The Christian Right Ain’t Populist

Something about the logical thread of this Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig piece just isn’t sitting quite right with me. I had to read it three times to unravel the thread and find the error. Her basic thesis is that there is something significant about the fact that the right-wing media wurlitzer has been fired up to play an anti-Huckabee tune. What this signifies for Bruenig is a diminishment of influence for the Christian Right within the Republican Party.

Yet, the first point she makes is that the reason it’s easy for evangelical Christians to choose someone other than Huckabee is because all the other candidates are at least mouthing the same Christian themes, singing from the same hymn book.

In other words, it isn’t enough to be overtly Christian anymore, or to represent conservative Christian values. Every GOP candidate will pay the very same lip service to God and family that Huckabee will. Republicans will therefore base their choice of candidate not on Christian values, but on free market street cred.

On the surface, this seems to undermine Bruenig’s argument. If the Republican Party has gotten to the point that everyone agrees with the Christian Right about God and family, then that would be the opposite of diminished influence. Huckabee would be superfluous not because he lacks clout, but because his movement has already won the argument.

So, we have to look a little deeper to see what’s going on here.

The hook in this piece is that Huckabee is being savaged not for pimping bogus diabetes remedies or espousing newly unpopular views about gay marriage. He’s being savaged for defending Social Security. And, for Bruenig, although she never says it clearly, this defense of Social Security is the true Christian position. The Christian Right, as exemplified by Huckabee, has supposedly always supported Social Security and had a natural concern about the poor and vulnerable. So, the split here is significant because it indicates that the GOP has co-opted the faith and family stuff but not the economic populist stuff.

I’ve tried to rehabilitate Bruenig’s argument here, but it’s not that easy to do because it turns out that the GOP hasn’t actually co-opted the family part, either.

It matters because of what it reveals: that business-friendliness has now come into direct confrontation with Republicans’ much-vaunted Christian values, a phenomenon especially visible when it comes to gay marriage.

Bruenig goes on to cite various Republicans who recently did a little business-bashing down in South Carolina because of the whole Indiana gay marriage brouhaha. She stipulates that this was little more than a bit of wink-and-a-nod pandering that won’t rile up the GOP donor base because they won’t take it seriously. The Court will decide what the law says about gay marriage, so candidates are free to say whatever they want without worrying about contradicting themselves later.

This is all fine and savvy analysis, but the crux of it is that major Republican candidates for office are aping the evangelical line. Yet, they’re either insincere or powerless to effect any influence over the matter. The thing is that (however you want to characterize this) it doesn’t seem like much of a change.

I just don’t see how you get from there to here:

What the conservative media machine’s destruction of Huckabee demonstrates is that the free-market, anti-egalitarian wing of the GOP establishment has less patience for the Christian wing than it used to…

Less patience because they continue to pander to the Christian wing in full-part harmony? Surely this kind of insincerity is nothing new.

And there’s that logical thread again, defining the Christian wing by inference as the egalitarian wing of the Republican Party.

But, why?

Because Mike Huckabee likes Social Security?

She makes more of an effort to explain here:

There is a curious irony in the crack-up of the lucrative accord between American business and conservative Christians. As Kevin Kruse recently detailed in One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, the marriage of the two was always one of convenience. Post-Depression big business needed a makeover after so many Americans were stung by the implosion of the economy, and a few enterprising Christian leaders figured they could make a few bucks and expand their political influence by forging a friendship with wealthy industrialists. And they were exactly right, for a time.

Here she exactly describes how a low-rate Ouachita Baptist University-educated charlatan like Mike Huckabee got to be the governor of Arkansas for more than ten years and then a cushy job at News Corp and a gig selling snake oil. It wasn’t by promoting Social Security, of that I can assure you.

The unfortunate reality is that the rise of the Christian Right as a political force cannot be divorced from the corporate interests that financed that rise. As a result, there is no genuine egalitarian or Christian viewpoint that could grow away from business interests. There was never a point at which the Christian Right or particularly their leaders were getting power by supporting things like Social Security.

In fact, Jonathan Chait made this clear in his recent piece on the Republicans’ efforts to find a useful past.

The Reagan of the Republican imagination bears only a loose relation to the actual man. “Reagan” has come to represent conservative control of the Republican Party. A Reaganesque politician hews to simple precepts, like no new taxes ever, and unyielding hawkishness in foreign affairs. He symbolizes the apparent success of a proposition conservative activists began to make in the 1950s: that the party’s failures were a result of its moderation, and that its success would come if it adopted uncompromising conservative doctrine…

…In reality, Reagan himself violated conservative precepts flagrantly. As an activist, he warned that the enactment of Medicare would herald the end of freedom in America. As president, he agreed to increase taxes, a progressive tax reform shifting a higher proportion of taxes onto the rich, and arms control with the Soviets, all to massive right-wing dismay. All these deviations were necessary for his political success, but conservatives forgot them to make him symbolically useful.

The keys here are “conservative control of the Republican Party” and “conservative precepts” like opposing the enactment of Medicare. These things go together and are both integral to what the Christian Right has been trying to accomplish from the moment they got in bed with big business back in the 1930’s.

It was Mike Huckabee’s job from the beginning to calm Tom Joad, give him religion and someone other than Wall Street bankers to blame. Later on, Tom Joad could plop down on his flea-ridden couch and watch Mike Huckabee play his bass guitar on Fox News.

Almost perfect, right?

Except, whether Tom Joad gets religion or not, he’s still the kind of guy who is going to benefit from entitlement programs, and if he isn’t getting hoaxed 24/7 he’s going to support politicians who promise to protect those programs. So, it is indeed possible to be generally conservative and to also support the little guy’s most rudimentary interests. It’s even more possible to be just as insincere about it as Ted Cruz and Bobby Jindal are about bashing Wall Street in the name of traditional marriage.

Somewhere in here, I’ve gotten to the bottom of Mike Huckabee.

But the point is that, his apostasy notwithstanding, Huckabee’s been running the same scam all along. It has never been different in nature from the scam that the Bush family has been running. They are just two ends of the same pole.

The business end may be breaking with the Christian end over marriage, but there never was a difference on Social Security or Medicare or generally pro-business pro-rich ideology. In other words, Huckabee is getting savaged for the same reason any Baptist minister would have been savaged over the last eighty years if they crossed the donor class on a conservative precept as fundamental as opposition to entitlements.

So, Huckabee may be preaching some version of a Christian position on Social Security, but it ain’t the position of the Christian Right. The Christian Right was created to be anti-populist, and they remain so.

[Cross-posted at Progress Pond]

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.