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Huckabee tests GOP’s social conservatism

NASHVILLE (BP) — Despite backlash against former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee’s recent criticisms of “gratuitous profanity” and sexual immorality in America, GOP politicians and Baptist leaders agree that social conservatives still play a prominent role in the Republican Party.

“There has been a huge push for fiscal conservatives to step out and lead in Republican policy issues and decision-making,” U.S. Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., told Baptist Press. “But the vast majority of Republicans are social conservatives. They’re also fiscal conservatives, but they’re social conservatives first. While some people would say, ‘Be quieter on those issues,’ that’s who we are.”

Huckabee, a Republican who is considering a run for the White House in 2016, said during a Feb. 1 interview on CNN that same-sex marriage “is not just a political issue. It is a biblical issue. And as a biblical issue, unless I get a new version of the Scriptures, it’s really not my place to say, OK, I’m just going to evolve.”

In the same interview, Huckabee lamented the loss of religious liberty among business owners who choose not to provide goods or services in support of gay weddings. Huckabee’s comments drew criticism on Twitter and in various media outlets. Previously he lamented the widespread cursing he has encountered in New York City.

Huckabee finished second in 2008 to Sen. John McCain for the Republican presidential nomination to face then-Sen. Barack Obama. He is a former pastor of Southern Baptist churches in Pine Bluff and Texarkana, Ark., and a former president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention; a graduate of Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia; and a former student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas.

Since ending his Fox News TV show Jan. 3 in view of a possible presidential bid, Huckabee has also drawn criticism for saying rap artist Jay-Z is “exploiting” his wife Beyoncé by permitting her to dance as a “sex object.”

In addition to criticism from liberals, some conservatives have taken issue with Huckabee’s emphasis on morality in the public square.

“Here on the right, we often complain that the political, media, and entertainment classes regard most of the country as rather irrelevant, and that, in consequence, they openly condescend to people who live in Alabama or who go to church or who have NRA stickers on their cars,” Charles C.W. Cooke wrote Jan. 28 in the conservative publication National Review Online.

“There is much to this gripe. And yet one will not solve that problem by presenting as a countervailing force a person who sneers right back — especially when that person is seeking an extraordinary amount of power over his fellow citizens. Whatever cultural renaissance Mike Huckabee might believe is necessary in the United States, it will be up to civil society and not to the political classes to bring it about,” Cooke wrote.

“Vote our values”

Lankford disagrees. Although he believes families and churches play the most important role in transforming a nation’s morals, he said Christians have a duty to bring their spiritual beliefs to bear on the political process of their country — which includes participating in the party system for Americans.

“God created government. God created family. God created the church,” Lankford, a Southern Baptist, said. “These are all institutions that He originated and that He is very passionate about.”

Lankford acknowledged that the Republican Party includes a coalition with diverse views on social issues like gay marriage and abortion, but he said evangelicals and other social conservatives should “vote our values” and ask political candidates about their stands on moral issues.

“Almost all of the books in the Old Testament were either written by a political leader, to a political leader or about a political leader,” Lankford said. “You go through page after page, and it’s God speaking to government. … God is very concerned, and He repeats over and over again throughout Scripture His concern about government.”

Mark Harris, a North Carolina pastor who finished third in his state’s Republican primary for the U.S. Senate last year, attributed the GOP’s success in North Carolina and elsewhere last year in part to its stands on marriage and abortion — despite pronouncements by media elites that social conservatism repels voters.

“The only polls that really count, that are really hard empirical evidence are the ballot box polls,” Harris, pastor of First Baptist Church in Charlotte, told BP. “And at the ballot boxes, 31 states out of 31 states that were given the right to vote on the marriage issue … voted in favor of traditional marriage and said it was so important, they wanted it to be part of their state constitutions.”

Pew polling indicates that 30 percent of Republicans support same-sex marriage today, up from 19 percent in 2008, CNN reported.

Still, social conservatives in the GOP should not believe the false claim that pro-life and pro-marriage candidates represent the radical fringe of American politics, Harris said. He urged social conservatives to get involved at “all levels” of the party’s organization and give money early in an election cycle to candidates who reflect their values.

Choosing a candidate

All the major candidates in the 2016 GOP presidential primary likely will take positions defending unborn human life and heterosexual marriage, Harris said. The difference between candidates is the passion with which they approach social issues, he said, citing Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum as passionate about life and marriage.

In the end, Republicans need a candidate who can explain that fiscal and social conservatism are intertwined, Harris said, noting that family breakdown is a major cause of poverty. Keeping families intact by curbing sexual immorality would decrease poverty, he said, and in turn reduce the money spent on government entitlement programs.

Poverty “is driven so many times by those that are caught in single-parent homes, those that are caught in situations and circumstances where their family fell apart,” Harris said.

Douglas Reed, professor of political science at Ouachita, told BP that social conservatives will be most successful politically when they realize they are just one part of the Republican coalition and work within the party to advance components of their agenda.

“In a political party in the United States which is made up of a coalition of different individuals and different groups, no one group is ever going to be the end-all,” Reed said. “But they can have significant influence. They can have guidance for the party.”

Pragmatically, social conservatives should support candidates in primary elections who they believe can win in general elections — even when the candidates most likely to be elected do not align precisely with socially conservative views, Reed said.

“Whether we like it or not, you have to have individuals elected who are at least sympathetic, who are willing to lend you an ear rather than simply shut the door on you,” Reed said.

At present, the GOP platform states that marriage as “the union of one man and one woman must be upheld as the national standard” and opposes abortion as well as research that results in the destruction of embryos.