TCS Daily

Handle Huckabee with Care

By Lee Harris - December 18, 2007 12:00 AM

For some time now I have been watching the absorbing candidacy of Mike Huckabee. I have also been sampling some of the anti-Huckabee literature, which is becoming increasingly shrill and mean-spirited. As I read some of these comments I found something quite strange going on inside of me. I felt offended, in a personal way, as when someone attacks not you, but your family, or your people. In short, I felt angry, righteously angry.

I wrote this piece not in order to vent my anger, but to get to the bottom of it, to discover its source. On my journey I realized that I may have stumbled upon some truths that need badly to be aired at this point in the campaign for the Republican nomination, because it is becoming more and more obvious to me that a lot of otherwise quite intelligent Republicans need a bit of multicultural sensitivity training, not in order to understand a foreign culture, but an alien domestic one—namely, the culture of Christian fundamentalism. This need has become imperative, because the Republican establishment is in danger of throwing away the loyalty of the people from whom Mike Huckabee, and myself, come. That is why some effort must be made to understand what it is to be a Baptist by those who can't even imagine being such a thing.

I was brought up in the Southern Baptist Church, but it has been a long time since I have thought of myself as a Southern Baptist. Once upon a time I actually believed that a person could stop being a Southern Baptist, simply by no longer subscribing to certain key doctrines, such as that of Biblical inerrancy, but I have subsequently changed my mind. People who are raised in a strong tradition will understand at once what I mean. A strong tradition is much like a strong current; it is much harder to break free from than a weak current, and it has a way of pulling you back by virtue of its undertow even at the point where you think you have completely escaped it. A child who is raised by observant Jews or devout Catholics may, as an adult, put away the dogmas and cease to practice the rituals of his people, but his people will always be his people, and he will be apt to rally to their cause when they are under attack from outsiders. Furthermore, his way of thinking, his basic attitude toward life, will inevitably reflect the strong tradition in which he was reared.

Not everyone is brought up in a strong tradition. I recall seeing a real life documentary about a family that lived in California where the parents did not want to impose a religious tradition on their children, out of fear of cramping their style. Each week they would alternate by going to a different church, or synagogue, or mosque, or temple. The great religions of the world, and many of the cults, were sampled by the children, just as their parents sampled different wines and cheeses at more secular festivities. Each child was permitted to make up his mind for himself; there was absolutely no pressure to accept this particular creed in preference to another. Indeed, there was no reason the child had to settle down on a single religion; in principle he could go through life sampling a little of this and a bit of that.

In this case it is difficult to know whether we should speak of a weak tradition or no tradition at all; but clearly those raised after this fashion will never know what it is like to feel the powerful inner currents of a strong tradition pushing in directions that often take our conscious mind by surprise.

Let me give you a trivial example that I have always found a bit amusing. As a boy, I was taught that it was an act of sacrilege to place any book on top of the Holy Bible. There is no scriptural authority behind this injunction; it is nothing but a shameless superstition, but one that is commonly found among Christian fundamentalists. It is their quaint way of affirming the supremacy of sacred scripture above all mere worldly writ.

One day in graduate school I was faced with a crisis. While writing a paper for my class in German Idealism, I had gotten out a sleuth of books and I had piled them higgledy-piggledy around me as I worked. All at once I noticed that I had unknowingly set a copy of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason on top of the Bible (King James Version, of course.) Instinctively and without even a moment's reflection, I pulled the copy of Kant off the top of the Bible, with the same automatic celerity with which I would have removed my own hand from a fiery stove top.

"My God, what have I done?" I asked myself, but I was not addressing the sacrilegious graduate student in philosophy who had violated the sanctity of the Bible, but the superstitious boy who had suddenly emerged from the involuntary part of my brain and who had snatched up the volume of Kant in a knee-jerk reaction of scandalized piety. What on earth had made me act so foolishly? With firm determination I immediately placed the copy of Kant back on top of the Bible, with a gesture that suggested a "Take that!" attitude. Then I stared at what I had done, got up, and went to make myself a drink—a strong drink. I needed it.

I stared at the abomination of desolation through several more drinks. Would I leave it be, or would I undo the damage? Was I a champion of the Enlightenment, like Kant himself, or the helpless slave of childish superstition, like the boy I was once? I had to decide, and, at the moment, no question could have seemed more dreadful in its enormous consequences.

Okay—I finally took Kant off and put the Bible back on top. It was pointless to struggle against the strong current I felt inside me. Sometimes it is better just to go with the flow. But at a deeper level, I recognized that I did not have the option of going back and bringing myself up from scratch, by a more enlightened criterion than that by which I was raised. In addition, I realized that I wasn't terribly certain that I had a better idea how to raise myself than those who had raised me. After all, the Southern Baptists had not done such a terrible job. They had certainly not closed my mind—I had discovered Spinoza and Kant by myself, and I would continue to return to them. But the Southern Baptists had given me much that I could never have acquired from a weak tradition: an unshakeable sense of right and wrong, the conviction that the world is infinitely more than dust in the cosmic wind, the hope of a loving God who knew our name and to whom we deeply mattered. From the hymns I sung at church as a boy I had first been awed by the power of music to shake up the soul. Here, too, I went beyond my upbringing, discovering Beethoven, Bruckner and Brahms, but never forgetting the gospel songs that first started my musical pulse to racing.

I am grateful to those who helped to make me what I am. That is why, despite having gone my own way, I bristle when "my people," the Southern Baptists, are put down by those who think of themselves as their intellectual betters. Today in a world in which it is inadmissible to say a word against anyone's religion, there is an open season on Christian fundamentalists. You may call them ignorant boobs and idiots, and there is no one in the public forum to call you down for it.

Much of this attack takes the odious form of snobbery. It is true that the Southern Baptist church has seldom been the home of the elite, social or intellectual. On the contrary, it began as the religion of the poor and the uneducated, those who farmed their own land and made things with their own hands. The Southern Baptist religion was never the opium of the people—it was more like their methamphetamine, revving them up, stirring them to revival, exhorting them to missionary work. In the nineteenth century, there were many rural Baptist congregations where the preacher was not even paid, on the grounds that a paid preacher might start giving himself airs. The preacher man was simply the man who stood up and preached from the heart. If the congregation liked what they heard, he could stick around; if not, he was gone. Nobody told the Southern Baptists what they could and couldn't think—not even each other, which is why they kept dividing off into new congregations so frequently. You still can't tell them what to think, which is perhaps why the intellectual elite distrusts them—they stubbornly refuse to take the word of those who are so clearly their cerebral superiors.

Today there is high drama in the Republican Party. A Baptist preacher, running for the Presidency on a shoe-string budget, has gained a momentum that no one in the Republican establishment anticipated, and that no one knows quite what to do about. If the Republican establishment cannot stop him, it will face a difficult future. It will be forced either into opposition to its own nominee, or worst, its own President; or it will have to follow the lead of a man who simply isn't "one of us." And, indeed, a candidate who appears to have figured out how to win votes without requiring other people's money is an obvious affront to any establishment—a fact that may explain the fury of the Anybody But Huckabee tsunami that may well pose a much greater danger to the Republican establishment than it poses to the intended object of their fury, and here's why.

More and more, the attack on Huckabee has become a not very subtle attack on his Christian fundamentalism. This would pose no problem if the Republicans could dispense with the vote of Christian fundamentalists, but it cannot hope to win the indispensable states in the South without them. This is simple arithmetic. Now all would be well if the Christian fundamentalists were the clueless morons that they are alleged to be by those cultured despisers, but they are not. At the very minimum they have the same intelligence of sheep who, if fleeced once too often, will begin to think that they are merely being used, and not looked after. The Left has long charged the Republican establishment with cynically manipulating Christian social conservatives in order to further the agenda of the vested interests, duping the hicks with promises of cultural conservatism in order to get them to swallow tax breaks to the greedy rich. If the Republican establishment is really interested in self-immolation, they need only give Christian conservatives a good reason to suspect them of such crass manipulation of their deeply held convictions by those who look down on them with contempt and derision.

In short, handle Huckabee with care. Oppose him, if you wish, but do so in a way that preserves both his dignity and those of the people for whom he speaks so eloquently. Otherwise sooner or later they will find another home, and it will not be in the Republican Party.


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