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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.

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It wasn't until his first trip out of Arkansas as a 16-year-old that Huckabee realized that not everyone acknowledged Jesus as their personal savior.

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"I assumed that everyone had faith in the church, lived the same value system. It was shocking to me to find out that I was living in a very protected and different kind of a world," he said in the interview.

Huckabee graduated from Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia in just over two years, magna cum laude. At the same time, he worked on-air at local radio station KVRC and pastored a Baptist congregation on weekends. "He had a great sense of humor that came out on the radio, in his sermons, and in the dorm room with the guys," says college roommate Rick Caldwell, who is on leave from his business to work with the Huckabee campaign.

In college, Huckabee began a lifelong practice of reading a chapter in Proverbs every day. "There are 31 chapters, and you can read through the whole book every month. It's a great source of wisdom and principles of life that are very valuable," he says. That's not just a casual goal, notes his wife, Janet. "If it's the 22nd of the month, he's on Chapter 22."

After attending Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth for a year, Huckabee moved to Dallas to be director of communications for James Robison, an evangelical leader who helped broker Evangelicals' support for Ronald Reagan's presidential bid in 1980.

By the time Huckabee returned to Arkansas in 1980 to preach at the Immanuel Baptist Church in Pine Bluff, he was a skilled communicator. At age 21, Huckabee was directing a faith-based advertising agency, including producing television programs. He set up a 24-hour broadcast ministry and, by 1984, was hosting a TV show. When he moved to the Beech Street First Baptist Church in Texarkana, he did the same.

"If the medium for moving public policy is television, then understand that TV is the field of play and learn to run on it," he writes in his 2007 book "Character Makes a Difference."

In 1989, he was elected president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention at a time of deep division over issues such as the role of women in family and church. Conservatives say Huckabee did not do enough to help them in this struggle. Supporters say he tried to bring sides together. "Mike's whole personality is one of conciliator," says Rick Scarborough, a pastor who heads Vision America and was Huckabee's classmate at seminary.

His stint as head of the Baptist State Convention also gave him wider recognition and contacts to launch a statewide political organization.

Huckabee credits his 12 years in the ministry with helping him understand the issues facing average people. "As a pastor, I've seen every step of a person's life from cradle to grave. None of it is abstract to me, and I've seen it all," he says.

But over time, he lost some of his early idealism in the ministry. Instead of "leading God's troops into battle to change the world," most people seemed to want me "to captain the Love Boat, making sure everyone was having a good time," he writes in his 2007 book. "I wasn't bitter or angry; I just wanted my life to count for something more than being an ordained cruise director."

Commenting on that passage, Huckabee said in an e-mail: "I didn't leave the ministry, as I am still ordained. The good news is that churches have been changing over the past 15 years – with not only a continuing and proper focus on eternal issues but also involved in confronting hunger, poverty, disease, lack of education, housing, stewardship of the earth, etc. That is a good trend that is taking hold in the most conservative and evangelical churches."

A new calling