January 5, 2008

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 open—overt—about 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.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


yes, i think you're being too charitable Daniel, because vertical is completely meaningless in this context to anyone except the christians. If there was some intuitive meaning the rest of us could interpret it through, maybe you'd have a point, but it's absolutely random to the rest of us. He might as well be saying he's for "apple" politics, and against "oranges." I mean if Josh Marshall had no idea what he's talking about, how would any (non-christian) guy on the street? Why should we think Vertical means positive or hopeful as opposed to horizontal? I'm personally for a more diagonal type of political exchange in this county, that's why I'm voting for John Edwards!

Well most of the time when he says it he talks about lifting the country "up" as opposed to along the "left/right" axis, so it's pretty easy to grasp his new meaning after two seconds.

That said, I acknowledge that I may be erring on the side of charity here.

"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." "

Wonder what snarky young Christians make of the Song of Solomon...

The idea that Bush is literate or understands metaphor is charitable as well.

I'd sure like to engage in some horizontal lyrics with Mike Huckabee, if you get my meaning.

I'd sure like to to serve "God and rock 'n' roll at the same time" with Mike Huckabee, if you get my meaning.

I'd sure like to to aim up — not just right or left - with Mike Huckabee, if you get my meaning.

I'd sure like to show my chops on the Tonight Show with Mike Huckabee, if you get my meaning.

I'd sure like to refer to individual liberty, not free magazines, with H.L. Mencken, if you get my meaning.

Well most of the time when he says it he talks about lifting the country "up" as opposed to along the "left/right" axis, so it's pretty easy to grasp his new meaning after two seconds.

I think you're being far too charitable. I'll cop to having never heard the term vertical used in this context before this post, but to me it sounds like he's saying "A vote for me is a vote for Jesus". Not exactly a new Republican campaign strategy, is it?

Of course, he could be using that message for evangelicals while trying to imply "I'm above all this liberal/conservative mudslinging" to everyone else.

If Huckabee, in his book, clearly talks about "vertical" dealing with man-to-God and "horizontal" being man-to-man (Anonymous, feel free to turn this to double entendre), then his use of the term does not seem to be "code". They are just buzzwords, as you called them later in your article. It's like using "green" to refer to environmental isuues, it is not meant to be understood by just a certain group. (And it's not an invented word like "repurpose"). Judaism has prayers to praise God, prayers to ask for stuff and prayers of thanks, they are just not labeled with buzzwords - yet. We also used to have the Ten Commandments before the evangelicals took them over,
What I find most interesting is evangelicals embracing rock music instead of burning it (a 60's thing for you young folk). Christianity was built on coopting pagan traditions to attract new followers. Is Christian rock any different. How ironic that they are using rock to draw in the multitudes because rock is "bigger than Jesus Christ" as John Lenon was vilified for saying (I know he said the Beatles, not rock in general, but it amounts to the same thing).

What do you make of that "the government was behind 9/11" stuff on the jesus-is-savior.com site you link to? Just a random nutjob, or is that not uncommon among superduper evangelicals?

The first image that came to my mind for "vertical" politics was every true Christian being lifted up during the rapture while all others get left behind. I'll be one of those "left" out for sure.

Wonder what snarky young Christians make of the Song of Solomon...

See Chapter 15. Did I mention the book comes out April 8?

Of course, he could be using that message for evangelicals while trying to imply "I'm above all this liberal/conservative mudslinging" to everyone else.

Yes, I think that's entirely plausible. After all, even if he was trying to send a message to one group, he'd want it to mean something to the rest of us.

If Huckabee, in his book, clearly talks about...

To clarify, he uses the phrase one way - the established buzzword way -- in one book and the other way -- his own coinage -- in the other. I think, therefore, you could legitimately call the second use code for (or repurposing of) the first one.

Is Christian rock any different.

That's a smart observation, and no doubt true in some circumstances. But it would be a major misunderstanding to think that ALL Christian rock is an attempt to "draw in the multitudes." There are strains of Christian rock that have other agendas, and strains with no utilitarian precepts at all. See Chapters 9&10 (or Andrew Beaujon's Body Piercing Saved My Life).

What do you make of that "the government was behind 9/11" stuff

As I said, these ultrafundamentalist churches are so fringy that you can't even really think of them as the extreme end of evangelicalism. They're really they're own little world at this point. I think there's definitely confluence between separatist religious views and anti-government ones (c.f., David Koresh) but I wouldn't draw any broader conclusions from it.

Speaking of unintentional irony, I meant to note early how funny it is that Huckabee is using as a covert communication a word that, when applied to music, means overt, uncoded communication.

Not to sound un-Christian or anything, but ... you know what this reminds me of? The odd way Newt Gingrich used to talk. And also a Lindsay Lohan movie.

Remember Newt blathering on about the "Third Wave"? It meant something (derived from the futurist Alvin Toffler, I think) but the way Newt used it, I could never figure out just quite what HE was trying to say.

The other thing it reminds me of is "Mean Girls," in which one of the idiotic characters is trying to make a meaningless new word, "fetch," catch on. Finally the Queen Bee character has had enough. "Give it up," she commands. "'Fetch' is never going to happen.'"

The same, I trust, goes for "vertical," in the realm of American politics.

On the "vertical" tip, ambiguous verticalness (verticality?) is something that generally turns me off about a lot of the Xtian rock that attempts to cross over into the realm of Disney and Disneyesque submainstream teenpop; that feeling that you can hear a song horizontally ("you") or vertically ("You"). Big big exception here is Flyleaf, a Christian metal band, and probably one of the biggest Christian crossovers of recent years -- for some reason, the vertical interpretation is actually the most appealing, because Flyleaf has taken this overwrought emo/confessional tendency ("I'm nothing without you," etc.) and given it an interesting meaning by bringing God into it more explicitly -- less existential, more...uh, deferential. "Perfect" is probably my favorite Flyleaf song: "Perfect in weakness / Running in just your strength alone" -- this over a really grungy (in a couple meanings) Nirvana-like riff, dirty hard rock tipping into nu-metal. So the themes are the same, but you get less self-pity -- instead you get this person prostrate before God, there's this fierceness in it that I don't find in much metal-leaning emo (and the fact that she's a great singer makes a big differenc, too).

Also weird about Flyleaf is that they're only ambiguously Christian to begin with -- clearly they have a Christian base, but their probably as far from "safe" as you can get before you just stop being "Christian rock" altogether. And yet it's their devotional bent being directed toward God instead of some dude/girl that piques my interest in them. Kind of a rarity for me, but I also don't know much about Christian rock.

Not sure why you think Flyleaf isn't "safe." I used that term to mean lyrical content, not musical style (not that Flyleaf's music is particularly edgy, or that that would matter) and there are Christian bands that take many more risks in terms of expressing doubt and anguish, which is what makes the CCM market nervous.

But I know what you mean in general. I like good Christian rock simply because it's refreshing to hear something other than love songs -- and ideally (if not usually) deeper than love songs.

That said, Flyleaf is far from weird. The only thing that distinguishes them from most other Christian bands is their crossover success. There are lots of bands that do what they do, many just as talented. And there are many crossover bands (e.g. Relient K, Switchfoot) that are at least as ambiguous about their faith.

Sure, now I hear about this terminology. I gave a Sunday morning address at the St. Louis Ethical Society a couple months ago in which I tried to explain what made humanist religion different from traditional religion, and I called it "Horizontal Religion"--also it sounds kinda sexy. I thought I was being original. Oh well.

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