(AP/Susan Walsh)

Mike Huckabee doesn't speak Spanish, but he does "speak Jesus": Inside the GOP's hopeless religion gambit

The Republican Party is desperately in need of Hispanic votes — and it's showing.


Heather Digby Parton
May 1, 2015 6:59PM (UTC)

Republican candidates are down in Texas this week to woo another important potential voting bloc. No, there isn't a billionaires convention in town --- it's a meeting of the evangelical National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference . Jeb Bush was there, of course, speaking his fluent Spanish and touting adorable latin nicknames, as the Bush brothers are wont to do. (Recall that for reasons which remain obscure, W used to call NY Times reporter Frank Bruni "Panchito," and Jeb shared that he calls his son George P. Bush "Chicharito," which means "little pea.") Jeb also made the pitch that immigrants should be able to come out of the shadows and talked up ISIS as a major threat to Christians everywhere. By all accounts, he was much more relaxed and comfortable than usual and the crowd received him well.

But it was Mike Huckabee who surprised observers with a rousing speech, which he opened with his characteristic humor saying, "I do not come to you tonight with the ability to speak Spanish. But I do speak a common language: I speak Jesus." And that he did.

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Huckabee didn't bring up ISIS, but he did make the case that Christianity is in grave danger here in the U.S. He said "We are living in perilous times where people who are Christian are on the brink of being criminalized for their conviction." He even went so far as to say that, while he respected the Supreme Court, "it is not the supreme being. It cannot overrule God." These are the kind of fighting words that social conservatives of all stripes love to hear.

It's not surprising that GOP candidates would appear before this group. It's long been an article of faith that this was the most likely path by which the Republicans could entice Hispanic voters to come over to their side. The community has traditionally been Catholic, but this is a growing religious bloc within it and they share many of the same views on social issues. Indeed, it was aussumed that it was George W. Bush's identity as a "born again" Christian which led so many Latinos to vote for him in 2000. Hispanics are assumed to be very traditional and conservative, which makes them natural GOP voters, if only they knew it. (Or so the thinking goes.)

And the GOP is desperate to find a way to get them to vote Republican. I've written before about Republican pollster Whit Ayres's assertion that a GOP presidential candidate must be able to get more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in order to win. (He's working for Marco Rubio, so who knows if that's a self-serving statistic or not.) But regardless of the exact number, it's clear that Republicans need to do better than Mitt Romney with this voting bloc if they expect to come out ahead on election day. And their base's obsessive hostility to immigration reform is a serious impediment to getting there. Reaching out as co-religionists is their best hope.

Unfortunately, they have a big problem. Hispanic evangelicals interpret their traditional family values a little bit differently than other evangelicals:

By all measures, Hispanic Evangelicals embrace a much more expansive view of government than do whites, especially white Evangelicals. Sixty-two percent of Hispanic Evangelicals said in a May 2014 Pew survey that they supported “a bigger government with more services”; only 25 percent said they wanted “smaller government with fewer services.” This preference for larger government in the abstract is longstanding: A 2007 Pew poll found that 66 percent of Hispanic Evangelicals would rather pay higher taxes for more government services. They were only slightly more conservative on this score than Hispanics overall in the 2014 poll, who supported bigger government by a 67–21 margin, and they were slightly more supportive of big government than Hispanics overall in the 2007 survey. According to the Pew survey, America as a whole in 2014 supports smaller government by a 51–40 margin, and white Evangelicals support smaller government by margins close to 2–1.

Hispanic Evangelicals’ disagreement with conservative domestic-policy orthodoxy extends to many important issues. Fifty percent of them believe that government should guarantee health care for all Americans, and 57 percent prefer life without parole to the death penalty for convicted murderers. But the starkest differences come on the very sort of core economic questions that animate many conservative activists.

Data from the 2013 Hispanic Values Survey, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, bear this out. Eighty-two percent of Hispanic Evangelicals supported raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour, and 69 percent supported raising tax rates on Americans earning over $250,000 a year. Perhaps most disturbingly, 60 percent believed that the best way to promote economic growth was to raise taxes on wealthy individuals and businesses to pay for more government spending on education and infrastructure; only 37 percent believed that lowering taxes and cutting spending on government programs was the best way to go.

That's from the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, in a piece practically begging Republican candidates to figure out how to speak to socially conservative Hispanics in a way that truly embraces their values. I just have to say, "Good luck with that." The author of that piece points out the problem very clearly.

That doesn’t mean that conservatives should write off Hispanic Evangelicals. But it does mean that pure libertarianism, which rejects the idea that government can competently do almost anything to help people, is unlikely to win their support.

Unfortunately for the Republican Party, to do that would undermine the very foundation of everything they believe in. Republicans may disagree about this and that, but the fabric that forms the Big Tent is a belief in a small government. To embrace the idea that government can competently help people would be heretical.

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The idea that Jeb Bush can do this is laughable. And there's little reason to believe he's even going to try. Instead he's going to send out some cultural signifiers, his marriage to a Mexican American woman, and his Texas and Florida roots. But that's not going to help him with specifics. His economic philosophy is doctrinaire laissez faire and he won't be able to finesse that any better than Mitt Romney did. "Free market fundamentalism" means the same thing in Spanish as it does in English.

Mike Huckabee can make some small claim to populism with his record of raising some regressive sales taxes in Arkansas to pay for education. He can speak Jesus and he can also communicate reasonably well in Average Joe Sixpack, which is helpful. But there is no way he could ever get away with GOP apostasy on the efficacy of government and he knows it. He might as well declare himself a socialist and join Bernie Sanders on the trail. Never going to happen.

Hispanics, including evangelicals, may believe in traditional family values, but they think those families should have a roof over their head and food on the table and access to decent medical care and education. They just don't buy the idea that being a good Christian is contingent upon rich people getting tax cuts and government abandoning the vulnerable.  It would appear that they actually speak Jesus a little bit more fluently than their non-Latino counterparts.


Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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