Is it time for the Republican Party to pay its debt to the Southern Baptist Convention by nominating one of the SBC's own to lead the party's presidential ticket in 2008?
Southern Baptist preachers have done a lot of heavy lifting for the Republican Party. Without them, the GOP likely doesn't win five presidential elections, retake Congress in the 1994 landslide or gain as much political power.
No group has been more loyal to the Republican Party--and gotten less--than Southern Baptists.
Southern Baptist fundamentalists endorsed Ronald Reagan at a religious rally in 1979 and then invited Republican presidents, vice presidents and other notables to speak--live or by teleconference--at almost every one of their annual June meetings ever since.
Baptist preachers demonized Democrats as the anti-God party, while christening the GOP as God's Only Party.
What have Southern Baptists gotten in return? Beyond a few presidential cufflinks and Oval Office photo-ops, not much.
Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land. Gay marriage is gaining ground. Divorce is widely ignored. Homosexuals are embraced openly and defended widely in the Republican Party. The Ten Commandments remain off public walls. Schools began each day without public prayer. Intelligent design is a third-rank idea behind evolution. Out-of-wedlock births are high. Culture is coarse.
Suffering from loose lips, one SBC agency official told a New York Times reporter he wanted a wedding ring from the Republican Party. He wanted the Republicans to consummate their relationship with Southern Baptists. It has not happened.
Southern Baptist preachers have certainly earned the right on the field of political battle to have one of their own lead, and Mike Huckabee looks like the one.
He attended the conservative Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, served as a former president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, opposed the teaching of evolution, demonstrated the lifestyle of one man married to one woman for life and supported the SBC's doctrinal statement that wives should submit to their husbands.
He is one of the best politicians among the current batch of Republican candidates, winning last week's presidential debate. He was relaxed, respectful and humorous, looking more like Ronald Reagan than any other candidate.
Unlike the flip-flopping Mitt Romney on abortion and the pro-choice and thrice-divorced Rudy Giuliani, Huckabee didn't need to prove his anti-abortion or pro-marriage credentials. He demonstrated a civility and calmness contrasting to the over-caffeinated John McCain.
Huckabee is a theological fundamentalist who embraces much of the religious right's agenda. As wrong as that is, Huckabee recognizes that being a Southern Baptist alone does not qualify him to be president.
"A person's faith shouldn't qualify or disqualify for public office," the former preacher said in response to a question about Romney's Mormon faith.
Earlier in the year on NBC's "Meet the Press," Huckabee qualified 1998 comments about taking the nation back for Christ.
"I'd probably phrase it a little differently today," he said. "I don't want to make people think that I'm going to replace the Capitol dome with a steeple or change the legislative sessions for prayer meetings."
"What it does mean is that people of faith do need to exercise their sense of responsibility toward education, toward health, toward the environment," the 11-year governor said. "All of those issues, for me, are driven by my sense that this is a wonderful world that God made. We're responsible for taking care of it…. I think that's what faith ought to do in our lives if we're in public service. "
"I make no apology for my faith," he said. "My faith explains me."
"We are a nation of faith," Huckabee continued. "It doesn't necessarily have to be mine. But we are a nation that believes that faith is an important part of describing who we are, and our generosity, and our sense of optimism and hope. That does describe me."
Huckabee said much the same last week at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. "We ought to be open and honest about it," he said, "and I think it [faith] does help explain who we are, what our value systems are, what makes us tick and what our processes are."
Preacher Huckabee knows candor about his faith creates comfort for voters. That basis for trust leads to likeability.
Politician Huckabee knows he will have to build on likeability to earn the right to be the Republican candidate.
Do Republican powerbrokers really trust Southern Baptists enough to let that happen? Do they have a sense of moral obligation to pay off debt long overdue? Does the fundamentalist faith disqualify one for the Republican presidential nomination?
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.
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