Pulpit Was the Springboard for Huckabee’s Rise

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In addition to this article, click here for today’s (12/6) BBC profile of Governor Huckabee. It’s an interesting and informative read.

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By JODI KANTOR and DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK

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 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,” Huckabee recalled of those early days.

Now 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

Mike Huckabee often returns to the pulpitas a Presidential candidate

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.

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, planned to take on Thursday in a speech about his Mormonism.

As a preacher and a politician, 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,” 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.”

Huckabee was born in Hope, Arkansas, 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, Arkansas, 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, Huckabee later told his secretary, he crammed on issues of Reader’s Digest magazine.

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

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, Arkansas, 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, 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, barn-like auditorium, putting in pews with comfortable padding and more leg room, a stained-glass window he designed himself and a sound system designed by the engineers who had wired the Houston Astrodome.

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 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 – Huckabee gave the local editorial page editor his own slot – and the show that would become Huckabee’s signature.

Huckabee created a television program, “Positive Alternatives” for his church audience in Pine Bluff, Ark.

Sunday evenings were a depressing time for people, 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. 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. The first statewide job 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.

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.

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

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 Reverend Pat Robertson had run for president four years before, a local pastor running for Senate was something else entirely.

Huckabee ran largely on social issues, opposing abortion and same-sex marriage and 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; Huckabee was badly beaten. By the next year, when 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, Huckabee inherited the governorship from Jim Guy Tucker, who resigned after a financial scandal. Huckabee said then, as he does now, that his ministry prepared him for office by showing him firsthand the toughest issues that citizens face, issues as varied as bankruptcy and teenage pregnancy.

Today, in the closing weeks before the Iowa caucus, 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 theological issues in political debates (displaying his TV-trained ability to speak in exact 45-second segments) and cites Scripture on the campaign trail.

The real difference between religious and political leadership, 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.

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