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Campaign 2008 | Singing the mother tongue is harder than it looks

Issue: "Food fight," May 3, 2008

Over lunch last week, former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and I reflected on how beneficial-and how costly-a single phrase can be. It may even be why he's referred to now as a "former" presidential candidate.

The phrase came from a speech Huckabee gave last fall at the Values Voters Summit in Washington, D.C. That's where he brought the crowd to its feet when he said: "It's important that the language of Zion is a mother tongue, and not a recently acquired second language."

Huckabee's line was a huge winner with his audience that evening, setting the stage for him to make a strategic move from being a back-row also-ran to the ranks of the "Big Three," along with John McCain and Mitt Romney, in the Republican race.

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In retrospect, though, the smoothly memorable line about the language of Zion may have been costly. There are those (and the Republican Party is still full of such people) who get downright nervous when they hear that language being spoken-and especially so when it is spoken as a mother tongue, which is exactly how Mike Huckabee speaks it.

The modern Republican Party-or, you might say, the modern conservative movement-is made up of three components: (1) those who see it as critical that America maintains a dominant military defense in a threatening world; (2) those who want to limit the role of government in the nation's economy; and (3) social conservatives who want to put the brakes on the government's encouragement of a libertine lifestyle. It was, quite demonstrably, the coalition of those three groups that enabled Ronald Reagan and his ideas to establish the significant electoral majorities he enjoyed.

Group 3 in this coalition pretty typically also holds to the principles of Groups 1 and 2. But Groups 1 and 2 not only can't always be assumed to hold the values of Group 3, they are often embarrassed by them.

So no one doubts that for everyone in Group 3 who was reassured by Huckabee's "language of Zion" reference, there were those in Groups 1 and 2 who shivered and shook at the prospect of a former Baptist preacher who might end up embarrassing them silly. Word went out that fine a fellow as Huckabee might be, he might be a little soft on national defense and immigration. Straight arrow that he was on abortion and marriage, aren't you a little worried that he's something of a free spender?

Well, you expect that in politics-and especially on the grand national scale of a presidential campaign.

What did surprise Huckabee, though, was the number of Group 3 leaders who seemed just as embarrassed to embrace a fellow evangelical-even while he was winning majority delegations in seven different states-as were some of the secular leaders of Groups 1 and 2. "They ended up worshipping at the altar of electability," Huckabee told me.

Rather than rejoicing at the tones and tunes of Zion, they self-consciously distanced themselves from the very guy they said they were looking for. Or, in the case of a few, they joined in the singing only on the last measure of the last verse. A little better attendance at choir practice might have made quite a difference in South Carolina, Missouri, and the whole campaign.

I'm not arguing that it's essential for an effective presidency that the White House be made the site of regular hymn-sings. But I am noting, for the record, that we're left now with three major candidates who show us repeatedly how hard it is for them to carry this particular tune. And I am saying that when we end up complaining that our next president is tone deaf-especially with reference to the songs of Zion-we'll have to think long and hard about the awkward and hesitant role played by some folks many had assumed to be the main choir directors.

If you have a question or comment for Joel Belz, send it to

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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