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.
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."
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.
"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
Huckabee launched his career in politics with a race against three-term US Sen. Dale Bumpers (D) in 1992. To his surprise, he lost. "He felt that God wanted him to run for the Senate. I, too, felt that that was what he was supposed to do," says his wife, Janet, in an interview. "We didn't have a Plan B" when he lost, she adds. "But you can't second guess something when you think you've done the right thing. You have to make the decision and have peace about it. That's where your faith comes in."
But after then-Governor Clinton won the White House, Huckabee had another shot at politics. He won a special election to replace Lt. Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, and after then-Governor Tucker was convicted of conspiracy and mail fraud in 1996, Huckabee moved into the governor's mansion. He was elected to a four-year term in 1998, and reelected in 2002.
One of his first moves as governor was to review state laws, rules, and practices with an eye to their impact on families. He signed legislation to double the child-care tax credit, protect the rights of parents to home-school their children, eliminate the marriage penalty in the tax code, outlaw same-sex marriage, and require parental consent for abortion. He also launched a program to provide health insurance to more than 70,000 children, ARKids First.
He says the answer to America's healthcare crisis is preventing chronic disease, rather than finding a way to pay for it. He often cites his own example. In grade school, he was asked to bring a symbol of his faith to a show-and-tell on religion. One student brought a crucifix, another brought a menorah. "I brought a casserole in a covered dish," he says.
Since 2000, he's lost more than 100 pounds and has started running marathons. "Of my many motivations to move toward a concept of forever fit, the primary one is faith," he writes in his 2005 book "Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork."
Faith also played a role in Huckabee's response to hurricane Katrina. As 70,000 evacuees were gathering on planes and buses, Huckabee summoned faith leaders to the governor's mansion. Within 24 hours, volunteers in church camps across the state were prepared to accept busloads of displaced people. Huckabee told state officials and volunteers to treat people the way they would want to be treated if they showed up on someone else's doorstep with just the clothes on their back.
"His real leadership came in the way he communicated it to everybody," says Chris Pyle, Huckabee's speechwriter and former director of family policy. "He said: We are going to meet their needs and figure how to pay for it later."
But conservative critics say that as governor, Huckabee was too ready to spend for social issues and didn't focus enough on curbing spending and taxes.
"He's got a preacher's mentality. He sees all these needs and he thinks it's the role of the federal government to meet them," says former GOP state Rep. Randy Minton.
In fact, Huckabee says some of his tax increases were mandated by the courts to properly fund Arkansas schools. On the campaign trail, he proposes "scrapping the 177,000-page federal tax code," including the IRS, in favor of a national sales tax. To make the tax more progressive, people below the poverty level would receive monthly checks.
He's also come under fire for too readily commuting the sentences of felons and proposing in-tuition and scholarships for illegal immigrants.
"I think in his heart he really believes that he's for the underdog. Like a lot of people in the state, he grew up in rather meager means," says former GOP state Sen. Peggy Jeffries. "But if you believe in the rule of law, then illegal means illegal."
The key to leadership, Huckabee says, isn't to govern on a left-to-right ideological scale. "Vertical leadership is when you are leading people on the basis of things that will directly impact their lives," he says. Put in the terms of his faith: It's the Golden Rule in action.
"I do not spell G.O.D. ... G.O.P. Our party may be important, but our principles are even more important than anybody's political party," Huckabee said to values voters last month.