The Religion of Mike Huckabee

Religion promises to be a major issue in the long campaign of 2008. At the moment, it simmers just beneath the surface, but make no mistake, it is there.

Mitt Romney's Mormon affiliation now commands the most attention. Romney has repeatedly affirmed his commitment to his faith and his church -- his family has long been part of the establishment of the Church of Latter-Day Saints. As Republicans do, he has vigorously courted his party's base of conservative, Christian folks, and he has accommodated them with a 180-degree turn from positions he held as governor of Massachusetts. He now, conveniently, opposes abortion and gay rights.

Romney nonetheless has a "religion problem." Some Christians regard Mormonism outside the pale; some regard it as a "cult," with all the sinister implications that word carries. Media questions and his slide in the polls are apparently prompting his planned speech on Thursday to address concerns about his religion.

Yet, curiously, Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas Governor and ordained Baptist minister, has raised few concerns about his religious beliefs and practices -- or much else for that matter. The media seems to have designated him as its favored "underdog," so the little-known Huckabee has, until now, escaped serious parsing of his career and his words. Everyone loves a man always ready with a witty quip. When asked "what would Jesus do," the applause meter in the debate hall went off the charts when Huckabee replied, "Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office" -- an artful dodge to a serious question on the death sentence.

Huckabee is likable and genial -- a classic good old boy -- famous for shedding 110 pounds, surely making him an object of admiration and envy. Well, not for all: his remark that losing such weight was like living in a concentration camp, backfired.

Huckabee fashions himself as the best Christian, and hence, the best moralist on the block of candidates. Aside from his eight years as governor, he spent his life deeply involved in religious and church affairs. He firmly believes in Biblical infallibility -- which makes him reject evolution. He began his public religious career as a staffer for James Robison, a prominent televangelist, who has stated that Huckabee's "convictions shape his character and his character will shape his policies." Undoubtedly.

Today's Southern Baptists have rejected traditional Baptist faith, tracing back to Roger Williams in the 17th century, avowing a firm separation of church and state. Williams well-knew European experiences and that the "wilderness" of the state corrupted the "garden" of the church. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, who led the drive for the First Amendment's command on separation of church and state and the promise of the free exercise of religion, flipped Williams's conclusion -- as they feared the corrupting effects of a religiously-dominated state. The thread from Williams through the making of the Constitution is that the state must maintain neutrality toward religion, and separation was the proper means. In a pluralist society, no other alternative is thinkable.

How will Huckabee, the ordained minister, and the self-styled "Christian" candidate (where does this leave all the others?) balance his sectarian religious beliefs with his obligation to maintain the neutrality of government, as required by the Constitution? Chris Matthews pitched a soft-ball question when he asked the former governor his opinion of the Constitution's requirement that no religious tests be imposed as a qualification for public office. Huckabee deflected the question with a smile and a firm declaration, "I have no problem with that."

First Amendment questions would have been more appropriate: Does he support government-required prayers and bible-reading in the public schools? Should the government fund faith-based and faith-run social programs?

Huckabee deserves serious, probing questions. It is inadequate to merely label him as the man of and for social conservatives. Do we learn anything -- have we ever learned what "compassionate conservatism" means? Huckabee must be scrutinized closely, for example, on his views of government's relation to science, his "flat tax" notions (they are "well-researched," he says -- but by whom?), and his proposed abolition of the Internal Revenue Service. They will not be resolved with geniality and wit.

Huckabee is a man of One True Faith. So, too, was the late Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, but he also understood American history and the elegance of pluralism. "From the standpoint of both history and of contemporary social reality," Father Murray wrote, "the only tenable position is that the religious sentences of the First Amendment are not articles of faith but articles of peace."

Nineteenth century sectarian conflicts confirmed the desirability of governmental neutrality in religion to preserve social peace. Today some Americans believe and act as if the First Amendment's religion commands are a barrier to social harmony. Religious ideas and leaders need not be excluded from political debate and public policymaking, but the dividing line -- that "wall of separation" -- has a clear and powerful historical meaning, and must be affirmed.

Huckabee deserves questions about our traditional guarantee of separation of church and state, and the free exercise of beliefs. We must expect him to understand and respect the history that underlies our social complexity, and makes America, America.

Stanley Kutler is the author of The Wars of Watergate.