GOP’s Preacher Candidate Politicizes Effort to Depoliticize Church

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has withdrawn from an effort to disentangle Baptists from partisan politics – citing politics. Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas and a Southern Baptist pastor, was invited and expected to attend a meeting of the New Baptist Covenant organized by former President Jimmy Carter to bring together members of the North American Baptist Fellowship, African-American Baptists, the Southern Baptist Convention – which was “taken over” by theological (and, largely, political) conservatives more than 20 years ago but has recently made motions toward centrism – and others around common-ground issues like poverty and AIDS. Huckabee, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, and Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley were among prominent Southern Baptist Republicans invited, joining prominent Baptist Democrats Carter, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore.

This effort to establish the New Baptist Covenant’s bipartisan credentials has been stymied, however, by Huckabee’s withdrawal over comments made by Carter in the political realm. After Carter criticized President Bush’s foreign policy, Huckabee told the Florida Baptist Witness that the comments were “unbecoming to one whose conference is supposed to be about civility and bringing people together.” Also complaining that Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman, whom Huckabee described as “very, very liberal,” would be speaking, Huckabee said,

In light of the program and roster of speakers, as well as the very harsh comments toward our president this weekend, I feel it would be best for me to decline the invitation and to not appear to be giving approval to what could be a political, rather than spiritual agenda.

Huckabee was in Florida that day, along with fellow presidential candidate Sam Brownback, to speak to the far-right Florida Family Policy Council (a state affiliate of Focus on the Family). The two long-shot candidates, popular among the Religious Right, apparently impressed the partisan crowd (which included Republican National Committee chair Mel Martinez). But while Brownback was willing to share the stage with Democrat Barack Obama at Rick Warren’s megachurch to talk about global AIDS last winter – in spite of vicious criticisms from the far Right – Huckabee is apparently unwilling to give up the partisan mantle of his presidential campaign for the Baptist-unity event.

David Currie of Texas Baptists Committed responded,

The [New] Baptist Covenant meeting has never been about politics but about Jesus and unity. The fact is, if we have a meeting and only preachers preach, the national press will not cover our message. If prominent politicians of both parties speak, the national press will cover it. I am sorry Gov. Huckabee withdrew, as I have been impressed with him on TV several times. But I’m sure the Religious Right put great pressure upon him. I wish him well.

Still, Huckabee’s act may gain him some new friends, such as Richard Land, the Southern Baptist Convention leader who has helped define the SBC’s right-wing political reputation and who had scoffed at the New Baptist Covenant’s aims.