'Christian Leader'

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Friday, December 21, 2007

IS MIKE HUCKABEE running to be president of all Americans, or just the Christian ones? The former Arkansas governor, who has catapulted into the front ranks of GOP presidential contenders, is broadcasting a television ad this week that raises the question. As a technical matter, the ad is a beauty. "Silent Night" plays softly in the background. The camera focuses on Mr. Huckabee, clad in a red sweater. Behind him is a bookcase, its intersecting shelves lighted up in the form of a glowing white cross.

"Are you about worn out of all the television commercials you're seei ng, mostly about politics? I don't blame you," Mr. Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister, says soothingly, as the camera pans to show a Christmas tree. "At this time of year, sometimes it's nice to pull aside from all of that and just remember that what really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ and being with our family and our friends. I hope that you and your family will have a magnificent Christmas season."

"My faith is my life -- it defines me," Mr. Huckabee likes to say, and we respect that conviction. What gives us pause is a continuing theme in Mr. Huckabee's rhetoric that does not seem to give equal respect to -- or, at times, even acknowledge the existence of -- those of other faiths, or of no faith at all. As much as Mr. Huckabee would like to dismiss them as such, these concerns have nothing to do with a politically correct "war on Christmas." We don't have any problem with candidates taking time to wish voters "Merry Christmas," as several other candidates are doing in ads this week.

But unlike Mr. Huckabee's, their ads do not send an explicitly and exclusively Christian message -- and while Mr. Huckabee says people who imagine a gleaming white cross are suffering from overactive imaginations, we invite you to look at the ad and judge for yourself. Telling voters -- in a political commercial -- that "what really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ" may speak to the evangelical Christians Mr. Huckabee is counting on in Iowa; it sends a different and exclusionary message to non-Christian Americans.

In 1998, Mr. Huckabee spoke of the need to "take this nation back for Christ," though he told Tim Russert this year, "I'd probably phrase it a little differently today." Would he? An earlier Huckabee ad in Iowa opened with the words "Christian leader" emblazoned on the screen. It's disappointing that Mr. Huckabee has responded so dismissively to the criticism the ad has generated. "I mean, it's just beyond ridiculous," he told NBC's "Today" on Wednesday. "You can't even say 'Merry Christmas' without people getting all sensitive about it." And, "I totally am amazed that people are so sensitive these days."

It's Mr. Huckabee's choice how he wants to run for president. But if he wants to convey a desire to be president of all Americans, he's going about it the wrong way.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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