The always readable Mark Steyn argues that a Huckabee-Obama contest would be between the religious Left and the secular Left. I’ll concede that Obama is a card-carrying member of the religious Left, but Huckabee as a secular Leftist? C’mon!!
But seriously, the attempt to paint Huckabee as a member of the religious left--undertaken most recently here--is quite a reach, as is the attempt to paint Obama as an essentially secular Leftist.
Although many secular observers seem not to understand this, evangelicalism, by its very nature, has an uneasy relationship with conservatism. To call someone both an evangelical and a conservative, then, while it is not to utter a contradiction, is to call him something slightly more problematic than one may think. Of course this is, or should be, true of all Christians, who have transcendental loyalties that must sometimes override their political commitments, even very fundamental ones. But it is especially true of evangelicalism. As a faith that revolves around the experience of individual transformation, it inevitably exists in tension with settled ways, established social hierarchies, customary usages, and entrenched institutional forms. Because evangelicalism places such powerful emphasis upon the individual act of conversion, and insists upon the individual’s ability to have a personal and unmediated relationship to the Deity and to the Holy Scriptures, it fits well with the American tendency to treat all existing institutions, even the church itself, as if their existence and authority were provisional and subordinate, merely serving as a vehicle for the proclamation of the Gospel and the achievement of a richer and more vibrant individual faith. As such, then, evangelicalism, at least in its most high-octane form, may not always be very friendly to any settled institutional status quo. In the great revivals of earlier American history, it nearly always served to divide churches and undermine established hierarchies, a powerful force for what Nathan Hatch called “the democratization of American Christianity.”
True, evangelicalism can also be a force of moral conservatism, in insisting upon the permanence of certain moral and ethical desiderata, particularly if those are clearly stated in the Bible. But it can also be a force of profound moral radicalism, calling into question the justice and equity of the most fundamental structures of social life, and doing so from a firm vantage point outside those structures.
What distinguishes Huckabee from Obama is, above all, the stress on evangelical in the former’s self-understanding, which gives him an anchor outside history. In the case of the latter, "Christian Left" means, above all, Left, as in his "apotheosis of the moment" Iowa victory speech. The hope he sells is principally worldly hope.
Update: Our friend The Friar
disagrees with me, arguing that Huckabee is a secular leftist on his way to religious leftism. His argument has two linchpins. First, there’s the subjectivity and suspicion of reason characteristic of some evangelicals. I agree that the loose worldview language used by some has a postmodernist cast that can be quite corrupting. But I don’t think that, by itself, necessitates a leftward tilt; consider, for example, the Burkean suspicion of rationalism in politics. More problematical is the individualism and anti-traditionalism, but textualism, churches, and the self-conscious efforts of some to reconnect with traditions are countevailing tendencies. Where Huckabee stands on these matters is hard to tell. That he’s a praise service kind of guy means he’s not a liturgical traditionalist, but I’ve also seen arguments that suggest that liturgical traditionalism is one of the features of contemporary church life that tends to license theological innovation. Here, for what it’s worth, is Huckabee’s home church. Seems like a pretty standard evangelical megachurch to me.
The second of The Friar’s points has to do with Huckabee’s style of governance. I’m not prepared to make the case that he has governed as a prototypical conservative, but I would say that he has governed as a prototypical southern governor (with economic development--roads and education--looming large, as it continues to do across the south).