January 07, 2008

More on spatial orientations in religion and politics

Following up on Saturday's post about whether Mike Huckabee's theme of vertical vs. horizontal politics is a coded "dog-whistle" message to evangelical Christians ("Vertical", 1/5/2008), several readers have sent in links to discussions on both sides of the argument.

Kevin Drum quoted Josh Marshall, and then added this:

David Domke, co-author of The God Strategy: How Religion Became A Political Weapon in America, says "vertical" is unquestionably an example of dog whistle politics: "Conservative evangelicals often talk about the need to prioritize their vertical relationships with God first and foremost before worrying about horizontal relationships among people. It's the individualized 'get right with God' approach of conservative Protestantism....I've been present a number of times when "vertical" rhetoric — the exact word — has been used in evangelical circles. It's indeed a way of speaking one hears in many churches, part of the faith vocabulary of the evangelical and fundamentalist subculture."

On the other hand, Mark Kleiman wrote:

Really, the quotation doesn't seem like much of a puzzle to me, in light of this passage from Huckabee's victory speech last night:

Americans are looking for a change. But what they want is a change that starts with a challenge to those of us who were given this sacred trust of office so that we recognize that our challenge is to bring this country back together, to make Americans, once again, more proud to be Americans than just to be Democrats or Republicans, to be more concerned about going up instead of just going to the left or to the right.

And he added this specifically with respect to the dog-whistle idea:

Josh and his readers claim to hear in Huckabee's "vertical" reference a "dog-whistle" appeal to evangelicals, for whom "vertical thinking" means thinking oriented toward God. But this hardly fits the canonical "dog-whistle" episode where some coded meaning is hidden in an otherwise incomprehensible expression (e.g., references the Dred Scott decision as a coded way of signaling a desire to bring fetuses under the protection of the 5th and 14th Amendments).

If you worship any of the versions of the Sky-God from Ouranos onward, "up" means, among other things, toward Heaven. But the root metaphor is even more universal than that; "higher = better" is among Lakoff's "embodied metaphors," built into the way our bodies confront the world. When Ezra Klein says that Obama's rhetoric is designed to "elevate" the listener — or for that matter when a property appraiser inquires into a parcel's "best and highest use" or an organization chart puts the CEO at the top of the page — they're not reciting secret code-words; they're just employing a universally comprehensible image.

If there's anything more dangerous than treating your opponents as boobs, it's imagining them as engaged in dark rituals.

David Kuo, "Getting 'vertical' with Jesus and Huck", 1/7/2008, ridicules the dog-whistle theory from the evangelical side:

I'm sitting here in my office with two other evangelicals and we are racking our evangelicals brains and consulting our evangelical dictionary and playing our Amy Grant music backwards and we have no idea how "vertical" could be a call out to evangelicals.

Vertical? Huh?

Heaven is a shout out. Faith is good. Rapture works. City on a hill. Get saved. Born again. But vertical?


It really is Huckabee trying to define a new way of talking about politics.

James Joyner agrees in rejecting the "dog whistle" interpretation ("Mike Huckabee's Vertical Politics", 1/5/2008), arguing instead that "This is classic Third Way politics, à la Bill Clinton and Tony Blair". He quote Karl at Protein Wisdom ("Fear and Loathing at TPM", 1/5/2008):

Huckabee is a candidate who put the phrase “CHRISTIAN LEADER” in capital letters in his campaign ad as he talks about how his faith “defines me.” It does not seem as though Huckabee is trying to reach fundamentalist Christians under the radar with dog whistles or subliminal crosses. His appeals are quite blatant, yet a segment of the Left has some need to look for some secret plan.

Karl also observes that Barack Obama uses similar metaphors, e.g.

... the TPM crowd seems to be missing that Barack Obama talks about ending “the political strategy that’s been all about division, and instead make it about addition” and says his Iowa win was “the moment when we finally beat back the policies of fear and doubts and cynicism, the politics where we tear each other down instead of lifting this country up.”

The person who has not missed it is Mike Huckabee, who noted the similarity of their rhetoric on The Tonight Show before the Iowa caucuses.

On the other hand, Andrew Sullivan ("'You Obey The Orders'", 1/7/2008) cites a sermon that Huckabee preached yesterday in New Hampshire (Perry Bacon Jr., "Huckabee Steps Back Into the Pulpit at Evangelical Church in N.H.", Washington Post, 1/7/2008) as evidence for the dog-whistle interpretation:

Huckabee relates the key prudential principle of Christianism. Yes: it's vertical. When addressing what a polity needs, you just need to ask God. And then we obey. At least now no one will hide it. This dog whistle is loud and public and audible by anyone:

"When we become believers, it's as if we have signed up to be part of God's Army, to be soldiers for Christ... When you give yourself to Christ, some relationships have to go. It's no longer your life; you've signed it over."

In fairness, though, there's no evidence in Bacon's story that Huckabee used the word "vertical" in his sermon, just that he thinks of religion in military terms.

A Huckabee supporter blogging at Just Crazy Politics! wrote that

In the same way the use of sugar was a useful method of getting children to swallow polio vaccine, I think Mike Huckabee is being very shrewd when he talks about what he calls "Vertical Politics." One such recent quote comes from his appearance on Jay Leno's Tonight Show:
"Everything in this country is not left, right, liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican. I think the country is looking for somebody who's vertical, who's thinking, let's take America up and not down. And people will forgive you for being left or right"
[emphasis original]

It's clear that there are several different metaphors available here.

In political space, there's the traditional dimension of left-to-right -- onto which a considerable number of independent and distinct dimensions are traditionally projected -- and then there's the idea of ignoring the left-right axis and thinking about a new dimension, call it "up" vs. "down". "Up" then is taken to mean towards a better economy and a better society. This is very much in tune with the "third way" metaphor of recent center-left politicians like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

In religious space -- among other spatial-dimension metaphors -- there's the idea that relations to other people are "horizontal", and so therefore are human concerns in general, while relations to God are "vertical". These specific terms seem to be fairly widespread among certain American Christian denominations, as represented by the magazine Vertical Thought.

All of the Huckabee verticalities that I've seen have explicitly been of the political sort. Since he doesn't shy away from directly expressing the religious aspects of his views, I have to agree with Mark Kleiman and others that explaining Huckabee's verticality theme as a coded religious message seems unnecessary. However, the notion that vertical politics is God-oriented politics certainly resonates with Huckabee's own beliefs, and it's clear that some of his supporters interpret the message in that way.

When I look at the many instances of "vertical" the mikehuckabee.com web site, I see that the candidate and his team are consistent in using the word to mean "orthogonal to left vs. right, and in a positive direction". For example, his post on "Vertical Politics":

Everywhere I go on the campaign trail, I meet voters with a real thirst for a healthy discussion of the issues. Ultimately, people don't care whether an issue comes from the left or the right. What they want to talk about are ideas that lift America up and make us better. It's what I call "Vertical Politics" and it is why we felt it was so important to set a "Vertical Day" aside to focus on the issues.

And "About vertical day":

Ultimately, people don't care about whether an issue comes from the left or the right, what they want to hear about is an idea that lifts America up and makes us better. It's what I call Vertical Politics.

Some of supporters' comment echo this perspective:

I'm so very glad to hear you speak about "vertical politics"! Americans really need to be looking at the whole picture and not just left and right or conservative and liberal...Our country seems so separated, and it's good to hear a candidate talk about bringing us together, instead of pulling us further apart.

But there are also many comments from supporters on the site that construe "vertical" as "oriented toward God". Here are a couple:

May you be blessed mightily as you continue your firm vertical stance of being a man under God as is this one nation.


In the late 1940's the Nuremberg Trials took place. These trials put the hench men from Germany's reich on trial. During that trial the former judges were tried and thier aurgument consistanly mentioned that they were "just following the law of the land" and that is why these terrible judges allowed terrible acts to take place during the killings of its own people... THEN the prosecuting attorney hammered back at these ruthless judges whom allowed these terrible acts with a wonderful "TRUTH" when he shocked them with: "IS THERE NOT A LAW ABOVE OUR LAWS?" (reffering to God's Law) To which they were silenced. Your VERTICAL POLITICS DAY is a wonderful idea lest we foget the mistakes other have made by only looking horizontally.

Others are ambiguous on whether vertical means "oriented towards God", or "orthogonal to left-vs.-right", or both:

Maybe they really do fear Mike as an opponent more than others because they know he is an anointed leader and the people are hungry for vertical politics. I believe 2008 will be a turning point for this nation that will change the course of history for the world. Praise God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit!


Thank you for reminding us of the kind of optimism and faith that makes our country great. Thank you for your vertical politics....I am ready for someone to take us up as a nation before God.

Underlining how flexible the metaphor of horizontal/vertical politcs can be, a quick web search for the French translation politique verticale turns up two radically different interpretations (neither of which has any connection with the current American presidential campaign):

(link) ... le développement d'une politique verticale visant à encourager la participation des jeunes, la liberté de création, la divulgation de l'information ...

... the development of a vertical politics aiming to encourage the participation of young people, the freedom to create, the release of information  ...

(link) ... l'idée d'un mouvement plus grand, plus à l'écoute et moins sectaire qui peut séduire au-delà du cercle restreint des partisans habituels.
Et c'est exactement ce que propose Ségolène, en refusant une politique verticale où l'élu déciderait de tout. ...

... the idea of a larger movement, more attentive and less sectarian, which can appeal beyond the limited circle of usual partisans. And this is exactly what Segolene [Royal] proposes, in rejecting a vertical politics where the elected officials decide everything. ...


[Hat tip: Victor Steinbok, Robert James Hargrave, anonymous others]

[Note: I originally translated l'élu ("the chosen ones") as "the elite", but a reader pointed out that it should be "the elected [officials]". I believe that élu is also used in a religious sense, both for "chosen people" and for "elect" (in the sense of elect vs. preterite).]

[Update -- Daniel Radosh (" What Huckabee's Music Sounds Like When You Play It Backwards"):

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.

Radosh also cites this from Governor Huckabee's recent book, Character Makes a Difference:

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.


[Update 1/17/2008 -- Grace Reynolds writes:

In reading your regarding Huckabee's vertical politics, something else came to mind that I thought I'd share. While the evangelical connections drawn in the article you posted certainly seem to make sense, I've noticed the use of the word vertical in other places lately. For example, a winery may host a "vertical Cabernet tasting," which basically just means that if you attend you'll taste and compare Cabernets from many different vintages. Before a few years ago, I don't remember hearing the word "vertical" used to describe wines made in successive years (time is usually talked about as linear, isn't it?). I've noticed this used in wine and culinary terms as well beginning about 5 years ago or so. I think "vertical" may be a new buzzword. It does sound kind of cool, after all.

Well, there's also "vertical integration", "vertical markets", and "vertical blinds"...]

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 7, 2008 10:19 PM