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Huckabee's double-edged faith

Religion helped him as governor, he says. Some saw it as a hindrance.

December 31, 2007|Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writer

ARKADELPHIA, ARK. — Five days after the tornado tore through the state, this city of 10,000 lay in ruins. The cyclone destroyed an office building, a bank, a pharmacy and 70 other businesses. The electricity was out. The National Guard patrolled the streets. Six people were dead.

In Little Rock, GOP Gov. Mike Huckabee was reviewing a disaster insurance measure that he intended to support when he became troubled: The bill, drawing on centuries-old legal terminology, referred to natural disasters as "acts of God."

In a time of emergency, Huckabee would hold up the measure for more than three weeks to press his personal objection that the Almighty could not be blamed for the region's loss. In the process, he drew damaging headlines and created new strains in his relations with the state's legislature, the General Assembly.

Today, a decade later, Huckabee's religious faith is taking new prominence as voters in Iowa prepare to cast the first ballots of the 2008 presidential contest in Thursday's caucuses. Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist minister, has sprung to the front of the Republican pack with an appeal built largely around his claim that his Christian faith "defines" him.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, January 02, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Huckabee's faith: An article in Monday's Section A about Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee's melding of Christianity and politics said he had succeeded Bill Clinton as Arkansas governor. Huckabee succeeded Jim Guy Tucker.

If voters want to know how his faith would influence his presidency, "the best way to look at it is how I served as a governor," Huckabee said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." "I didn't ever propose a bill that we would remove the Capitol dome of Arkansas and replace it with a steeple. You know, we didn't do tent revivals on the grounds of the Capitol. But my faith is important to me."

Huckabee's tenure as governor, 1996 to 2007, shows that his faith sometimes created political burdens for him, turning minor issues into public controversies and exacerbating tensions with other state leaders.

Huckabee at times seemed too biblical even for fellow believer-politicians in the Bible Belt. In the "acts of God" dispute, there is no indication that anyone was harmed by the delay, but some felt that the governor's religiosity, as politically expressed, came close to pettiness.

" 'Petty' is the best word to describe him," said Dennis R. Young, a state representative at the time who sponsored the relief measure and had been an early Huckabee supporter. "In these kinds of things, he'd make mountains out of molehills."

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'My standard is Christ'

From his first day in office, Huckabee emphasized his faith. His inaugural day began with a prayer service at a Baptist church in Little Rock that Huckabee would recall as "almost like an ordination service." He described himself as a "servant leader" in the biblical tradition and banned smoking and swearing in the governor's office.

"My standard is Christ," he wrote in "Character Makes a Difference," published this year. "I will have to answer to him alone."

Huckabee, 52, has argued that his pastoral background helped him get some things done. He helped create a nonprofit foundation to enlist churches in moving families off welfare. After Hurricane Katrina hit neighboring Louisiana, his connections to ministers around the state hastened the opening of dozens of church camps to evacuees.

He cited God in explaining his special outreach efforts to African Americans. He invoked the Christian notion of stewardship -- that " 'the earth is the Lord's,' and that we are not its owners, merely its caretakers" -- in promoting a tax increase to fund parks and conservation.

And by his account, his faith deeply influenced his policies on abortion. Under Huckabee, the state banned late-term abortion procedures and unsuccessfully challenged a federal rule requiring Medicaid coverage of abortions for rape victims.

"When I became governor of Arkansas in 1996," he later wrote, "I recognized the same moral authority -- God's authority -- that I did as a pastor. . . . I not only want to know Him, I want others to be able to see Him through the decisions I make and by the way I make them."

In time, there was a backlash. In 1998, the Arkansas Times, an alternative weekly, ran a political cartoon of the state Capitol covered with a revival tent. Critics referred to Huckabee dismissively as the "Rev.-Gov."

And his judgment was strongly questioned after he publicly signaled an interest in granting clemency to a convicted rapist, Wayne DuMond, who had said he found religion in prison. Though it was the state parole board that opened the prison door, some board members said Huckabee had pressured them to release DuMond. DuMond was later convicted of killing a woman after his parole. Huckabee has denied applying pressure.

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