I'm not in the habit of making predictions -- I've spent too much time listening to self-styled biblical prophesiers over the past couple of years -- but a few observations about Mike Huckabee, whether he pulls out a win in Iowa tonight or not, are in order.
Although the religious right has been unable to coalesce around a candidate, and the tried and true GOP alliances look like they're crumbling, Huckabee's meteoric rise since the August straw poll shows that there is a still a formidable fundamentalist political machine that can rally money and ground troops around a candidate. What has changed is the face of that political machine: Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition has fallen apart, and Robertson himself has lost personal appeal with the rank and file; Jerry Falwell is gone; and James Dobson has mystified followers by not embracing the only candidate who obviously meets his retrograde litmus tests. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council similarly has distanced himself from Huckabee, even as his organization has lost key staffers to go work on the Huckabee campaign.
Meanwhile, Huckabee has embraced a crucial constituency of religious fundamentalists: politically conservative charismatics. Although charismatics and Southern Baptists have long viewed each other with suspicion -- for example, the resistance within the Southern Baptist Convention leadership to the practice of speaking in tongues -- Huckabee, like his mentor the televangelist James Robison, crosses those boundaries when he welcomes the support of major charismatic leaders. The most recent example was his Christmas weekend sermon at John Hagee's church in San Antonio. His church in Little Rock, he said, is more like Hagee's church than a traditional Southern Baptist church. (For more on the Huckabee sermon, read this week's FundamentaList.) At another charismatic church last fall, he declared himself to be a "Bapti-costal."
Huckabee is the only Republican candidate who appears to have his finger on the pulse of the growing influence of charismatic leaders, ascending despite the refusal of Dobson, Perkins, and Gary Bauer to get behind him. While they snubbed him, he got the support of Stephen Strang, Kenneth Copeland, Hagee, and others. That's not to say that he hasn't gotten the backing of non-charismatic evangelical leaders, including fellow Southern Baptists. But he'll either finish first or second tonight, and either result will demonstrate that he pulled it off despite the Dobson cold shoulder.
Huckabee's got other issues that could spell his ultimate downfall, and potentially a wider appeal that could ride him to victory. But even if his ascent is fleeting, it shows that the religious right leadership is more diffuse and diverse than most people believe it to be, and that Huckabee, more than the other Republicans, recognized how to navigate and exploit it.
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