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Mike Huckabee: a conservative with a social gospel

The former Arkansas governor and ordained Baptist minister speaks the language of Christian Evangelicals on social issues, but his concern for the poor means he's willing to spend more than fiscal conservatives would like.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 7, 2007



Washington

The first time Mike Huckabee walked into the Church at Rock Creek, then meeting in a storefront, he knew he'd found a church home.

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There was no lack of Southern Baptist churches for Arkansas's new governor to attend in Little Rock. But Mr. Huckabee, an ordained minister-turned-politician, liked the people he met at the fledgling church – many coming off addictions or otherwise rebuilding their lives, none wearing a suit and tie.

"This is a church that was created for the people that no one else wants," says Huckabee, in a Monitor interview. Its motto is: Taking Jesus as he is to people as they are.

Now in a race for the GOP presidential nomination, Huckabee is shaping his come-from-behind campaign on the same principle that grew the Church at Rock Creek from a few dozen people in 1996 to more than 5,000 today: Every life has value – and don't count anyone out.

"We care about individuals because of the intrinsic worth and value in every single human life," he says often on the campaign trail.

It's the central theme in his campaign on issues ranging from abortion rights, which he opposes, to healthcare for poor children, which he promoted as governor. But it's opened him to charges that he is not a "consistent conservative," because he's willing to tax and spend on issues like education and healthcare to meet those needs.

Until recently, Huckabee has been consigned to a second tier by most political handicappers – and is typically given less airtime in debates than the front-runners. But he's winning converts, especially among so-called values voters, by his ease and agility on the stump.

If elected, Huckabee would be only the second preacher president, after James Garfield. He senses that could be an obstacle. "Anytime you have been a person who was identified as a pastor and you've got a seminary education and theology degree, people tend to worry about you," Huckabee told the Values Voter Summit in Washington last month.

He heads off the issue with a story: "When I first started running for office, a lady asked me, 'Are you one of those narrow-minded Baptist ministers who think only Baptists will go to heaven?'" He replies, "Actually I'm more narrow than that. I don't think all the Baptists are going to make it."

His appeal prompts comparisons with another politician from Hope, Ark. Bill Clinton went off to Georgetown University, Yale Law School, and Oxford University. But Huckabee sank deep roots in the evangelical culture of the New South – and the vast Christian communications networks that shot up around it.

As a Southern Baptist, Huckabee grew up in a culture of moral absolutes, where issues such as the "inerrancy of the Bible" and the changing role of women stirred strong passions and hard sermons. Moreover, he came of age just as evangelical Christians began an alliance with the Republican Party.

Huckabee, who saw it all close up, would later take the connections and communications skills he honed in church life straight into politics.

The roots of faith

Huckabee was born in Hope, Ark., in 1955. His father, Dorsey, was a local fireman and a mechanic on his days off. His mother Mae's family was "one generation away from dirt floors and outdoor toilets," Huckabee says.

Like many families in town, his parents struggled to pay the rent, but encouraged him to do well in school. From Grade 2 on, he read every biography he could find. He learned to make lists – now one of many daily disciplines. In spare moments, he got a chuckle from classmates with impersonations of John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. (Friends say he still does a spot-on Clinton.)

On his 11th Christmas, his parents gave him an electric guitar, which he practiced until his fingers bled. That guitar is now Exhibit A in his case for funding for the arts in public schools. Schools shouldn't just fund kids who run fast, jump high, or throw a ball, he said, as he became chairman of the Education Commission of the States in 2004. "It is critical to touch the talent of every kid, no matter what that talent is."

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