The results from yesterday’s Iowa caucus: Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee are the winners in their respective parties, by solid margins. It’s an interesting pairing, because the Democratic victor represents a response to a kind of conservative politics that the Republican victor has abandoned.
Obama is a good representative of the Christian Left – explicit about his religion, but understanding the Gospel to be about economic and social justice, not condemning abortion and homosexuals (neither of which is discussed by Jesus himself). The most public exponents of this position are Jim Wallis and his organization Sojourners.
The political strategy of the Christian Left has been to combat the Christian Right by attacking its wholehearted embrace of mainstream conservative stances on economics and the role of government as un-Christlike. Wallis’s favorite image is of a Bible with every reference to the poor cut from it: basically, a pile of shredded paper. This critique is valid and important, but it also allows the Christian Left to leave more divisive doctrinal positions of liberal Christianity, like acceptance of homosexuals and acknowledgment of the fact of evolution, in the background. Focusing on economics lets Sojourners be bipartisan, because while the Republicans have actively made life worse for poor Americans, the Democrats haven’t exactly made it better.
Huckabee poses a problem for this strategy – he rejects the post-Reagan ties between conservative Christianity and big business interests in favor of a distinctly liberal-flavored populism. But theologically, and on social issues, he’s very conservative: anti-abortion, anti-gay, and anti-science. And there’s the problem – on the issues the Christian Left has emphasized, Huckabee looks to have conceded the point. For Jim Wallis and Co. to oppose him without getting nit-picky about specific policy (though Huck’s “fair tax” looks ripe for nit-picking), they either have to start talking about more than economics, or they have to endorse (or at least not oppose) Huckabee.
So what will the Christian Left do? As of now, Sojourners’ “God’s Politics” blog has two responses to the Iowa result: one, by Diana Butler Bass, that identifies the Obama/Huckabee contrast; and one, by Wallis, that cheers the bipartisan victory of economic populism. Neither takes a position for one candidate over the other – which they don’t really need to this early in the campaign, admittedly. The question is, how long can they wait to choose?