Leading conservative pundits have discovered that the Republican electorate is dominated by Christian fundamentalists, and they are shocked, shocked! Aghast at the rise of the backwoods populist preacher-turned-governor Mike Huckabee, now polling first in Iowa with only two weeks until the caucuses, they've suddenly divined the value of secular politics, of knowledge gained by studying something other than the Bible.
"There is a sense in Iowa now that faith has been heightened as a determining factor in how to vote, that such things as executive ability, professional history, temperament, character, political philosophy and professed stands are secondary, tertiary," an alarmed Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal last Friday. "But they are not, and cannot be. They are central. Things seem to be getting out of kilter, with the emphasis shifting too far."
National Review's Rich Lowry concurred. "[N]ominating a southern Baptist pastor running on his religiosity would be rather overdoing it," he sniffed. "Social conservatism has to be part of the Republican message, but it can't be the message in its entirety." In the Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer's column was titled An Overdose of Public Piety. "This campaign is knee-deep in religion, and it's only going to get worse," he wrote.
On Saturday, former Bush speechwriter David Frum chimed in with a National Post column titled, Don't take Populism Too Far. "It's always important to respect the values and principles of the voters," intoned Frum. "But politicians who want to deliver effective government and positive results have to care about more than values - and have to do more than check their guts. They need to study the problem, master the evidence and face criticism."
It's nice that prominent conservatives are finally becoming concerned about America's lurch into faith-based irrationality. It's also a bit rich, since the GOP has spent the last three decades assiduously courting the religious right, showering them with contracts, grants and access to the heights of power. Republicans have rained contempt on science and secular expertise, pushing a kind of yahoo postmodernism in which truth is always assumed to be a function of politics, making facts - about, say, global warming, or the failure of abstinence-only education, or evolution - immediately suspect.
Rather than wringing their hands about the decline of reason in our civic life, right-wing opinion-mongers have, until now, heartily celebrated the volkish virtues of an archetypal Nascar-loving, megachurch-attending, Darwin-denying Ordinary American. Noonan has been the high priestess of mawkish religio-nationalist kitsch, titling her collection of post-9/11 columns, A Heart, A Cross and a Flag: America Today. In one piece, lamenting the fate of a man she encountered on an airplane, she writes: "I bet he became an intellectual, or a writer, and not a good man like a fireman or a businessman who says 'Let's Roll.'"
Last year Lowry ridiculed a spate of books about the growing political power of the religious right (including, I'm flattered to say, my own): "When the theo-panic passes, maybe a few of them will regret their hysteria." In defending Christmas against its supposed antagonists, Krauthammer has chastised "deracinated members of religious minorities" who "insist that the overwhelming majority of this country stifle its religious impulses in public".
And Frum has hymned a mystical communion between Bush and ordinary Americans that transcended mere issues. "There's a bond between Bush and the American people that's bigger than politics. They might not always agree with what he does - but they trust him," he wrote in a 2003 column. "It's a new kind of leadership: a spiritual leadership."
Now, along comes Huckabee - anti-intellectual, proudly faithful, basing his bond with primary voters on spiritual leadership - and the conservative establishment is revolted. Huckabee is their golem.
Over the years Republicans worked hard to organise Christian conservatives, sending consultants and cash to help turn churches into thousands of little political machines. They embraced figures like home-schooling guru Michael Farris, whose tiny, fundamentalist Patrick Henry College has been a top source of White House interns and GOP congressional aids. Farris started a group called Generation Joshua, directed by former Bush speechwriter Ned Ryun, which pays for home-schooled kids to work on Republican campaigns.
Now he's in Huckabee's corner. "It was the endorsement by prominent national home-school advocate Michael Farris that helped propel Huckabee to a surprising second-place finish in the Iowa straw poll in August," wrote the Washington Post on Monday. Home-schoolers, it said, "could also prove to be a powerful force on caucus night".
As mainstream conservatives recoil from what they've created, their cynicism is revealed - to us, but also, perhaps, to themselves. Obviously, some right-wing leaders always saw the pious masses as dupes who would vote against their economic interests if they could be convinced they were protecting marriage and Christmas.
But there there's also a certain species of urbane Republican who live in liberal bastions and, feeling terribly oppressed by the mild contempt they face at cocktail parties, imagine a profound sympathy with the simple folk of the heartland. They're like alienated suburban kids in Che Guevara t-shirts who fantasize kinship with the authentic revolutionary souls in Chiapas or Cuba or Venezuela. Confronted with the actual individuals onto whom they've projected their political hallucinations, disillusionment is inevitable. Whatever their nostalgie de la boue, the privileged classes never really want to be ruled by the rabble. They want the rabble to help them rule.
Michelle Goldberg is the author of the New York Times bestseller Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. She's currently working on a book about the global battle over reproductive rights.
© 2007 The Guardian