As Mike Huckabee’s presidential candidacy gains momentum, winning the Iowa caucus and now in the running to win Saturday’s South Carolina primary, the media has primarily focused on his ability to generate support among white evangelical Christians based on his conservative positions on social issues, such as his opposition to abortion and to civil unions for gay couples. This standard story line misses the former Baptist minister’s ability to speak to the economic concerns of evangelical voters and glosses over the growing divide in the conservative movement between social and economic conservatives.
Conservatives have won electoral gains over the past thirty years by courting an uneasy, yet effective fusion of right-to-life social conservatives with economic conservatives who support tax cuts and a reduced government safety net for the needy. For thirty years, the differences between these two factions have largely been masked, with many observers assuming that socially conservative white evangelicals actually support a conservative economic agenda.
Not all of Huckabee’s economic views, of course, are progressive. He supports, for example, a regressive consumption tax that would seriously empty the wallets of many low- and middle-income white evangelicals he is now courting on the campaign trail. Still, Huckabee is running against the standard conservative line on the economy. He argues that conservatives need to "quit being a wholly-owned subsidiary of Wall Street … or else we’re not going to win another election for a generation." He has supported increasing the minimum wage and expanding health insurance to more children—positions that put him at odds with traditional economic conservatives.
While commentators have increasingly noted Huckabee’s economic views, few have linked his message with his ability to win white evangelical voters or noted what this may mean for the future of the conservative movement. Since the emergence of the Religious Right as a defining voice in the conservative movement in the late 1970s, most evangelical leaders (with some notable exceptions like Jim Wallis) have generally supported cutting taxes and reducing government services.
Most Christian Right leaders, observes Michael Lienesch, a professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina, "combine conservative economics and conservative religion in a multiplicity of ways, so that in the end the two are almost indistinguishable."
Indeed, Pat Robertson argues that, "To everyone who has shall more be given," while the late Jerry Falwell argued that capitalism was "part of God’s plan for His people." Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, is known for his fervent support of tax cuts.
Yet these evangelical leaders no longer command the following they once did. More importantly, they never accurately reflected the economic views of most evangelicals, who are not married to economic conservatism but rather boast a wide range of views on economic issues. There are even quite a few economically progressive evangelicals.
In my research, I have found that people who are pro-life are just as likely as people who are pro-choice to support progressive economic policies, such as increasing benefits for the unemployed and reducing income inequality. Similarly, sociologists like Robert Wuthnow and Stephen Hart have found that religious conservatism is not linked to economic conservatism.
Most evangelicals today are not necessarily wed to a pro-business agenda. According to a January 2007 poll by the Pew Research Center, more than two thirds of white evangelicals agreed that business corporations make too much profit. Further, almost three quarters (72 percent) of them said there is too much power concentrated in the hands of a few big companies. These views are largely anathema to those held by the corporatist wing of the conservative movement.
There is also evidence that on a few particular issues white evangelicals tend to embrace a more progressive economic outlook. According to the same Pew survey, 78 percent of white evangelicals favored increasing the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour, and 59 percent supported the government guaranteeing health care for all citizens.
This evidence suggests that Mike Huckabee’s electoral success and popularity is not just a product of his social conservatism. In fact, he more accurately than other, more economically conservative candidates, captures the economic concerns of many evangelical voters.
More fundamentally, Mike Huckabee’s success highlights the underlying tensions in the conservative movement. The fusion of economic and social conservatives has been a ticking time bomb for nearly 30 years. Economic and social conservatism do not naturally fit together. Their fusion has been a marriage of convenience.
Now, evangelical voters seem to be leaving this marriage of convenience with every vote they give to Mike Huckabee — a candidate who does not force them to choose between their social and economic views. As this election season develops, this may become known as the moment when the uneasy coalition between social and economic conservatives finally breaks down.
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Senior Fellow; Senior Adviser, American Worker Project