Huckabee's experience as pastor an asset in presidential race


Published: Saturday, January 26, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 25, 2008 at 6:43 p.m.

Mike Huckabee learned how to be a politician in church.

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Mike Huckabee sitting on the university cafeteria steps in an image that appeared in the 1974 edition of The Ouachitonian, the yearbook of Ouachita Baptist University.

The Associated Press

As pastor at Immanuel Baptist in Pine Bluff, he visited the home of every member. Years later, he could recall their names.

He learned how to raise money, even in struggling congregations.

And in a statewide fight over Baptist leadership, he confronted powerful opponents and won. He called it "some of the most intense hardball politics I have ever seen.''

As a Republican presidential candidate, Huckabee's remarkable balancing act - firing up both Bible-believers and the less religious - can be traced to his style of preaching. On the pulpit, he delivered unwaveringly traditional sermons with wit instead of fury. The result was a broad appeal.

But the former Arkansas governor, who won the Iowa GOP caucuses, had a disappointing second-place finish behind Sen. John McCain in South Carolina last Saturday and has trimmed his campaign spending.

Still, he can't be counted out yet. Huckabee has a track record of finding resources where others see none.

In the 1980s, he discovered that Immanuel Baptist had years before pledged $10,000 to Ouachita Baptist University, the flagship Arkansas Baptist college and his alma mater (pronounced WASH-ih-taw), but never made the donation. This was no wealthy church, yet Huckabee persuaded congregants they had a moral duty to raise the funds, so they did.

In the GOP presidential race, he has shown that without much money, he can inspire grass-roots networks of conservative Christians - in Iowa and elsewhere - to turn out the vote.

"There's a political savvy that Baptist preachers who made it big in the Southern Baptist Convention learned from their mother's womb,'' said Bill Leonard, a former Southern Baptist seminary professor and dean of Wake Forest University Divinity School in North Carolina. "It's an instinct to know how to read populist moments and movements.''

Huckabee, 51, grew up in Hope at a time when Arkansans planned their year around the fall and spring religious revivals and summer meant Vacation Bible School. Baptists argued over which of their churches was more obedient to Scripture. Fundamentalism was strong.

Huckabee called his childhood church "somewhat legalistic.'' He was taught that being faithful meant following rules and separating from people who disagreed. But he decided as a teenager that he needed more than a list of restrictions to support his beliefs.

"One of the few things I detest more than liberalism is legalism,'' he wrote in his book, "Character Makes A Difference.'' "It's really a set of do's and don'ts that allow someone to judge whether others are good people or good Christians.''

That decision brought him out into a wider world, where he learned how to relate to people of different backgrounds and outlooks - an essential skill for both preachers and politicians.

He enrolled in 1973 in Ouachita Baptist University, a private liberal arts school in Arkadelphia. The small campus of red-brick buildings surrounding an open green sits on the banks of the Ouachita River. The chapel is in a historic building of the more than 100-year-old school and still plays an important role in campus life. But Despite its Baptist ties, the college was hardly monolithic.

Its 1,500 students were split between "saints and sinners'' - with future ministers often keeping to themselves, said Daniel R. Grant, who was Ouachita's president at the time. Huckabee was among those on track for the pastorate. He majored in religion, married at age 18 and moved off-campus, working as a "preacher boy,'' or student pastor. But, unlike his fellow clergy candidates, he was also a disc jockey and played rock 'n roll bass guitar.

"I think he enjoyed cutting across lines,'' said Grant, who had recruited Huckabee to the college for his speaking skills. "He was certainly not in the mode of conservative preacher.''

At Immanuel Baptist, his first major assignment, he made members feel welcome the same way great politicians do: by visiting with them - in this case at home - and remembering their names.

When he returned to mark the church's 90th anniversary in 2001, he has already been Arkansas governor for about five years. But "he remembered something about everyone,'' said Delma Parnell, a longtime church member. "He loved people,'' she said. "He spoke to every child.''

The populist message at the core of his presidential campaign can be found in his old sermons.

In 1984 at Immanuel Baptist, he preached about leading a revival where worshippers rejoiced as prominent members of the community - an attorney, a businessman - accepted Jesus. He said he was heartbroken that people overlooked a young mentally retarded woman who also came forward.

"She always came alone and left alone. And to all outward appearances, nobody really cared,'' he said. "But God made a very big announcement that night. Although she may sit in that pew by herself, he loved her.''

In a separate sermon, he said Jonah resisted God's command that he preach to the wicked people of Nineveh because "he was afraid they would repent and he would have to call them brothers.''

"May I say to you that is exactly the nature of any kind of prejudice - be it religious prejudice or racial prejudice or social prejudice,'' Huckabee said. "Have you ever heard anyone say, 'We don't want that type of child in our church?''' But his big-tent approach has left him vulnerable to detractors - in Southern Baptist and GOP circles - who say he's not conservative enough. Facing those critics has provided some of his toughest political lessons, making him a resilient campaigner.

In 1989, for instance, national Southern Baptist leaders wanted the next president of the Arkansas Baptists to sign on to their fierce purge of any moderate or liberal thinking in seminaries and churches. They backed the Rev. Ronnie Floyd, now of Springdale.

Arkansas Baptists felt they were plenty conservative and didn't want to be told who should lead them. They recruited Huckabee to run against Floyd. Huckabee said he was no moderate; he just didn't want the "political machine'' of the Southern Baptist Convention telling him or any Baptist how they should act, said the Rev. Don Moore of Little Rock, who was executive director of the Arkansas Baptist Convention for 13 years.

Huckabee won, and now Floyd is endorsing the former governor in the Republican presidential race.

"A president has to be the president of all the people,'' Floyd said, "and I believe he can do that.''

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