In Washington a few years ago, the city was decorated with party animals. In this political town, the animals were elephants and donkeys. Artists, schoolchildren and almost everyone with a talented paintbrush decorated the animals with motifs of their choice: national monuments and heroes, flowers and fauna, or simply swirls of abstract color.
We had donated a sculpture in the front yard to a museum and wanted something to fill the empty space, so when the animals were put up for auction we bid on an elephant. The one we liked was silver with hundreds of nails embedded in its hide, like whiskers, reminiscent of an African custom where guests leave a hammered nail in front of the house they visit as a sign that they were there. We named our elephant Spike.
Today, Spike is decorated with tiny white light bulbs heralding the holiday season. Strollers often stop to photograph it, and some of them think it's a Republican symbol. Others see it as "nailing" the Republican Party. But the reason we bought an elephant instead of a donkey has nothing to do with politics. Dr. Freud would understand that sometimes an elephant is just an elephant.
I was thinking about the meaning of symbols this holiday season when controversy exploded over Mike Huckabee's Christmas commercial, with its "floating cross." While many insisted that the symbol was merely an illusion created by crossed lines of a bookshelf, others said the meaning of the cross was in the eye of the beholder. But nothing is ever coincidental in a candidate's campaign commercial. Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal writes that it insulted her intelligence: "He thinks I'm dim. He thinks I will associate my savior with his candidacy. Bleh." For many who aren't Christians, it played as pandering to a constituency and manipulating a religious symbol. Many voters in Iowa are evangelical Christians, the caucuses are only days away and the commercial is regarded as the most memorable so far.
Mike Huckabee says he wants his party to be "inclusive" and he has been compared to William Jennings Bryan, a devout Christian who ran for president against William McKinley in 1896. That year, he was more politician than preacher. It wasn't until he lost his second election to William McKinley in 1900 that preaching took precedent over politics. After that, he thought politics had hurt his Christian witness and he went on the Chautauqua circuit with thousands of lectures -- actually sermons -- casting Darwin as the root of all evil. Like Mike Huckabee after him, he wasn't persuaded by the theory of evolution. Christianity, he insisted, was needed to combat the immorality that rose from all that monkey business.
No one -- well, not everyone -- objects to faith informing a candidate's politics. It's impossible to separate faith from intellect in the pursuit of public good. But there's more than a suggestion that Mike Huckabee's use of religion could unleash intolerance against those who do not share his faith. He has a lot of good things going for him. He's witty and charming. As one of the Iowa locals told The New York Times: "Huckabee's a moral man. He's a preacher. And he lost a hundred pounds. He's going to do all right in Iowa. What I don't know is how he's going to go with the rest of the country." Maybe he should channel William Jennings Bryan.