Presidential contender Mike Huckabee, an ordained preacher in the Southern Baptist Convention, adores its theology. Born-again Jimmy Carter deplores it. Carter severed Southern Baptist ties in which he was raised because some leaders snarled like roaring lions at other Christians. Recruiting former president Bill Clinton, another Southern Baptist, Carter has cobbled together a coalition of Christians disgruntled with a denomination that keeps women in their place, strictly behind their men.
Carter plans to draw 20,000 in 2008 to a party celebrating what unites Baptists. Attendees in Atlanta won’t harp on Southern Baptist dogma. “We hope… to emphasize the common commitments that bind us together rather than to concentrate on the divisive issues that separate us,” Jimmy Carter emphasizes. “There’s too much of an image in the Baptist world and among non-Christians, that the main, permeating characteristic of Christian groups is animosity toward one another, and an absence of ability to co-operate in a spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood.”
Some Southern Baptist ministers I’ve known in 35 years of ordained ministry get miffed when their cover is exposed. They like to project a more upbeat, congenial image than the judgmental profile the Southern Baptist Convention projects. They are secretive about who holds their clergy credentials. Southern Baptists shout ‘anathema’ on theological differences, causing some of these clergy to squirm. So, they burrow underground, burying their ordained identity so deeply no one figures out they are Southern Baptist.
In contrast Mike Huckabee capitalizes on his Southern Baptist preacher’s identity. He doesn’t cotton to what Carter desires from his Baptist coalition. What Huckabee excels at is openly admitting he is a Southern Baptist without slipping into caricatures of how a minister in his tradition acts. He’s a charming guitar strummin’, Bible quotin’, populist spoutin’ preacher for whom evangelicals vote.
Must Southern Baptist preachers act countrified?
When Pentecostal preacher and TV titan Pat Robertson ran for president in 1988, he covered his barbed comments by pretending he was a countrified Southern good ole boy. It’s what made the hamlet of Mayberry on TV so popular. Sheriff Andy Griffith sported a down home grin. His slightly oafish sidekick Barney Fife was habitually lovable. Boy Opie seemed delightfully simple. And Aunt Bee swarmed around them, stinging the local yokels with rules to make them purer.
Huckabee doesn’t display this image. He’s witty, possesses Reaganesque charm on camera and makes the guy next door feel he’s found a buddy. Mike doesn’t sound like a cornball hick-from-the-sticks that the Grand Ole Opry hypes.
Must Southern Baptist preachers act like crusaders?
Huckabee formerly served as fiery Texas televangelist James Robison’s public relations guru. Mike knows how to manipulate the media. Whereas Robison punched the lights out of his opponents and spied the Devil around every corner, Huckabee fights evil wearing velvet gloves. He doesn’t slash and burn to achieve victory. As an engaging storyteller, his magnetic smile moves along his agenda.
Political pundit Kimberley Strassel for the Wall Street Journal (December 7, 2007) crisply describes why Huckabee grows on listeners. “Mr. Huckabee is the charismatic candidate. Like another man from Hope, Ark., the one-time pastor is an extraordinary speaker. He’s self-deprecating and funny, has perfect timing, and never struggles for an answer,” observes Strassel. “He has that rare ability to pull out just the right story in response to any situation, and to deliver it in a folksy, Southern way.”
Huckabee managed to exchange Crisco for Christ. This led him to lose 110 pounds. At forty years, too many chicken suppers at churches had ballooned his weight to 300 pounds on a 5-foot-11 frame. But Mike hasn’t achieved similar success, as he did with weight loss, ditching Southern Baptist anti-intellectual beliefs.
Huckabee admired the late Jerry Falwell whose son Jerry Jr. endorsed his candidacy. He moves in lockstep with the theology that drove the Moral Majority. What is the bedrock upon which this theology is built? Huckabee affirms the Baptist Faith and Message credo: “The Holy Bible … has truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy.”
Such bald literalism forces Southern Baptists to defend a young earth of 6000 years, teach Creationism and deny most of what Darwin discovered. They force literalism on biblical passages about End times, too. Huckabee is an unabashed premillenial evangelical, which means he sides with Israel against the Palestinians and believes what’s happening in the Middle East is predicted in the Bible.
If I spoke with Huckabee, I’d claim scripture is its best interpreter. What happened at the dawn of creation? “The morning stars sang together…” (Job 38:7) What can we expect when history’s final chapter is written? The book of Revelation pictures saints singing.
We can’t fully understand Mozart’s compositions. Still, we rejoice in his majestic music. Similarly, we reflect on the Beginning and anticipate the End without using literal explanation. God has accomplished at creation what we can’t fathom. He will do in the future what we can’t predict. If Huckabee learned this score, he’d be singing a new tune, a harmonious melody shared with other Christians. Sadly, he’s stuck on an off-key rendition of Southern Baptist theology.
The Reverend Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the non-profit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries, enhancing Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores.