Combine ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ and …

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.”

huckverticalI 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.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Eric W

    Huck says in the video clip that he has a book out in which he discusses vertical versus horizontal politics.

    It seems that all a reporter has to do is read the book to understand what Huck is saying. How hard is that?

  • Peg

    Great website. Very refreshing and love your format. Read about it in Archbishop Chaput’s column.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Eric W.,

    Someone I know who is a reporter has read a couple of Huck’s books — and watched a presentation Huck gave on vertical politics — and he says he has no clue what the heck he’s talking about.

    He was saying this months ago, for what it’s worth.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Sorry, Mollie, but that made me laugh out loud. Here’s what sprang to mind, “I’m a reporter, and I don’t get it, so nobody must get this stuff.”

    Attention all of you who live and work anywhere near the Beltway: Get out more!

  • Jerry

    What happens when a clinical paranoid enters the political arena? He or she gets invited to all the talk shows, writes a book and becomes a media darling. This is happening to Huckabee as you pointed out as well as Obama as the FactCheck article deconstructs. I do have to admit that I find it hard to distinguish the mentally ill from those that pretend to be mentally ill to try to destroy the reputation of someone in the other party.

  • Chris Bolinger

    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.

    Don’t hold your breath waiting for political pundits and Beltway insiders to come up with a logical interpretation. When you sit too close to the political TV for too many hours every day, you go blind.

    Many of us out here in Flyover Country recognize something that appears lost on those who have a dog in this fight: our federal government is hopelessly broken. When a candidate from either party speaks earnestly and creatively about changing the dynamic of partisan bickering, we perk right up. “Gosh!” we say in our naivete. “He seems to see things from my point of view.” When people write that that candidate is sending coded messages to those who are easily led, we shake our heads and chuckle.

    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.

    Some people? Just how large do reporters think that the fabled Religious Right and Religious Left are? Do reporters think that everyone out here in the hinterland puts politics ahead of everything else?

    Reporters need to calm down and carefully quote them.

    Not holding my breath waiting, Terry.

  • Jerry

    Chris, people such as me who are not in Flyover Country also perk up at the thought fixing the current broken nature of government.

  • gerald

    I also agree ” Great website. Very refreshing and love your format. Read about it in Archbishop Chaput’s column.” very incite full

  • http://www.buhlaland.blogspot.com Linda Buhl

    Thank you so much for bringing to the attention of this evangelical family somehow we have missed the meetings wherein we are given a list of code words. How wonderful that someone thinks that a large number of Christians could agree on which words to use to convey our hidden agenda (how hidden is the Bible?) – we cannot agree how or when to take communion (or even what to call it!)Agreeing on vocabulary whether in code or not could be a great leap forward in “the unity of the Body” – how’s them code apples?

  • Eric W

    Mollie says:
    January 13, 2008, at 6:06 pm
    Eric W.,

    Someone I know who is a reporter has read a couple of Huck’s books — and watched a presentation Huck gave on vertical politics — and he says he has no clue what the heck he’s talking about.

    He was saying this months ago, for what it’s worth.

    Which book of his is it? He’s written/published a couple in the last year or so. Give me the title, I’ll skim it at Barnes & Noble, and see if I can figure out what Huck means by “vertical” versus “horizontal.” I suspect it’s not that hard to figure out, unless he is just too general and nebulous about it.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Eric W.,

    I’ll ask. I remember the issue because he sent me a lengthy YouTube of Huckabee discussing the topic and asked me if I knew what he was talking about. Alas, I do not speak Huckabee either. I tried looking for the YouTube video but can’t find it.

  • http://showard1.blogspot.com Samuel J Howard

    All this about “vertical” and “horizontal” being Evangelical code words is nonsense. Why? Because Catholics use them in exactly the same way. Apparently Evangelical examples were more googleable or fit the narrative writers were looking for, but Catholics have been using the same terms for years. They’re especially prominent in reference to worship and particularly about translations of liturgical texts and inclusive langauge.

  • http://tmamone.blogspot.com Travis Mamone

    I didn’t see any subliminal messages in the “verticle vs. horizontal” jargon. Maybe I need to take acid first.

  • Asinus Gravis

    Rod Dreher wrote, “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.”

    Mike Huckabee’s 2007 book “From Hope to Higher Ground: 12 Stops to Restoring America’s Greatness” has a chapter entitled “Stop Thinking Horizontally.” In it he writes, “I’m conviced that we are a nation that has grown weary of the polarized and paralyzed government that American are getting at a record cost….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. This requires working toward something Washington can’t seem to do–solve problems….That direction doesn’t have to always be an alienating right/left, win/lose, right/wrong. It can, and often should be, straight up.” (p. 32) He goes on to emphasize leaders who foster hope rather than fear.

    So much for the Christian music connection.

    Josh Marshaoo is quoted as saying, “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.”

    Two things seem relevant here. First, Huckabee’s “vertical,” as he explains it, is not particularly religous or Christian in its appeal.

    Second, I have no temptation to suspect that Huckabee’s politics are “God’s politics.” Clearly they are not consistent with the political views ascribed to Jesus in the gospels. Huckabee contradictorily claims to be pro-life while supporting continuing the War on Iraq and the Death Penalty. So much for the peacemaker role lauded in the Sermon on the Mount. He advocates tax policies that favor the rich over the middle class, contrary to the numerous criticisms of the rich in Jesus’ comments, as well as in the preaching of the prophets in the Jewish Scriptures. His immigration stance is directly contrary to the commandments in Leviticus, that were emphasized by the prophets, and endorsed by Jesus in his remarks about our treatment of “strangers” (i.e., aliens) in Matthew 25. He seems blithly ignorant of the fact that the sin for which Sodom was destroyed was the intended abuse by the leading citizens of the two aliens (angels) who came to visit Lot. Abuse of aliens–a refusal to treat them just like one’s fellow citizenw–is a key criticism (of Sodom, of Israel, and of Judah) that warranted destruction of a city or country in the Scriptures that Huckabee purported preached from. His politics are not the politics of those Scriptures.


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