c. 2007 Religion News Service
WASHINGTON _ Years after he left the pulpit of Beech Street First Baptist Church in Texarkana, Ark., then-Gov. Mike Huckabee would pick up the phone with a pastoral touch.
“He found out when my mom and dad died,” recalled Roger Booth, an electronics distributor and lifelong member of the Southern Baptist church. “He called and expressed his condolences, and his wife came to their funerals. … It tells me that he’s still the same Mike now as he was when people didn’t know who he was.”
Huckabee, though often called a “second-tier” candidate, has at least one characteristic that stands out from the rest of the GOP pack: He’s been a pastor who preached for 12 years in Arkansas pulpits.
“I think it’s the greatest preparation that a person can have for public service,” he said in an interview last month after speaking to the National Rifle Association.
Working with congregations has helped him understand people of various ages and situations, he said.
“There’s not any social pathology that I couldn’t put a name and a face to,” said Huckabee, 52. “Somebody says they want to talk about the issue of the elderly, I’ve dealt with those folks. I’ve dealt with a 14-year-old girl who’s pregnant and hasn’t told her parents yet. I’ve talked to the young couple who’s head over heels in debt. … I think it gives you a real perspective about people and what they’re going through that’s important.”
Former congregants at Beech Street recall Huckabee as a pastor who’d be there when a member’s house burned down or a child was ready to be baptized. They also remember his sense of humor and his uncanny mimics of Jim Nabors’ Gomer Pyle character and evangelist Billy Graham.
While at Beech Street from 1986 to 1992, Huckabee became the youngest president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, which helped him think about switching from the pulpit to politics.
His longtime friend, Pastor David Uth, the leader of First Baptist Church of Orlando, Fla., remembers how Huckabee worked to calm differences between conservative and moderate Baptists in Arkansas. While some feared a split, Uth said Huckabee suggested he could meet with dissenters in a Waffle House booth and have room for more.
Uth and others point out that the pastorate highlighted a presidential prerequisite in Huckabee _ being a good communicator.
“The command he has of the language and of articulating his thoughts in a humorous way but also in a very effective way _ he did that … when he was pastoring a small church,” Uth said.
But some admit that it wasn’t easy seeing him transfer from pastor to politician in 1992, when Huckabee ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate. He was elected lieutenant governor in 1993, and then served two full terms as governor.
“I struggled with it somewhat, but then I also understood that if anyone knew the call that God had in their life, it was Mike,” said Burns Barr, who directs KLFI, an independent TV station that Huckabee founded 20 years ago at the Texarkana church.
“He knew that better than anybody, that God was calling him to continue in that direction.”
Huckabee said he still misses his congregants, but he views his move to politics as an extension of what he’s done before: “It is in itself a ministry.”
The candidate doesn’t shy away from connections with his faith and his conservative Christian viewpoints on the campaign trail.
In a June dialogue with reporters at the Washington-based Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, he called his first full-time pastorate in the 1980s at Immanuel Baptist Church in Pine Bluff, Ark., “the most wonderful six years of my life.”
Joining other Republican candidates at the Values Voter Presidential Debate in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., last month, Huckabee told participants that he is one of them.
“There are a lot of people running for president,” he told the group that gave him a 63 percent win in its straw poll. “Many of them will come to you. I come from you.”
In fact, a Christian men’s magazine and its publisher have worked in recent months to convince readers that Huckabee is “one of our own.” Publisher Steve Strang ran an editorial in June urging 1,000 readers of New Man magazine to give $1,000 each to the campaign.
“Is it possible our joint efforts will lead to a `tipping point’ in this campaign that will send a faithful Christian to the White House who can inspire the nation to return to our Judeo-Christian roots?” he asked.
Strang personally knows of half a dozen people who responded to his plea _ which he also made in another magazine, Charisma _ with a total of $1,840. The Huckabee campaign did not respond to a question about this effort.
But Huckabee said earlier he was “ecstatic” about the series of articles in “New Man” and appreciated Strang’s support.
Strang said Huckabee’s pastor credentials may help him in some circles and hurt him in others, depending on whether people view them as an asset. But Strang noted that a pastor-turned-president wouldn’t be a first: James Garfield, the 20th U.S. president, was a pastor (in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)) before he entered the White House.
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“To me it wasn’t so much that he was a former pastor,” Strang said of Huckabee. “It was that he is a conservative Christian family man who’s trying to make a difference.”
Tamara Scott, director of the Iowa chapter of Concerned Women for America, a conservative Christian group, said she admires Huckabee’s “pastor’s heart.” She noted that she has not endorsed Huckabee or any other candidate.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we had someone who looks at things with a servant’s heart instead of wanting to get elected to be served?” she asked at the recent Religion Newswriters Association meeting in San Antonio.
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Even though he may need every podium and pulpit he can get these days,Huckabee said sometimes the pew is his place of choice during church visits.
“There are a lot of times I don’t want to speak,” he said. “I just want to be there because I need to be fed, not necessarily be the one who’s serving the soup.”
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