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Pulpit was springboard for Huckabee’s rise

Mike Huckabee is running for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, his campaign shaped by his two decades as an evangelical pastor and broadcaster.
/ Source: The New York Times

In August 1980, as the conservative Christian movement was first transforming American politics, Ronald Reagan stood before a Dallas stadium full of 15,000 foot-stomping, hand-clapping evangelicals and pledged his fealty to the Bible. “All the complex and horrendous questions confronting us at home and worldwide have their answer in that single book,” said Mr. Reagan, the Republican presidential nominee.

Assisting with logistics for the event was a young seminary dropout named Mike Huckabee. “It was the genesis for the whole movement,” Mr. Huckabee recalled of those early days.

Now Mr. Huckabee is running for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, his campaign shaped by his two decades as an evangelical pastor and broadcaster. While he says he is running based on his career in the Arkansas governor’s mansion, not the pulpit, he has grounded his views on issues like abortion and immigration in Scripture, rallied members of the clergy for support, benefited from the anti-Mormon sentiment dogging a political rival and relied on the down-to-earth style he honed in the pulpit to help catapult him in the polls.

Mr. Huckabee risks scorn from secular voters for defending the biblical creation story against Darwin, but faces accusations from some fellow Christians that he is soft on a range of issues, including liberal thinking in his own denomination. His candidacy has renewed the debate over the place of religion in public life, an issue Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who is also a Republican presidential contender, will take on in a speech on Thursday about his Mormonism.

As a preacher and a politician, Mr. Huckabee said in an interview, he has pursued the same goal: improving lives. “For me it was never an either or,” he said of his dual careers. “The realm you do it in is less important than that you do it.”

And winning souls trained him to win votes.

“There are four basic things to succeed in either politics or the pastorate,” Mr. Huckabee said. “You have to have a message. Secondly, you have to motivate volunteers. You have to be able to understand and work with all types of medium to get your message out,” he continued, “and you’ve got to raise money.”

Mr. Huckabee was born in Hope, Ark., and from the start, he was hungry to try more than one career: politics (he participated in the same teenage civic program that had stoked the ambition of another native son, Bill Clinton, 10 years earlier), radio (he did his first broadcast at 11), and religion (he delivered his first sermon at 15 and pastored a church three years later).

After graduating from Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark., he enrolled at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas but dropped out after a year to work for James Robison, a fiery television evangelist. To make himself sound more knowledgeable, Mr. Huckabee later told his secretary, he crammed on issues of Reader’s Digest.

Mr. Huckabee served as Mr. Robison’s announcer, advance man and public relations representative, drumming up attendance and coverage for his prayer meetings and appearing on broadcasts. (The organization was based near Dallas, which is how Mr. Huckabee came to work on the 1980 Reagan rally). Mr. Robison could be harsh — he yelled in the pulpit and referred to gay people as perverts — but Mr. Huckabee was a genial ambassador; behind the scenes, he was known for his dead-on impersonations of Christian celebrities like Billy Graham.

Mr. Huckabee wanted to return to his home state, and he wanted his own church. He had been filling in as pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church in Pine Bluff, a dwindling congregation in a small city stuffed with churches. When he signed on full time, members figured Immanuel would be able to hang on for another 5 or 10 years before disbanding.

“Everyone thought I was crazy” to take the job, Mr. Huckabee said.

He told the congregation that he planned to put the church — and himself — on television. Then he persuaded his incredulous flock to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to renovate the dingy, barnlike auditorium, putting in pews with comfortable padding and more leg room, a stained-glass window he designed himself and a sound system from the engineers who had wired the Houston Astrodome.

Low-power TV station
Drawn by the new space, a 26-year-old pastor who loved rock ’n’ roll and the advertisements he had placed on bus shelters, young families began to arrive. But Mr. Huckabee wanted a wider audience. Soon he had a low-power television station on the air, which made him the proprietor and star of not just the only Christian broadcast in town, but the only local broadcast, period. It made him pastor “for all of Pine Bluff,” said Garey Scott, then the youth minister.

In addition to worship services, the station offered community programs — Mr. Huckabee gave the local editorial page editor his own slot — and the show that would become Mr. Huckabee’s signature.

Sunday evenings were a depressing time for people, Mr. Huckabee had noticed. And Pine Bluff usually made the Little Rock news only for car accidents or crime. His antidote was “Positive Alternatives,” a Sunday-night talk show full of can-do community uplift. Mr. Huckabee interviewed local heroes, fellow pastors, leaders of charities, even accountants who offered advice on filling out tax forms.

After six years, he moved to Beech Street First Baptist Church in Texarkana, another city without its own television affiliate. He refurbished an old Winnebago with broadcast equipment and became the town’s all-purpose newscaster, covering local election returns, weather and high school football games, where he would intersperse his commentary with a word or two of Scripture. He also trademarked the name “Positive Alternatives” and took the show with him.

Mr. Huckabee fulfilled standard pastoral duties — preaching, visiting the sick, taking members to build restrooms for a church that still had outhouses. But as his status as a religious and civic celebrity grew, he conducted revivals all over the state and worked as a motivational speaker for businesses.

“He was speaking 23 nights a month,” recalled Bruce Rodntick, former music minister of Immanuel.

The first statewide job Mr. Huckabee ran for was a church office. In 1989, while at the Beech Street Church, he was nominated for the presidency of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention.

The election quickly became a battleground in a larger political and theological civil war over the future of the denomination. Southern Baptists had historically leaned Democratic in politics and celebrated local autonomy in theology. But in the 1980s, conservatives concerned that liberal ideas about the Bible and the family were creeping into the denomination’s institutions fought state-by-state to purge any unorthodox theology or liberal politics, ultimately transforming the Southern Baptist Convention into a mainstay of the Republican Party.

The race was “far more political than anything else I’ve ever been involved in,” Mr. Huckabee recalled. The leaders of the conservative takeover tapped the Rev. Ronnie Floyd, a stalwart of their movement, as their candidate.

“They were not sure Mike was committed enough,” Mr. Floyd said.

Emphasis on tolerance, inclusiveness
Mr. Huckabee, who won by a 2-to-1 ratio, carried the flag for the so-called moderates, arguing that the Arkansas Baptists were amply orthodox. Although Mr. Floyd and Mr. Huckabee both now say they shared the same conservative theological convictions, Mr. Huckabee’s emphasis on tolerance and inclusiveness rallied opponents of the turn to the right.

“Huckabee was on the wrong side,” said Paul M. Weyrich, a founding organizer of the conservative movement. “That has caused more people to get off of Huckabee than you can imagine. With me, it’s a deal breaker.” (Mr. Weyrich recently endorsed Mr. Romney, Mr. Huckabee’s leading rival in the Iowa Republican caucuses.)

The president’s post was largely ceremonial. But it gave Mr. Huckabee considerable exposure — a fifth of Arkansans are Baptists — and experience as a peacemaker in his denomination’s internal battles.

Mr. Huckabee was “true to his deeply felt principles without being abrasive or strident or confrontational,” said Hal Bass, a professor at Ouachita Baptist University, and a self-described moderate. “It’s not like he pulled his punches, but he didn’t pick fights either,” Mr. Bass said.

In the sermon he delivered as outgoing president, Mr. Huckabee showed some impatience with the smallness of church life, a yearning for a larger platform. “It’s an unhealthy sign when church people are more interested in how we spend $25 of church money than in where an 11-year-old spends eternity,” he said, deploring “ministerial minutia.” He also cautioned against evangelical isolationism: “We cannot change the world if we refuse to participate in the institutions of society that dictate its direction.”

'Worldly' politics
But when he announced he was giving up his ministry for a 1992 Senate run, many of his confidants, as well as Baptists across the state, were shocked. He had not hinted about his ambitions. And while the Rev. Pat Robertson had run for president four years before, a local pastor running for Senate was something else entirely.

“Politics were worldly as opposed to Christian pursuits,” said Charles Barnette, a member of the Texarkana congregation, explaining the discomfort.

Some followers were surprised that he was running as a Republican. Mr. Huckabee told them the Republican Party was “just one vehicle to the goal of getting into office,” Mr. Barnette said.

In his recent book “From Hope to Higher Ground” (Center Street), Mr. Huckabee recounted the decision. Running for office was a childhood dream he had abandoned when he became a pastor, but he later felt pulled into political life, he said. “The purpose for being on earth is not our personal comfort but to strive to make the world better for our children,” he wrote.

At the same time, the Arkansas Republican Party, perpetually weak, “was very open and looking for nontraditional candidates,” said Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark. A pastor with a statewide network and polished communication skills was a perfect conscript.

Mr. Huckabee ran largely on social issues like abortion, portraying his opponent, Senator Dale Bumpers, a Democrat who was virtually an Arkansas institution, as a pornographer because he supported the National Endowment for the Arts. But attacking the popular veteran backfired; Mr. Huckabee was badly beaten. By the next year, when Mr. Huckabee ran for lieutenant governor in a special election, he sounded more like the conservative populist he is today, talking about caring for the elderly and other ways government could improve people’s lives.

In 1996, Mr. Huckabee inherited the governorship from Jim Guy Tucker, who resigned after a financial scandal. Mr. Huckabee said then, as he does now, that his ministry prepared him for office by showing him firsthand the toughest issues that citizens face, as varied as bankruptcy and teenage pregnancy.

As governor, he seemed like “a charitable Christian,” said Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas — not an antigovernment conservative, but one who felt that institutions could improve the lives of the underprivileged, especially when it came to immigration and health care.

Mr. Huckabee never abandoned his stances on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, but his efforts on these issues seemed more show than substance, some observers say.

“Typically in a legislative session he would put forward a primarily symbolic social issue for the session: a “choose life” license plate, for instance, Mr. Barth said. The bill would pass, social conservatives would be satisfied, and the governor would be free to do the health care and education work he was becoming increasingly passionate about.

Tight race with Romney in Iowa
Today, in the closing weeks before the Iowa caucus, Mr. Huckabee is energetically selling his religious credentials, saying voters should pick a candidate who speaks “the language of Zion” as a “mother tongue,” and running television commercials flashing the words “Christian Leader.” He talks eagerly about theology issues in political debates (displaying his TV-trained ability to speak in exact 45-second segments) and cites Scripture on the trail.

In Iowa, where he and Mr. Romney are locked in a tight race, Mr. Huckabee has capitalized on conservative Christian animosity toward Mormons, pointedly refusing to dispute the common evangelical characterization of Mormonism as a cult.

Some moderates balk at Mr. Huckabee’s repeated defense of creationism and suggestion that it should be taught along with evolution in public schools. “Huckabee will have to address his commitment to real science,” said Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

Some other Christian conservatives have accused Mr. Huckabee of encouraging lawbreaking by supporting government social services for illegal immigrants. Mr. Huckabee defends himself on religious terms. He talks of a Bible-based injunction to care for illegal immigrants, just as he points to biblical admonitions to minister to the sick and protect the environment.

He says his agenda reflects his own growth and that of fellow evangelicals since the era of the Dallas rally.

“There is a maturing of Christian involvement in politics in this generation,” he said. “Christians have been historically known as being associated with two issues: sanctity of life and traditional marriage,” he said, but are increasingly concerned with poverty, the environment and health.

The real difference between religious and political leadership, Mr. Huckabee said in the interview, is in the way others treat him. Both kinds of leaders must live on pedestals, he said. But “in a pastoral situation, they have you there and they want to keep you there. They don’t want you to fall because then you fall with them.”

In politics, he said, “They’re trying to knock you off every single day.”

Michael Luo contributed reporting and Kitty Bennett contributed research.