December 29, 2007
The Context of Huck's Devilish Question
Mike Huckabee's rhetorical question -- "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?"-- to Zev Chafets in a New York Times Magazine article entitled “The Huckabee Factor” was aimed around evangelical Christian leaders and toward conservative Christian voters.
Despite his credentials as a Southern Baptist preacher, political doubts concerning his conservative authenticity as a governor are matched by religious questions from some evangelical Christian leaders. Chafets reported a Huckabee comment that illustrates his sense of entitlement to receive endorsements from those leaders.
But it [an ad where Huckabee is identified as a "Christian leader"] has also caught the attention of big-time figures in evangelical Christianity, many of whom have refrained from supporting Huckabee's candidacy. This failure has puzzled and angered the governor. At the Olive Garden he spoke with bitterness about Richard Land, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. ‘‘Richard Land swoons for Fred Thompson,'' he said. ‘‘I don't know what that's about. For reasons I don't fully understand, some of these Washington-based people forget why they are there. They make ‘electability' their criterion. But I am a true soldier for the cause. If my own abandon me on the battlefield, it will have a chilling effect.'' [emphasis added]
Meanwhile, several of his "own" have abandoned him, at least temporarily, on the campaign battlefield. Pat Robertson (who received 25% of the Iowa vote in 1988) endorsed Rudy Giuliani; James Dobson still holds his loyalty card close, but had positive things to say about Mitt Romney. Both Bob Jones III, chancellor of Bob Jones University, and Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Moral Majority, back Romney. The National Right to Life Committee endorsed Fred Thompson.
In November, Huckabee did pick up support from several lesser-known, yet "influential Christian conservative leaders." But the fact that not all those he considers "my own" have climbed aboard his band wagon appears to aggravate him.
In a December 20, Washington Post article entitled "Baptist Not on Board," Robert Novak highlighted the point that, even among other Southern Baptists, Huckabee does not enjoy universal support. So, in his interview with NYT's Chafets, Huckabee went around evangelical leaders and directly addressed conservative Christian voters. Here is the broad context of his message to them.
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is the second largest church body in the U.S.; the Roman Catholic Church is the largest. The base of SBC strength is reflected in its name; its membership is concentrated in the southern U.S. From 1993-2001, the percentage of Americans who said they were Southern Baptists declined from 10% to 6% of the total population. Certain other religious denominations appear to be growing faster: from 1997-2007, Roman Catholics increased 15%; Assemblies of God 19%; and the church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints (LDS) grew by almost 21%.
While no responsible accounting firm could or would certify the accuracy of any church's membership numbers, it is clear that, with the influx of legal and illegal immigration from Mexico and points south, both the Roman Catholic Church and Pentecostal faith communities have enjoyed a boost in followers. For other reasons, the headcount of the LDS has also increased. (At the same time, the six largest mainline Protestant churches have steadily declined.)
The SBC lives in the gap between numerically growing and declining churches, and their church market share is not trending upward. According to Michael McCormack, writing in 2004 for the Baptist Press:
According to the SBC's website, there are more than 42,000 Southern Baptist churches in the United States. Using the Leavell Center's findings, fewer than 13,000 of them are growing churches. In other words, 70 percent of Southern Baptist churches are still plateaued or declining.
Since the late 1990's, a debate has been underway within the SBC concerning a proposal to change the name of the organization to signal a rejuvenation of the denomination by deleting its geographical emphasis on "southern," and by divorcing the brand name from a growing negative attitude toward institutionalized religion. Today, some mega-churches in affluent suburbs are aligned with the SBC, but the word "Baptist" appears only in small letters on their signs, if at all.
Putting aside their markedly different theological beliefs, many of the behavioral values of LDS and SBC laypersons are similar, including: strong emphasis on the traditional family unit; felt responsibility for contributing church financial support; adherence to a fixed doctrine interpreted from scriptural document(s); male-dominated church and family structures; negative absolutes in areas of individual social behaviors (e.g., alcohol consumption, premarital sex, homosexual relationships, abortion); expressions of traditional nationalistic patriotism; respect for and conformance to church leadership authority; aggressive demands on time required for full engagement in church life -- to name a few.
The similarities in behavioral values coupled with significant differences in theological beliefs create a competitive tension between Mormons and Southern Baptists. As Harold Bloom observed in The American Religion,
The two crucial branches of the American Religion, in my, judgment, are the Mormons and the Southern Baptists, violent opponents of one another, yet each American to the core....
Bloom's use of "violent" may be too strong. But, when an LDS building is under construction in a city, nearby SBC churches do take notice and have been known to make a special effort to educate their members in the basic beliefs of Mormonism so as to immunize them against what some within the SBC consider LDS's heretical, pseudo-Christian beliefs.
So, when former Southern Baptist pastor Mike Huckabee said of the LDS, "I think it's a religion. I don't really know much about it," his unspoken message, to those with ears to hear, was clear.
Huckabee's comments are like an ultra-loyal Ohio State Buckeye fan, one since the Woody Hayes days, referring to the LSU Tigers, their rivals for the National Championship, saying, "I think they play big time college football down there. But I don't really know much about Lou-z-anna."