said of Brownback." David Brody, whose blog at the Christian Broadcasting Network website is a proverbial finger in the wind of the Christian right's assessment of the presidential candidates, pointedly concluded that after Ames what Huckabee needed was "wads of cash" and the endorsement of a heavy-hitting evangelical like James Dobson.

Wads of cash is exactly what Strang is angling to secure for Huckabee. He may not have the household name that Dobson does, but through a network of televangelists and mega-church pastors whose teachings are continuously available through churches, conferences, television, radio, and Strang's own magazines and publishing imprints, his views may well trickle down to at least as many people as follow Dobson. What's more, while most of Dobson's followers are white, charismatics are diverse; indeed, the cover story of the issue of Charisma containing Strang's Huckabee endorsement was "The Changing Face of American Christianity: Immigrant Faith."

Strang is friendly with most of the well-endowed television ministries, many of which pull in tens of millions of dollars a year. It remains to be seen whether his radical plea to his readers to donate money to Huckabee instead of those ministries will result in the cash Huckabee needs. But if Huckabee succeeds, he may well owe a debt of gratitude -- and possibly something more -- to Stephen Strang and his charismatic evangelical followers.

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