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Onward Christian Soldiers

How can a poorly funded, marginal candidate possibly vault to the front of the pack when all he has going for him is support from Christian evangelicals?
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Surprise, surprise. According to the December 17 Rasmussen poll, former Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee is now leading the Republican field, beating out Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson and John McCain, faux evangelicals all.

How can a poorly funded, marginal candidate possibly vault to the front of the pack when all he has going for him is support from Christian evangelicals? How can that be -- less than two months after a cover story in the New York Times Magazine proclaimed the advent of the "Evangelical Crackup?"

The Times story is just one of many premature obituaries of the Christian Right that have been published in the secular press again and again over the last 15 years or so -- and they have always been wrong. To be sure, there are real contradictions in the evangelical movement this time -- the rise of environmentalism among evangelicals, the Iraq War, and a growing distaste for President Bush. But the Christian Right remains an extraordinarily powerful populist movement because it is a broad, deeply-rooted, highly-organized movement and it speaks to something that is an elemental part of America.

As I explain in my new book, The Fall of the House of Bush (for more information go to www.craigunger.com), most secularists, who refer to the culture wars or the red state-blue state conflict, still don't understand that what is really going on is an age old battle between faith and reason. After all, America is not only the country that put a man on the moon, that unraveled the human genome, that invented the iPod. It's also a country with tens of millions of people who don't believe in evolution, who think the earth was created 6,000 years ago and who think that the Final Conflict may bring the world to an end any day now.

The Christian Right is part of America's DNA. One can trace its roots back to the early 17th century Puritans who proclaimed America the New Israel, the new Zion, the new Promised Land. And one can see in their theology the early stirrings of Christian Zionism (the belief that the return of Jews to the Holy Land is in accordance with Biblical prophecy) that today ties the Christian Right to the neoconservatives and the Israeli right.

In modern times, it was Roe V. Wade in 1973 that transformed evangelicalism into a powerful political movement. By 2004, no fewer than 41 out of 51 Republican senators had a 100 percent rating by the Christian Coalition. Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) compared environmentalists to the Nazis and argued that American policy in the Middle East should be based on the Bible, that Israel had a right to the West Bank "because God said so."

In the '60s and early '70s millions of people who listened to Bob Dylan and smoked marijuana were overwhelmingly likely to be against the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon. Likewise, the strength of one's "walk with Jesus" is an equally reliable gauge through which evangelical Christians distinguished friend from foes of the pro-life movement or marriage-protection amendment. "The church played exactly the same role as the counter culture in the '60s," one lapsed Evangelical told me. "Everything that happened in the church environment was a pale carbon copy of secular culture. The pastor was the equivalent of a pop star or a TV star." When it came to politics, he added, that meant that "you vote for that which reinforces your belief system rather than that which will help you economically. How you will appear in the eyes of the God you believe in -- that's your anchor."

Today, there are as many as 80 million adult evangelicals and over 200,000 pastors who operate effectively as precinct captains in a political machine that serves the Republican Party much as organized labor once served the Democrats. That doesn't mean Huckabee is a shoo in for the GOP nomination. But it does mean that when November 2008 comes around, the Republican candidate will be marching as closely as possible with his army of Christian soldiers.