Cover Story

The pastor populist

Campaign 2008 | Southern governor + folksy flare + ability to connect = proven presidential prospect. Mike Huckabee puts a new twist on an old formula

Issue: "Marathon man," Feb. 17, 2007

WASHINGTON, D.C.- John Kennedy in 1960 and John Kerry in 2004 both pledged not to let their Catholic standing affect their policy decisions. Reporters this year are pushing Mitt Romney regarding his Mormon beliefs. But Mike Huckabee, the former Baptist pastor and Arkansas governor who now seeks the GOP presidential nomination, says he is "appalled" when candidates separate their religion from their policy positions.

"At the heart of my governing is my faith," Huckabee told WORLD on Jan. 26, the morning before he announced on Meet the Press that he was setting up a committee for a run to the White House. And what of those who say beliefs do not affect governing? "That says to me a person's faith is so inconsequential that [he] can marginalize and compartmentalize it."

Huckabee has not compartmentalized. Now 51 years old, he graduated from Ouachita Baptist University, pastored two churches in Arkansas, became president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, and governed his state for 10 years beginning in 1996. He said during our interview three blocks from the White House that moving from pastor to politician was the "easiest transition possible." He even rolled through the similarities in four-point alliteration usable in a sermon outline: "It all starts with message . . . you have to motivate people . . . use all kinds of media . . . and it takes money."

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National reporters have largely refrained from zeroing in on Huckabee's theology so far, but he has received hefty publicity for becoming born-again physically. Diagnosed with Type II diabetes in 2003 and told his abundant heft threatened his heart, Huckabee lost 110 pounds and became so fit that he ran and completed the Little Rock, Marine Corps, and New York Marathons in 2005 and 2006. His own story is now part of his political pitch: Individuals can eat less, exercise more, and in the process reduce health-care costs that are threatening personal and national budgets.

But the tools of his governing style, Huckabee says, never were a knife and a fork. They were and are the words of Jesus: "I govern with two pillars: 'do unto others as you would have them do unto you,' and 'as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'" Politicians often quote such gospel words but rarely apply them. Huckabee, asked to apply these principles to three of the most divisive issues of the day, offered pointed parables:

On immigration, he told how he had just flown to Washington from the Little Rock airport where the security guards know who he is-but he still had to take the coins from his pocket and the shoes from his feet "as if I was wearing a turban on my head and went by the name of Abdul." Huckabee said he and other Americans don't object to that process, and they want immigrants to be required also to enter through an orderly process rather than a porous border: That's why a border barrier is essential. When that's in place a reasoned debate about entry can begin, because it's clear that we "only have so many seats on the airplane."

Huckabee wants those already in the United States illegally to go through a process that provides opportunity but also contains some sort of penalty for illegal activity: His religious analogy is that "one needs to confess his sin, repent, and make restitution." He said he supports something like the guest worker system President Bush has proposed, but he's wary of the guest worker term because people are equating it with an amnesty for illegals, and "I'm not for amnesty."

On foreign affairs, he told a folksy story about how every neighborhood has a kid who's the strongest, the fastest, the best-but if he acts like he knows it, he reminds others of what they aren't, and they long for the day when he fails. If that kid, though, pats others on the back and doesn't lord it over them, "everyone in the neighborhood loves that kid." Huckabee's point again is "do unto others . . . humility goes a long way. The stronger a person or a country is, the more care needs to be taken." It's "critically important never to humiliate someone else," but other countries now see the United States as the arrogant big kid.

That can readily sound like Peanuts foreign policy, but Huckabee went on to speak about the need to involve in an Iraq settlement predominantly Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt with a vested interest in the region's stability. He emphasized the need for realism that sometimes forces the United States to work with the unsavory: "Russia was not our natural ally during World War II, but better to have them on our side than on the enemy's." He was also emphatic in his support for Israel on public policy rather than eschatological grounds: "Israel is our most significant ally in the Middle East . . . [with a] shared sense of democracy."


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