12/18/2007 03:45 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Mike Huckabee and the Evolving Blood-Sport of Pious One- Upmanship

Watching Mike Huckabee's warm new campaign ad this morning on MSNBC's marvelously hallucinatory Morning Joe at 6:30 a.m., I was filled with a warm feeling of my own as he talked about Christmas being about Jesus. A warm feeling, which I recognized not so much as comfort but rather as dread, much in the same way Stevie Smith knew the difference between waving and drowning. Tis' is the season of God again in America, and separation of church and state is starting to look like a quaint and earnest old trope, impractical and meant only to be tacitly ignored especially on the unpaved road to the White House.

Joe Scarborough and Mika Brehzinski were roaring with delighted, awed laughter at the sheer end-run chutzpah of the thing. Morning Joe, no ideologue he, declared Iowa "over", in one fell swoop. Huckabee, with his Christmas spot, had sewed up the GOP spot there. Joe is probably dead-right. The evolving blood-sport of ecclesiastical one-upsmanship evokes nothing so much as a steeplechase on the backs of brightly-colored and intricately carved horses of the apocalypse.

The famously de-fatted governor, posed in front of a bookcase lit precisely like a cross in an Andres Serano piece, and wearing a sensible red sweater right out of the Alan Alda collection, earnestly offered a bromide about relief from political ads (but maybe not so much relief from the sly suggestion that your opponent's cult believes that the devil is Jesus's older brother). And a Merry Christmas to you too, Governor.

The spot is a semiotician's treasure trove of cracker-barrel passive-aggression; a sort of "bring it on, why don't you?" to the other GOP candidates, just daring them to back-talk him in what is shaping up to be the most God-drenched fight for primacy since the Huguenots and the Catholics went at it in 16th Century France.

Mika and Joe, who have a great martini-less Thin Man routine going for so early in the day, could not stop giggling. Scarborough correctly assessed that the creators of the spot were begging for someone to come swinging at that 'tar baby'. "Another Republican candidate or a Christopher Hitchens, a Dershowitz..."

Maybe they are all too smart for that. Unlike me. I felt chilly, and not because of the magnificent frozen weather in my little village. No, because watching Huckabee I thought of Aaron Altman, the great, perspiring fictional conscience of Broadcast News, when he proposed that the bland and warm and home spun-newscaster Bill Hurt was the devil. Altman, played gorgeously by Albert Brooks says, " What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he's around? Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail. No. I'm semi-serious here. He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation and he will never do an evil thing... he will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important."

He might also prevaricate on evolution, winking at creationists, thereby willingly aiding and abetting the witch-hunts being conducted against educators to this day, as in the case of Christine Castillo Comer, former science director in the curriculum division of the Texas Education Agency, who was fired for merely emailing colleagues notice of a upcoming talk by Barbara Forrest, co-author of the book Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design.

He might suggest that AIDS patients need to be quarantined, then backpedal by saying that little was known about the disease when he said that (a claim only the ignorant and bigoted can reasonably make), and that homosexuality is STILL a sin. He might do so while proposing a more reasonable tax policy towards the poor, and that people from South of the Border have rights too. He might even suggest that his own party's prosecution of the war is less than competent.

It's a very sophisticated form of give-and-take populism, wrapped in the soothing and reasonable tone of a preacher from the heartland, and as authentic, frankly, as a heterosexual Liberace doing Rachmaninoff in Vegas. Doesn't matter, he's doing great. He's doin' great. He seems like a Capra movie, a snow-cone, cotton-candy, your old uncle Mike, Willy Wonka after the hijera, and the guy on the porch of the old country store... all wrapped up into one. The perfect candidate for a party with a massive, disfiguring, self-induced identity crisis.

The man has thirty-one percent of the GOP support in Iowa right now. Evangelicals are literally in heaven. (A sentence I love to write for so many reasons.) For believers in Iowa, marriage and family are the God-made issues being finally thrust to the fore as never before. They got their man. They got their man. This as Giuliani sinks in New Hampshire and Florida begins to smile wide for Mike.

And OF COURSE the old-guard Wall Street "so-last-century" GOP establishment power base is nervous. They courted the real deal, and now they GOT a LIVE one. The GOP elders now simply make mistakes for a living, especially when it comes to who has God's ear. (Not to mention the economy.) All that golf and scotch. All those tartan pants. All that scheming. They sold their party in bits and pieces like bankrupt suburbanites at a yard sale, and they sold it mostly to evangelists and hate mongers so they could strengthen the base.

They grinned at their less-hip allies at the Prayer Breakfasts, and they smirked, because it didn't get in the way of free-market pollution of the environment or rapacious corporate profit-making. God was just as good a reason as oil in the neocon handbook for transforming global power. Perhaps much in the same way that they did not see the brave bearded Muhajadeen transforming into the less admirable Taliban, maybe they didn't see far enough down the road they hoed to imagine a cracker-barrel preacher-governor who might tax the rich and open the borders and embarrass them.

The famously hierarchal GOP is cracking apart from Huckabee-ism. Well, the old bosses brought it on themselves, and, as the sign on the wall says in the lesser stores : You Break it, You Buy it." I hope Huckabee is their guy. "Maybe McCain will stay alive long enough to pick up the pieces of this Republican mess, but what will THAT look like?," I thought, still half-asleep, as the spot went on. I watched again - they kept running the spot, laughing all the way (hoo-ho-ho).

"At this time of year", Huckabee says, looking into the camera, "it only matters that we celebrate the birth of Christ." No it doesn't. What matters is figuring out how not to blow up the entire Middle East as we plan our (SLOW, RESPONSIBLE) egress from Iraq.

What matters are seven million uninsured children, an economy in shivery recession, and the shock of global warming, not wearing God on your sleeve for votes. That's why I shudder at Mike Huckabee's earnest wish that we have a wonderful Christmas. He is frightening, especially at 6:30 a.m. He wasn't speaking to me with his cross/bookshelf-lit homily. (Well, in all fairness, nobody is, I know that. ) People think Huckabee likes people. I say he seems to like people the way that Amway salesmen do. The way that the saved do. In other words, with all respect, I don't buy it.

Random thought: I know a gay born-again guy in Gotham (there are many), who prays after he has sex with his long-term boyfriend; he prays afterwards because he knows he's saved but his boyfriend is going to hell, and prays because he is sad. That's how I think Huckabee likes me. Thanks but no thanks, sir. I'll take my chances with a cold martini, the saw about glass houses and stones, Jiminy Cricket's brilliant exhortation to "let your conscience be your guide", Do Unto Others, loyalty to my friends and the First Amendment -- the only Golden Rules you need, in my opinion.

I have nothing against religion at all. I think kids in particular should learn all about them, and find God wherever they see kindness and strength. But the minute it is pushed in my face, I get squeamish, having seen far too many brutal works done in its name.

By the way - the God squad isn't only working the Republican side of the street. Just yesterday I watched the stomach-turning and rather surprising spectacle of the (previously) admirable Bob Kerrey slyly offering up the opinion that Barack Obama's madrassa schooling is a "tremendous asset". Never mind that Obama never had any madrassa schooling, let alone some post-Islamic conversion to Christianity. It is a reminder that the road to the White House must take us through many swampy paths of faux piety, wherein all will be stained. (Note to Hillary camp: when you set out once honorable attack-dogs, do please remember Michael Vick. Remember also, that as frightening as a candidate bathed in real piety, equally unpalatable is one who sometimes cynically conveys that she believes in nothing as much as her own rise to power.) But it's that time of year, and everything is getting nuts.

I am afraid that if Mike Huckabee keeps going up in the numbers for South Carolina and Florida, let alone New Hampshire, it won't be looking a lot like Christmas for long - it'll be looking like the Kulturekampf that this country has been edging towards for the last three decades. The evangelists want that fight because they think people like me will high tail it to Nova Scotia, Paris, and London with our 'fancy scarves and arty glasses' (to steal a culturally anxious New York Times phrase about striking writers).

Never gonna happen. Note to Huckabees: This land is our land too, boys.

(PS - thanks to those who corrected my woeful misattribution of "Not Waving..." from Bishop to Smith.)