What Huckabee's music sounds like when you play it backwards
[Ed. note: This was supposed to go up on Huffington Post this morning as part of my shameless promotional campaign for my book, Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture, but apparently they shut down on Saturdays. Big thanks to Ernest for the tip]
In its coverage of the Iowa caucus, the New York Times quoted a pastor who said he'd be voting for Mike Huckabee despite his serious reservations about the candidate's belief that it's possible to serve "God and rock 'n' roll at the same time."
Huckabee plays bass guitar. He recently showed his chops on the Tonight Show. But the Iowan pastor's concerns are out of synch with contemporary American evangelicalism. Fundamentalist churches that say "Christian Rock makes as much sense as Christian Adultery" are a dwindling fringe. The vast majority of evangelicals, even the most theologically and politically conservative ones, have embraced rock 'n' roll for decades.
And yet there are fierce debates within evangelicalism about whether secular rock is as acceptable as Christian rock and even about the ideal purpose of Christian rock is it entertainment? evangelism? ministry? So it's worth noting that the church band Huckabee plays in is what's known as a praise and worship band. That's the "safest," most "religious" and most insular variety of contemporary Christian music. The fact that it's Huckabee's genre of choice also explains the origins of his mysterious campaign buzzword: "vertical."
Josh Marshall posted about Huckabee's vertical politics last night. "Can anyone explain what the hell that means?" Marshall asked. "Is there something I'm missing here?" Soon enough, he posted an update suggesting that the phrase might be "crypto-evangelical code wording... a clever dog whistle call out to Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals that his politics are God's politics."
Marshall is mostly correct. The phrase is Christianese. And while it's used in a variety of contexts, it's most commonly applied to distinguish one type of contemporary Christian music the type that Huckabee plays from others. As the Lyrical Theology blog put it, Christian lyrics can generally divided into two categories. 1. Lyrics that are horizontal, or directed towards people, and 2. Lyrics that are vertical, or directed towards God." A few years ago, the top A&R guy at Word, a major Christian record label, explained what this means as a practical matter: "Overt, or vertical, lyrics are lyrics that are not afraid to say 'Jesus' or 'God' in them. 'Vertical' meaning: I am speaking to God, or God is speaking to me, or this is a prayerful song. The lyrics are out in the openovertabout the Christian faith, praise and worship or the like." Horizontal lyrics, on the other hand, "are the type that could often be love songs, but the You is with a capital 'Y.'" Snarky young Christians call these "God-is-my-girlfriend songs." The vertical language is so commonplace that Christian entertainment sites like Crossmap use it frequently without any explanation. There's a Christian record label named Vertical Music.
There is zero chance that Mike Huckabee is using this language unintentionally. The candidate published two books last year. In Character Makes a Difference he writes, "The Ten Commandments are divided into two sections the vertical laws dealing with man's relationship with God and the horizontal laws dealing with man's relationship with others." In From Hope to Higher Ground, he writes, "We don't need our leadership to embrace a horizontal direction, but a vertical one we need to aim up not just right or left."
There was a period when George Bush got a lot of grief from the left for using evangelical code words. Sometimes I agreed, but just as often I found the charge paranoid. What Bush does is use biblical metaphors a perfectly reasonable, even literate, mode of speech. It's not his fault that secular elites don't always recognize the language of the King James Bible, and it shouldn't automatically be seen as sinister to employ such time-tested rhetorical devices. Huckabee's "vertical" metaphor, however, isn't lifted from the Bible. It originates in a particular strain of Christian culture. But I don't think that necessarily means he's intentionally using code words. A charitable interpretation perhaps overly charitable, but not unreasonable is that he's simply adapting language that he's comfortable with to an entirely new purpose. Indeed, there doesn't seem to be any hint of theocracy in Huckabee's frequent deployment of the "vertical politics" line. He's not saying that "vertical politics" deal with "man's relationship with God." Instead, he's turned "vertical" into exactly the kind of vague and meaningless pablum that candidates always use. It's merely his way of saying "positive" or "hopeful," except that while those shopworn phrases completely fade into the white noise of the campaign, "vertical" cuts through the clutter. It works on a purely attention-getting level. It may well be that the word's function as a signal to the evangelical base is just an added bonus.
Keep in mind that when Huckabee talks about "vertical politics" he contrasts it with a negative, destructive "horizontal politics." But in Christianese, "horizontal" carries no such connotations. Talking to God is important, but so is talking to people about God. True, many evangelicals believe that "vertical" is better than "horizontal," but they wouldn't say that horizontal is bad. And it's not hard to find evangelicals who say that Christian music does not put enough emphasis on the horizontal. There are a lot of reasons to be concerned about Mike Huckabee, but his decision to repurpose a Christian buzzword now and then hardly seems like one of them.
A related note. While searching for references to verticality on the web site of CCM magazine, the leading Christian music publication, I was startled to see this pop-up add.
Yes, CCM is using a quote from H.L. Mencken to sell subscriptions. Leaving aside that this particular quote refers to individual liberty, not free magazines, Mencken is a bizarre choice. One wonders why CCM didn't go with a more familiar Mencken quote, like, "I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking."
Last week I wrote that the Christian culture bubble does not do irony. What I meant, of course, was not intentionally.