Attention, leaders of the Mike Huckabee paranoia team: Have you noticed that if you take a “vertical” metaphor and combine it with a “horizontal” metaphor, you would get something worse than a “vertical” metaphor alone. You would get — a cross!
I think I had better back up for a moment. Have you been following the whole “Huckabee is sending coded signals to Fundamentalists by using the word ‘vertical’ affair over at The Huffington Post“? The whole question is whether Huck is going over the heads of the mainstream press and sending dangerous, theocratic messages to voters in code whenever he talks about the need for “vertical” politics, instead of merely “horizontal” politics.
It helps to remember where this paranoia begins, which is in the faith-friendly speeches that Michael Gerson wrote for President George W. Bush. Here’s the top of a column that I wrote for Scripps Howard about that dust up:
White House scribe Michael Gerson’s telephone rang with a vengeance after the 2003 State of the Union address and its claim that there is “power, wonder-working power, in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people.”
In the age of Google, it was easy to connect this with the gospel hymn “Power in the Blood,” which says there is “power, wonder-working power, in the precious blood of the Lamb.” Soon, journalists were calling Gerson’s West Wing office asking him to underline all the evangelical “code words” hidden in major speeches.
Huckabee’s “vertical” talk is something else altogether, but the worry lines on the foreheads of pundits are similar. Here’s the key reference from Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo:
The more I look at this I don’t think there’s any question this is a clever dog whistle call out to Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals that his politics are God’s politics.
That leads us to a funny, but insightful, piece by Daniel Radosh at the Huffington Post, that ran with this wonderful headline: “What Huckabee’s Music Sounds Like When You Play It Backwards.”
As it turns out, this image seems to be coming from Huckabee’s rock-music background. Honest.
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.”
I am happy to report that Radosh stays under control, instead of soaring off into flights of here-comes-the-theocracy fantasy (even though that is still a quick way to get a book deal these days). He raises some questions, makes some critical comments and then some calm, logical interpretations of what Huck might be doing.
Sometimes religious language is merely colorful language.
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.
The most logical interpretation, notes Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher, is that the populist preacher is searching for language that transcends (up-oh, that’s a vertical image) the tired old political matrix based on left and right. Obviously, left and right is “horizontal” language.
Come to think of it, that sounds like what Barack Obama is trying to do, too. Rod adds:
I do wish Huck would stop using those buzzwords, which serve only to confuse non-Evangelicals and others who don’t relate to Christian music. I’ve found that often within Evangelical and Catholic circles, believers will get use to using certain terms that have no meaning, or at least no obvious meeting, outside the religion itself, and they don’t really understand how opaque their speech can sound to those who don’t participate in that world.
Then again, people inside the Beltway have their own Bob-Dole-esque code language, as well. The key point is that Huckabee (and Obama) are connecting with some people outside the usual war camps of the old religious right and the even older (and now kind of new) religious left. Reporters need to calm down and carefully quote them.
It’s going to be OK.