By Joanna Weiss, Globe Staff
Mike Huckabee's new "Merry Christmas" ad is drawing cheers from Christian bloggers, consternation from advocates of church-state separation, and a fair amount of fascination from all sides: Today, the Internet buzzed with speculation about whether a bookshelf, prominently featured in the background, represented a subliminal "floating cross."
Conspiracy theories aside, the ad has gained attention for what it represents: a deliberate, pointed salvo in a Republican primary campaign that has increasingly hinged on religion. The implied message, observers say, seems to be twofold: that there's one important religion, and one candidate who represents it best.
Asked about the ad on Fox News Channel today, Ron Paul, a rival for the Republican nomination, gave a harsh off-the-cuff assessment. He quoted Sinclair Lewis saying that ‘‘when fascism comes to this country, it will be wrapped in the flag, carrying a cross,’’ then went on to tweak Huckabee for ‘‘using a cross like he is the only Christian, or implying that subtly.’’
Huckabee stood by the ad. ‘‘If we are so politically correct in this country that a person can’t say enough of the nonsense with the political attack ads could we pause for a few days and say Merry Christmas to each other then we’re really, really in trouble as a country,’’ he said while campaigning yesterday in Houston, the Associated Press reported.
He also dismissed speculation about the bookshelf. ‘‘I will confess this: If you play the spot backwards it says, ‘Paul is dead. Paul is dead,’ ’’ he said, a joking reference to the urban legend about the Beatles’ ‘‘White Album.’’
If Huckabee is indeed trying to lay claim to the Christian faith, his ad — clearly aimed at evangelical conservatives — seems a not-so-subtle contrast with Mitt Romney, Huckabee’s chief rival in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses. As Huckabee’s profile and poll numbers rose in recent weeks, his frequent references to religion — and to his background as an ordained minister — prompted Romney to deliver a long-awaited speech about the role of faith in public life, in which he asserted that religion had a role in the public square.
But Romney, well aware of some voters’ mistrust of Mormonism, was careful to talk about the value of all religions.
Huckabee, by contrast, has been specific, said Barry Lynn, executive director of the advocacy group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. "Jesus and Mike Huckabee are both products being sold by this commercial. And I don’t see how anyone could view it otherwise," Lynn said.
The ad is part of a striking rise in religious rhetoric during this campaign, he said. Talk of faith also extends to the Democratic side, he said, from Barack Obama's references to "a kingdom right here on Earth" to Hillary Clinton's references to times that she has prayed.
"I've never seen such a religion-drenched primary on both the Democratic and Republican sides," Lynn said.