GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has done it again -- he said "Merry Christmas." On television.
In a campaign ad that first aired in Iowa on Dec. 18, he conspicuously declined to say "Happy Holidays," the sappy all-purpose greeting favored by the PC crowd. Flaunting a red Christmas sweater, the ordained Southern Baptist minister appeared in front of a Christmas tree (as well as something that briefly resembles a cross as the camera pans the ad's backdrop). "Silent Night" plays in the background -- and not the religiously cleansed "Cold in the Night" version that public schoolchildren in Wisconsin were scheduled to sing at their 2005 "winter program" until parents raised a ruckus. Although the Iowa caucuses are fast approaching, Huckabee tells his audience that what really matters during these last weeks of December is "the celebration of the birth of Christ."
Naturally, Huckabee's reminder that there's a reason why Dec. 25 is a "holiday" unsettled some members of the "Happy Holidays" gang, already unhappy with his very public evangelical faith. "I don't know if I care for Mike Huckabee really at all now," sniffed Jim Newell, associate editor of the liberal blog Wonkette. Time magazine blogger Andrew Sullivan simply named his link to the YouTube video of the Huckabee ad "Christ," another addition to Sullivan's list of infractions by "Christianists," his term of opprobrium for socially conservative Christians.
But some conservatives felt offended too. Kathryn Jean Lopez, an editor at National Review, accused Huckabee of playing "religious hardball" by bringing "Christ and Christmas" into a presidential campaign. And maverick Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, another GOP presidential contender, was even harsher, quoting Sinclair Lewis: "When fascism comes, it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross."
In a culture so easily intimidated by the guardians of political correctness that even displaying the colors red and green is considered as bad form as a creche in some circles, it is tempting to raise one's wassail cup to Huckabee's willingness to flip the bird (if that's an appropriate metaphor for a Southern Baptist minister) at the whole tedious, drum-beating, anti-Christian secularist establishment. And there's nothing wrong with appealing to the hearts -- and votes -- of religious conservatives, whose moral values and sectarian beliefs are under assault from cultural elites.
Still, the introduction of Jesus Christ (not so much in Huckabee's Christmas greeting as in general) into Republican politics has a troubling quality, although not for the reason generally proffered: that it at least implicitly violates the Constitution's prohibition against setting up a religious test for public office. Instead, a more-Christian-than-thou sensibility on the part of those seeking to become our secular leaders violates bedrock Christian principles, expressed by Jesus himself and echoed by theologians over the centuries.
The GOP presidential campaign's superabundance of Christian discourse threatens to further ruin a party that lost control of Congress last year, produced a president whose disapproval rating stands at 65% and can't agree on the most basic policy questions, including illegal immigration, the war in Iraq and a bailout for the mortgage market. Because evangelical Christians are a large part of the GOP base, the Republican candidates have too readily succumbed to the temptation to use religion to woo votes.
So in a race that includes a Mormon GOP presidential rival, Mitt Romney, we have the spectacle of Huckabee catering to many evangelicals' insistence that Mormons are heretics: "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?" And of Romney's "petting zoo of faith" (as Slate columnist Mickey Kaus called it), his gooey kudos to "the ... prayers of the evangelicals, the tenderness of spirit among the Pentecostals, the confident independence of the Lutherans" and so forth.
Such rhetoric, unfortunately, plays right into the hands of many in the secular media who, ever since the evangelical George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000, have been trying to cast the Republican Party as the party of "theocracy" -- where Increase Mather, the Puritan minister, not only lives but is in charge. Serious Christians who are also serious believers in democracy already have a tough enough time convincing others that they are not "imposing their religious beliefs" -- that is, they are not "Christianists" -- when they make public-policy arguments against, say, same-sex marriage or in favor of restrictions on abortion. If the majority of the public comes to believe that espousing specific Christian theological beliefs is a criterion for -- or even a defining feature of -- a candidacy for public office in the GOP, the party will be doomed to permanent minority status and the holders of those beliefs to the margins of public life.
I propose instead that the GOP candidates who are tempted to play the religion card take another look at that fundamental Christian document, the New Testament. What would Jesus do? Here is what the Gospels say: "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's." Jesus also said, "My kingdom is not of this world," and "The world will hate you, for it hated me."
Those statements reflect the deep and long-held Christian understanding that the secular order, benign as it may be in a prosperous democracy such as the United States, can never be conterminous with the kingdom of God. There will always be -- and should always be -- tension, usually radical tension, between believing Christians and secular society. Republican candidates and the evangelicals whose votes they seek would do better to make common cause, even with nonbelievers, on policies that might help create a culture that is less hostile to faith and more supportive of the values they hope to pass to their children.
That said, Merry Christmas to you too, Mike.
Charlotte Allen is the author of "The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus."