Huckabee's Baptists

When Mike Huckabee went to Houston Tuesday to raise funds for his fast-rising, money-starved presidential candidacy, a luncheon for the ordained Baptist minister was arranged by evangelical Christians. On hand was Judge Paul Pressler, a hero to Southern Baptist Convention reformers. But he was a non-paying guest who supports Fred Thompson for president.

Huckabee greeted Pressler warmly. That contrasted with Huckabee’s anger two months ago when they encountered each other in California. The ex-governor of Arkansas took issue then with comments by Pressler, a former Texas appeals court judge, that Huckabee had been a slacker in the war against secularists within the Baptist church.

Warmth in Texas and hostility in California reflects the dual personality of the pastor-politician who has broken out of the presidential second tier. Huckabee can come over as either a Reagan or a Nixon. More than personality explains why not all his Baptist brethren have signed on the dotted line for Huckabee. He did not join the "Conservative Resurgence" that successfully rebelled against liberals in the Southern Baptist Convention a generation ago.

Criticism from co-religionists stands apart from criticism by the Club for Growth, the Cato Institute and the Arkansas Eagle Forum of Huckabee’s big-government, high-tax 10 years as governor. Because no Republican candidate since Pat Robertson in 1988 depends so much on support from evangelicals, opposition by fellow Southern Baptists is significant.

Huckabee’s base is reflected by sponsors of Tuesday’s fund-raising luncheon (requesting up to $4,600 a couple) at the Houston home of Dr. Steve Hotze, a leader in the highly conservative Christian Reconstruction movement. State Rep. Debbie Riddle was the only elected official on the host committee, most of whose members were not familiar names in Texas politics. David Welch is executive director of the Houston Area Pastor Council. Jack Tompkins heads a firm providing Internet services to the Christian community.
Entrepreneur J. Keet Lewis is an active Southern Baptist.

A better known committee member is Baptist minister Rick Scarborough, founder of Vision America. In endorsing Huckabee Nov. 1, Scarborough said, "I acknowledge that Huckabee is not the perfect candidate" but one "who will listen to wise counsel." Scarborough and Huckabee clashed during the Baptist Wars. Fighting to drive the liberals from the temple, Scarborough was badly defeated for president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas while Huckabee embraced the liberal church establishment to become president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention.

Judge Pressler, leading the Southern Baptist "Conservative Resurgence" in the late ’70s, agreed with Scarborough about Huckabee’s orientation and went a different route in current presidential politics. When Huckabee on Nov. 9 announced Southern Baptist leaders supporting him, Pressler was not on the list and on Dec. 7 endorsed Thompson instead. Pressler is known to be concerned that Huckabee plays to the establishment and would be subservient to the state department and The New York Times.

On Oct. 26, John Fund of The Wall Street Journal quoted Pressler as saying: "I know of no conservative he appointed while he headed the Arkansas Baptist Convention." The next week during their California encounter, Huckabee confirmed reports from people who know him that his good-natured facade conceals thin-skinned irritability. The candidate jumped Pressler with bitter complaints.

Shortly thereafter, bitterness was demonstrated by an interview with Zev Chafets of The New York Times. Huckabee was irritated that Richard Land, a prestigious Southern Baptist leader, had not endorsed him. "Richard Land swoons for Fred Thompson," he said, though Land as a policy endorses nobody. Huckabee appears to believe that everyone in the Southern Baptist Convention is obliged to support him: "If my own abandon me on the battlefield, it will have a chilling effect."

Huckabee’s jumping Pressler two months ago did not deter the judge from telling me this week much the same thing he had said to Fund: "I don’t know of conservative appointments he made and I don’t know of any contribution to the conservatives." After Huckabee’s warm greeting in Houston Tuesday, however, Pressler told me: "I would never do anything to hurt him." He did not go so far as endorsing Huckabee for president, and that sends a strong message to conservative evangelicals.