Huck the Baptist

When you’re running for the GOP presidential nomination and you’re attracting criticism from conservatives Bob Novak and Peggy Noonan while attracting accolades from liberal E.J. Dionne, you have a problem. When the conservative blogosphere that’s hungering for an authentic conservative to rally around doesn’t rally around you, you have a problem. And the problem isn’t that the GOP establishment hates your religion. The problem isn’t that the conservative blogosphere hates your religion. The problem is that your policy history is outside the GOP mainstream and your instincts have turned out on close inspection to be problematic.

Speaking for myself, I’m a Southern Baptist who remembers a fairly bitter intra-denominational fight that occurred during the 1980s. I was in one of the conservative churches, and that’s where I try to stay these days. According to Novak, Huckabee was on the other side in that fight.

The warmth in Texas and hostility in California reflects the dual personality of the pastor-politician who has broken out of the presidential campaign’s second tier. Huckabee can come across as either a Reagan or a Nixon. More than personality explains why not all his Baptist brethren have signed on the dotted line for Huckabee. He did not join the “conservative resurgence” that successfully rebelled against liberals in the Southern Baptist Convention a generation ago.

The liberals at that time (they actually called themselves “moderates”) wanted to take the Southern Baptist Convention in the direction of the mainline churches that were a) renouncing basic doctrine and b) no longer growing. The liberals lost that fight and the SBC has remained doctrinally conservative ever since. If they had won, the SBC today would sound much more like the Archbishop of Canterbury than it does, and that wouldn’t be good. Our churches would be ineffective and mostly empty, instead of the SBC being the largest and most vibrant of the Protestant denominations. To the extent that Huckabee was involved in that argument, he was on the side of those who favored the expediency of “modernizing” the SBC’s core doctrines over the principle of sticking to established beliefs. He was on the wrong side.

That’s all too much inside baseball if you’re not in the SBC, but I tossed it out there just to note that, speaking for myself, I don’t oppose Huckabee’s religion at all. He and I belong to the same denomination. I do oppose his history and politics now, though, and I think he has what is basically a liberal’s worldview when it comes to the government’s role in private life. His admission that he’s not familiar with the 40-odd year hostility between the US and Cuba was a tell that he’s very inexperienced on foreign policy. Whatever you think of the embargo, knowing that the US and Cuba aren’t friends is Foreign Policy 101, and Huck chucked on that. And contrast Huckabee’s know-nothing response with Fred Thompson’s great response to Michael Moore regarding Cuba’s health care system. Fred had obviously thought about Cuba policy for a quite a while. Huckabee obviously hadn’t.

Huckabee also favors nanny state policies. I don’t trust government power. Huckabee does. His support for a national smoking ban was the tip-off to me that he trusts government power much more than I do, and his history on immigration and clemencies suggests that he’ll put his religious thinking above his duties to carry out the laws of the land. That’s a problem. And it really is a problem that’s unique to him in this race at this point. I don’t see the same problem with anyone else in the race, though I do see problems with all of the other candidates.

Some of this history is beyond Huckabee’s ability to influence. I’ve thought about this quite a bit since Huckabee’s rise because I was naturally predisposed to like him and support him. Like him I do; support him I don’t. The fact is, of the past five presidents (which happen to be the ones I remember), three have described themselves as evangelicals, and two of those three (Carter and Clinton) have described themselves as Southern Baptists. Those two were in my opinion the worst two (and obviously in Clinton’s case, the faith was more of convenience than anything else). Carter was self-righteous and a terrible leader, and has become a terrible human being since the voters rejected him in 1980. Clinton was irresponsible and much more interested in posing than doing, and he happened to be a shameless liar. Bush 43 has taken the domestic side of the GOP in directions that Huckabee would extend, not retract, and that’s not good for the health of the country or the party. Bush 41 wasn’t overtly religious, and also wasn’t terribly consequential. Good man, led a valiant effort in the Gulf in 1991, didn’t screw up other things too badly but he raised taxes and that killed him. The best of the five was inarguably Reagan, and he was neither evangelical nor particularly religious. He believed, of that I have no doubt. He just didn’t make a big show of it. And all he did was resurrect flagging American national pride, unleash our economic power, bring down the Soviet Union and so on and so forth.

While I would prefer that a president share my faith, it’s not a make or break issue with me. I look at issues, I look at history, I look at instincts and I look for little tells like that national smoking ban (or in Rudy’s case, for instance, the tendency to personal scandal, or in Romney’s case, the tendency to flip-flop, with McCain it’s a whole bunch of stuff, and don’t get me started on Paul). I look at faith plus other things, and it’s the other things about Huckabee that I can’t get past. It’s not so much any one policy as the instincts that I see in him that I find troubling. It’s certainly not his religion. I’m fine with the Christmas ad and I’m fine with his faith. I’m just not fine with him.