These days, Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor, Baptist minister, and current Florida resident, has among the highest favorability ratings among GOP presidential contenders. He is a natural fit for a party that has grown ever more Southern, and one which has become the political venue for White America at Prayer. As a reminder, in 2012 evangelicals cast half of all votes in contested Republican presidential primaries, up from 44 percent in 2008.
Yet the very things that give Huckabee credence with the Republican base may prove to be a hindrance with an electorate that’s growing ever more secular and single, and in which unmarried women now numerically equal regular churchgoers as a voting bloc. Indeed, just last week, a cluster of polls showed thatdeism is on the upswing in America. (Deism is the belief in a supreme being who is a creator who does not intervene in the universe.) All of this should make any presidential aspirant who would wear his religion on his sleeve step back and take notice.
For the first time in more than three decades, less than a majority of Americansthink of the clergy as ethical or honest, with the numbers showing a stark divide based upon political affiliation. Republicans view the clergy more favorably than do Democrats or independents, and that is no surprise.
But more disturbing for Huckabee and the GOP is that America’s diminished satisfaction with its religious leaders is not just about errant ministers, priests, and rabbis. Rather, it’s about religion itself.
Nowadays, less than three-quarters of Americans believe in God, and even a majority of Catholics reject the idea that God intervenes in daily life. More than a fifth of Americans describe themselves as not at all religious, while fewer than half of Republicans believe in creationism.
Attitudinally, a mainstream politician like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie can greet these numbers with a shrug, and get on with his campaign and his life. But it’s a challenge for a faith-based candidate like Huckabee, for whom religion is a significant part of his agenda and identity.
Going forward, if Huckabee’s message is simply about religion, he will have an uphill climb on Election Day, assuming he were to win the Republican nomination. Historically, voters have been uncomfortable with politicians whose religious or regional identities overwhelm their candidacies, with William Jennings Bryan, Al Smith and Jimmy Carter offering the clearest examples. Of the three, Carter was the only one to win and then only by a narrow margin, and he was a one-term wonder.
Bryan twice lost to William McKinley, in 1896 and 1900, and then again in 1908, to William Howard Taft. Bryan is best remembered for his “Cross of Gold Speech,” in which he made his stand as an economic populist, and for his role at the Scopes trial, in which a Tennessee schoolteacher went to jail for teaching evolution. Bryan aided the prosecution and testified that the flood recorded in the Book of Genesis occurred precisely in 2348 B.C.
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