By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
What could be called "The Huckabee Moment" occurred Sunday morning when ABC's George Stephanopoulos asked the former Arkansas governor, suddenly and ominously the front-runner in Iowa's GOP contest, whether Mitt Romney is a Christian. Mike Huckabee knew precisely what was being asked of him, and he also knew, because he is a preacher, what the right -- not the clever, mind you -- answer should be. But Huckabee merely smiled that wonderful smile of his and punted. This, with apologies to George W. Bush, is the soft demagoguery of low expectations.
Until just recently, the expectations have indeed been low for Huckabee. He is more famous for losing more than 100 pounds than for any towering political accomplishment. But he is an ordained Baptist minister, and Romney is a Mormon -- a member of a church that some conservative Christians consider heretical. Huckabee has presented himself as the un-Mormon.
Pardon me for saying so, but that is the chief difference between the two. On about all the social issues you can name -- abortion, stem cells, gun control -- Huckabee and Romney are in sync. So their religious differences are not about morality. They are about belief -- religious belief, precisely the issue that is not supposed to matter in this country. Huckabee, though, clearly thinks it ought to.
The reason I started with Stephanopoulos is that he provided the perfect opportunity for Huckabee to make some ringing statement in support of religious tolerance. He might have made some reference to the ugly anti-Catholic campaigns run against Al Smith (1928) and John F. Kennedy (1960) and how they had both been spearheaded by prominent members of the Protestant clergy, Methodist Bishop Adna Leonard in the former's case, the renowned Norman Vincent Peale in the latter's. (Peale later went on to receive a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan.) In other words, Huckabee might have preached. Instead, he said Romney had to answer for himself the question of whether he's a Christian. As for the TV commercial Huckabee is running in Iowa that opens by proclaiming him a "Christian leader," he said this is just because that's what he is -- not, mind, you, the former governor of a nearby state or even a weight-loss guru. But as he well knew, it is not his surprisingly moderate record as governor of Arkansas that so attracts Iowa's conservative Christian voters, it's his obdurate and narrow-minded religious beliefs.
Romney has scheduled a speech for Thursday -- at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Tex., of all places -- to confront the religious issue. This is what JFK did back in 1960, but Kennedy had it easy. All he had to do was shoot down the canard about Vatican control, while Romney has to deal with reality: Mormonism is a significant departure from conventional Christianity. The Book of Mormon, like the Bible itself, is scripture to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- downright heresy to some conservative Christians. This is not a gap that can be easily closed.
It is absurd that Romney feels compelled to deliver a speech defending his beliefs and that Huckabee does not have to explain how, in this day and age, he does not believe in evolution. But it is singularly appropriate that Romney's speech be delivered at the Bush library. For it is the 41st president's underachieving son who put such emphasis on religious belief -- and has shown us all, with his appalling record, that faith is no substitute for thought. A mind honed on the whetstone of doubt might have kept us out of Iraq.
The Republican presidential field has some feeble minds and some dangerous ones as well, but none has done as much damage as Huckabee has. Religion does not belong in the political arena. It does not lend itself to compromise. It is about belief, not reason, and is ordinarily immutable. Romney is a shifty fellow, but he will always be a Mormon, and it will never make a difference. Should he become president, he will still light the national Christmas tree and pardon the Thanksgiving turkey and host the Easter egg roll on the White House lawn.
Inevitably, Romney's speech will be compared to JFK's. But when it comes to being beholden to a religious doctrine, it is Huckabee and not Romney who has some explaining to do. What's more, Huckabee is the one who is capitalizing on religious intolerance. He says he's a Christian leader, but the evidence proves otherwise. He's really a shameless follower.