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A Higher Power
Once back in Hope, Huckabee wore his Explo '72 T-shirt until it was threadbare, determined to be that candle.
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It was another huge gathering of evangelicals in Dallas that reignited Huckabee's interest in politics. In 1980, he and 15,000 other pastors and conservative Christians gathered at Reunion Arena in what is often characterized as a political "coming-out party" for the evangelical movement.
At the time, Huckabee was working for James Robison, a television evangelist known for his fiery sermons. Huckabee, who had attended seminary for a year after graduating from Ouachita (pronounced "WASH-uh-taw") Baptist University in Arkadelphia, was Robison's publicist. He orchestrated Robison's prayer meetings and promoted his television show, while Robison railed against homosexuality, abortion and the country's moral decay.
Robison's Fort Worth-based ministry helped host the gathering in Dallas, organized at a time of great political ferment among evangelicals, remembers Richard Land, then a 33-year-old Christian broadcaster and now head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. The Rev. Jerry Falwell had formed the Moral Majority the year before and registered 12 million church members. Now evangelicals wanted to figure out how to mobilize their newfound political strength.
Ronald Reagan, who had just won the Republican nomination for the presidency, was the event's keynote speaker. And he brought down the house by famously telling the believers: "I know you can't endorse me, but I want you to know that I endorse you."
Land says the event made a huge impression on Huckabee: "It was there that Mike caught a new vision for the potential of faith in politics and faith in public policy. There were a lot of younger evangelicals who had been raised to believe that politics was dirty business and the last thing a Christian would do is get involved in politics."
Huckabee's wife, Janet, who had just given birth to the couple's second child, says he began talking about running for office himself. Right around that time, she says, he was offered an opportunity to serve as interim pastor of a small Baptist church in Pine Bluff, where Huckabee had identified a potentially promising congressional seat. But before he could explore a run for Congress, church leaders asked him to become their full-time pastor. And a full-time job, for a young family with few means, was hard to turn down. Politics would have to wait.
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One night in late 1991, Huckabee suggested that he and Janet take a walk. He told her he was thinking about running for the U.S. Senate and asked what she thought. She was supportive and not at all surprised. "I think we both felt the same thing, but neither one wanted to talk about it," Janet recalls.
That feeling, as Huckabee would explain in "Character Makes a Difference," was mounting frustration. After 12 years as a minister, he'd begun questioning the significance of the work he was doing.
"In my early years of ministry, I was quite idealistic, thinking that most people in the congregation expected me to be the captain of a warship leading God's troops into battle to change the world," he writes. "As the years passed, I became increasingly convinced that most people wanted me to captain the Love Boat, making sure everyone was having a good time."
At the time, Huckabee was finishing a two-year term as president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, which he had held together during a period of deep division between fundamentalists and more moderate Baptists. In his outgoing speech to the convention, recounted in the Arkansas Baptist Newsmagazine, he hinted at the career change that he would announce in a matter of weeks.
"We cannot change the world if we refuse to participate in the institutions of society that dictate its direction," Huckabee said. "Christians have a message to America that would save many a person such misery. . . . If we want to stop the spread of AIDS and deal with the teen pregnancy problem, we must play by the rules of our Creator -- one man with one woman for life in a monogamous marital relationship."
He pleaded for tolerance, telling his fellow Baptists: "Our most important fight is not with each other. [It is] a battle to salvage our culture and our very civilization from a world view that thinks man is good and God is dead."
Years later, after he'd lost the Senate race but become governor of Arkansas, Huckabee would explain in starker terms his motivation for "getting inside the dragon's belly."
"I didn't get into politics because I thought government had a better answer," he told a group of pastors on the eve of the 1998 Southern Baptist Convention. "I got into politics because I knew government didn't have the real answers, that the real answers lie in accepting Jesus Christ into our lives." He concluded that speech with words he says he'd phrase differently today: "I hope we answer the alarm clock and take this nation back for Christ."
Research editor Alice Crites contributed
to this report.