Last Friday, Gov. Mike Huckabee missed his best chance to be the next president of the United States.
He spoke at a “grassroots training conference” organized by the Center for Reclaiming America for Christ, a group that is serious about its mission.
“This is our land,” wrote the Center’s founder, D. James Kennedy. “This is our world. This is our heritage, and with God’s help, we shall reclaim this nation for Jesus Christ. And no power on earth can stop us.” He thinks the separation of church and state is a “lie” spread by Thomas Jefferson. You can imagine what he thinks about abortion, homosexuals, evolution and American popular culture.
When Huckabee addressed the conference, he said that “Christianity is not represented ‘nearly enough’ in Washington,” according to the Associated Press.
That’s just what you would expect him to say, and it’s just what the audience wanted to hear. And that’s why Huckabee will never be president.
In 1992, another Arkansas governor was running for president. A lot of people said Bill Clinton was just another tax-and-spend, knee-jerk liberal along the lines of Michael Dukakis.
Then he had his “Sister Souljah” moment.
Speaking in front of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coaliton, Clinton made a point of condemning remarks that Sister Souljah, a popular rap artist, had just made at the same gathering. She had asked, “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” Clinton declared that her words were “filled with hatred” and perpetuated an unproductive cycle of “pointing the finger at one another across racial lines.”
The fact that Clinton had the guts to confront a group that was accustomed to deference earned him credibility with voters who questioned his moderate credentials. And based on his record, no one seriously doubted his commitment to civil rights, so he didn’t lose much support as a result. It was subsequently regarded as a brilliant move that solidified his hold on the Democratic nomination for president.
Huckabee had the exact same opportunity last weekend. As a Baptist minister who genuinely exhibits his faith and has incorporated it into some of his public policy, Huckabee can’t do much more to increase his appeal to the Christian right. In fact, pundits already say that the hardcore religious conservatives will go to either Huckabee or Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, and everyone thought Huckabee outperformed Brownback at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Memphis a few weeks ago.
But Huckabee needs to improve his standing among more mainstream Republicans, because in the Memphis straw poll he substantially trailed four other possible candidates, all of whom are far less reliable Christian soldiers.
Furthermore, there are signs that religious conservatives are splintering, and therefore may lose their dominant position in the Republican Party. An article in the current edition of Washington Monthly says that 41 percent of evangelical voters are moderate on many key issues, and one evangelical leader said he “wanted to connect with politicians who could deliver on a broader array of evangelical concerns, like protecting programs to help the poor, supporting public education, and expanding health care.” But he’s working with Democrats now, because he feels shunned by the intolerant, all-or-nothing approach on the other side.
Then there is the new book by Kevin Phillips, the man who almost 40 years ago conceived the Republican ascendance and who went on to be a key strategist for Presidents Nixon and Reagan. In “American Theocracy,” Phillips is disturbed by what one reviewer described as “ ‘Christian Reconstructionists’ who believe in a ‘Taliban-like’ reversal of women’s rights, who describe the separation of church and state as a ‘myth’ and who call openly for a theocratic government shaped by Christian doctrine.”
Knowing this, the last thing mainstream Republicans like Phillips want to hear is that “Christianity is not represented ‘nearly enough’ in Washington” — especially from a predictable Christian conservative like Huckabee.
Huckabee should have used the Reclaiming America for Christ forum to challenge his audience to exhibit a kinder, gentler brand of Christianity. He could have told Kennedy’s followers to think about their religion in terms of the Christian principles of tolerance, peace and love, which would mean changing the focus from what Christians want for themselves to what they can do for others. And by pointing out the worthy initiatives he led as governor to improve education, health care and aid to the poor, he would appeal to moderates while redefining what it means to be a Christian conservative.
Sort of like when he opposed state Sen. Jim Holt’s heartless attempt to deny social services to illegal immigrants. “I drink a different kind of Jesus juice,” Huckabee explained.
Too bad he didn’t draw a similar distinction last week. He missed his Christian Souljah moment.