Huckabee’s role in SBC conflict presaged political balancing act

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Posted: 1/21/08

Huckabee’s role in SBC conflict
presaged political balancing act

By Robert Marus

Associated Baptist Press

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (ABP)—Mike Huckabee’s role in the holy war that divided the Southern Baptist Convention was as delicate a balancing act as the one he’s attempting now in his presidential campaign, balancing grassroots populism and right-wing conservatism.

Moreover, Huckabee’s nuanced role in denominational politics may have something to do with why the former Arkansas governor, despite earning a grassroots following among conservative evangelicals in early primaries, has failed to garner clear support from the Religious Right’s powerbrokers.

Mike Huckabee, shown as a young pastor and as governor of Arkansas speaking to Baptist newspaper editors in 1998. (Right photo by Jim Veneman)

Before entering secular politics, Huckabee served as a highly successful and charismatic pastor. His leadership in reviving two struggling congregations catapulted him to the presidency of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, by far the state’s largest religious group.

But Huckabee’s 1989-91 leadership of Arkansas Baptists came at the height of the struggle between theological moderates and ultraconservatives for control of the SBC, the nation’s largest Protestant body. After 1991, it became clear that the conservatives had won—at least on the national level. But Huckabee won his first presidency with the support of Baptist moderates.

“He was the moderates’ candidate, (but) I wouldn’t say he was considered a moderate,” said Hal Bass, a professor of political science at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark. Bass is a longtime Baptist lay leader who considers himself a moderate.

In the 1989 battle for the Arkansas state convention’s presidency, Huckabee ran against Ronnie Floyd, pastor of a megachurch in the Northwest Arkansas city of Springdale. It was one of the most hyped elections in the group’s history. Floyd had the support of the SBC’s fundamentalist machine, which by then was well on its way to victory on the national level and in many of the other state conventions.

But Huckabee, by all accounts, declined to do the bidding of the fundamentalist party— and beat Floyd handily. However, by all accounts, he was theologically very conservative. In fact, he has since preached in the Springdale church as Floyd’s guest, and Floyd recently endorsed Huckabee’s presidential campaign.

“Certainly, he wasn’t in the trenches fighting on behalf of the conservative resurgence,” Bass said, using the term most often employed by fundamentalist Southern Baptists to denote the struggle. “That wasn’t who he was. That wasn’t the fight he wanted to make.”

Huckabee ran for denominational office using rhetoric that has found an echo in his current presidential campaign, Bass observed. “He is a conservative but isn’t angry about it,” he said.

Greg Kirksey, currently Huckabee’s pastor at the Church at Rock Creek in Little Rock, noted that Huckabee has repeatedly described himself that way on the national campaign trail.

“Even though that’s a great line and sounds like it’s something cute to say, that really is a very accurate summation of” Huckabee’s beliefs, both theological and political, he said. Kirksey is himself a former Arkansas Baptist president, and similarly was elected to that office with the support of moderates.

Bass said the way the candidate governed Arkansas to some extent backs up such rhetoric.

“If you look back at who Huckabee was as a candidate in Arkansas, it wasn’t all this ‘Christian leader’ stuff,” he said, referring to a caption in a television commercial Huckabee ran in Iowa prior to winning that state’s Republican caucus. “He governed much more as a pragmatist, not as an ideologue.”

Although Huckabee appealed strongly to Christian conservatives in his first foray into secular politics—he attempted unsuccessfully to unseat longtime Senator Dale Bumpers in 1992—he toned down such rhetoric for his next race. In 1993, he won a special election for the lieutenant governorship, eventually becoming governor.

As governor, Huckabee devoted much of his political capital with the Democrat-dominated legislature to passing educational reforms and improvements to the state’s infrastructure and social services. While he opposes abortion and expanding gay rights, he spent little time on legislative efforts tied to those issues.

“It seems to me that Huckabee shares with the Religious Right powerbrokers a profound social conservatism,” Bass said.

More recently Huckabee pleased SBC conservatives by withdrawing as a keynote speaker for the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant, a historic gathering of 10,000 to 20,000 centrist and progressive Baptists in Atlanta Jan. 30-Feb. 1. One of the few Republicans on the original program, Huckabee said he canceled in protest of recent remarks by organizer Jimmy Carter—remarks SBC conservatives said were anti-Israel.

Nonetheless, Huckabee has not created a groundswell of support among evangelicalism’s powerbrokers the way he has its grass roots. While Religious Right leaders have not spoken out publicly against Huckabee, the most influential have also simply not said much to boost him.

Only a handful of prominent SBC leaders have come out in Huckabee’s favor as well. While churches and non-profit religious institutions are not allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates, a handful of Southern Baptist pastors and leaders have offered personal endorsements of their colleague. Among them are former pastor and denominational executive Jimmy Draper and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary President Danny Akin.

Perhaps the most obvious omission in Huckabee’s crowd of supporters is Richard Land, the head of the SBC’s social-concerns agency and a conservative veteran of the denomination’s struggle. While he has, in the recent past, spoken glowingly of former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson and negatively of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, Land has had little to say about his fellow Southern Baptist’s candidacy.

Attempts to reach Huckabee campaign officials, in the midst of primary-state campaigning, were unsuccessful. However, in a December New York Times Magazine profile, Huckabee expressed frustration over Land’s reluctance.

“Richard Land swoons for Fred Thompson,” he said. “I don’t know what that’s about. For reasons I don’t fully understand, some of these Washington-based people forget why they are there. They make ‘electability’ their criterion. But I am a true soldier for the cause. If my own abandon me on the battlefield, it will have a chilling effect.”

Paul Pressler, a retired Texas judge who is one of the two acknowledged masterminds of the fundamentalist battle plan to wrest the SBC from moderates’ control, has also endorsed Thompson.

Privately, some close to Huckabee and familiar with Southern Baptist politics say that leaders like Land and Pressler simply don’t trust him because he refused to be a loyal foot-soldier during the SBC wars.

Bass said they may have other reasons. “I think he differs from them primarily along the economic front, and I think that reflects some socio-economic factors among the two groups,” he said.

“From my perspective, the SBC reps at the elite level, at the top level, have kind of ridden the wave of rising affluence among Baptists in the South,” Bass said, because many of them represent large, wealthy suburban congregations full of professionals. Huckabee’s last two churches—in Pine Bluff and Texarkana, Ark.—were in depressed parts of one of the nation’s poorest states.

Huckabee himself has touted his roots among the working poor and has embraced populist-style economic rhetoric on the campaign trail. “It strikes me that Huckabee’s roots are much more socio-economically with the blue-collar,” Bass said.

Land and other prominent evangelical leaders may also have other reasons for failing to get behind Huckabee, Bass added.

“It seems to me that … to the extent that Huckabee succeeds among evangelicals as he has so far, he’s very much risked becoming a niche candidate that could conceivably marginalize that evangelical constituency within the Republican Party,” he said. “He could prove to be a divisive force within the traditional Republican coalition. And maybe, just maybe, guys like Land could see that.”

Evangelical leaders who act as intermediaries to non-evangelical politicians could be threatened by one of their own actually becoming a nominee or president, Bass added.

“Richard Land has … status in Republican-coalition circles because it’s presumed he speaks for at least a strong element of Southern Baptists,” he said. “If Mike Huckabee is leading the Republican Party, Richard Land doesn’t have the same clout as if he’s speaking to a Ronald Reagan or a George Bush.”

Land, through an assistant, said he was unable to be interviewed by press time for this story.

Kirksey speculated that some non-Arkansans may simply not know his parishioner well enough.

“I think he was perceived by those who don’t know him outside the state as somebody who must be liberal, somebody who must be the enemy. And the reason I think why Mike beat Ronnie (Floyd) so bad in Arkansas was because people in Arkansas knew he wasn’t some kind of flaming liberal,” he said.

“He fought for a lot of the social issues that we use to identify a person as a conservative,” Kirksey added. “But he has a huge heart of compassion.”

Huckabee has continued to soft-pedal some of his theological conservatism on the secular campaign trail. At a recent GOP debate, he was asked about his public support of a 1998 amendment to the SBC’s doctrinal statement that called for wives to “graciously submit” to their husbands’ leadership.

The former governor responded by first saying that, for anybody who was familiar with his wife, “I don’t think they for one minute think that she’s going to just sit by and let me do whatever I want to. That would be an absolute total misunderstanding of Janet Huckabee.”

But then he gave a theological context for the amendment that, to many observers, appeared as if he were in favor of wives and husbands submitting mutually to each other. “As wives submit themselves to the husbands, the husbands also submit themselves, and it’s not a matter of one being somehow superior over the other. It’s both mutually showing their affection and submission as unto the Lord.”

However, the SBC messengers who approved the amendment explicitly rejected a moderate-backed motion that would have called for such mutual submission.

A Jan. 11 story in Baptist Press, the SBC-controlled denominational news service, interpreted Huckabee’s debate comments as supporting Southern Baptist conservatives’ view of the Scripture passage on which the statement was based. In that interpretation, Ephesians 5:22 calls wives to submit themselves to their husbands and husbands to submit themselves to Christ.

Bill Leonard, a Baptist historian and moderate veteran of the SBC wars, said Huckabee has danced along the conservative-moderate line before. Even though he was the moderate candidate for the Arkansas Baptist presidency in 1989, Leonard noted, he had dropped out of seminary years before to work for Texas evangelist James Robison. Prior to having a change of heart long after Huckabee left his employ, Robison was a rhetorical bomb-thrower for SBC conservatives.

“In some ways he reflects the old SBC—the pastor who wants to have it both ways, who wants to be conservative, but wants to hedge his bets with the principalities and powers of denominational leadership,” said Leonard, the dean of Wake Forest University Divinity School. “So, unlike clear-cut liberal/moderates or clear-cut conservatives/fundamentalists, Huckabee is the politician, even then, who wants to have it both ways. Or, in his words I’m sure, to ‘bridge both groups.’"

Kirksey took a brighter view of Huckabee’s role. Noting that his friend and church member had a close relationship with the late conservative evangelical leader Jerry Falwell, he also said Huckabee shares a broader social agenda with a new generation of Christian leaders like California pastor Rick Warren.

“That’s the neat thing about Mike—he can be a close friend with a Jerry Falwell, and he can be a close friend with somebody extreme on the other side,” he said. “I think the practice of his faith is more in line with the Rick Warren approach. It’s a ministry-driven kind of faith that’s concerned with making a difference in people’s lives.

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