February 14, 2008
By David Domke and Kevin Coe
::::::::With John McCain looking to wrap up the Republican Party presidential nomination, challenger Mike Huckabee is just looking for a way to remain relevant. Earlier this week, Huckabee tried going on the attack against a familiar target: the press.
At a breakfast meeting with reporters from the Christian Science Monitor, Huckabee decried journalists’ focus on his religious background, saying: “There has been an attempt to ghettoize me for a very small part of my biography. The last time I was in the pulpit was 1991.”
Huckabee is right, in that the press has focused a great deal on his faith.
But Huckabee is wrong, in that journalists have only done what he encouraged them to do. He brought this on himself, and journalists are right to scrutinize his religious views. In fact, they should be doing so even more.
Huckabee has done everything short of offering Communion at a campaign rally to make his Christian faith the centerpiece of his presidential bid. In Iowa, he ran an ad touting himself as a “Christian leader” and saying “faith doesn’t just influence me, it really defines me.” Then, as he gained ground on Mitt Romney, he ducked and dodged when reporters asked if he thought Mormonism was a religion or a cult. Huckabee eventually affirmed that Mormonism was indeed a religion — the one that "believes that Jesus and the devil are brothers," right? And, once he took off in the polls, Huckabee suggested his rise was due to divine intervention: “There’s only one explanation for it, and it’s not a human one. It’s the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of five thousand people.”
Even as his hopes of winning the nomination have dimmed, Huckabee has kept the faith. Last weekend he told the Conservative Political Action Conference that “I didn’t major in math, I majored in miracles, and I still believe in them.” The real miracle is that after using "the God strategy" with such zeal, Huckabee still feels comfortable chastising the press for focusing on his faith.
The only thing for which journalists are guilty in this case is not digging deep enough. They’ve paid plenty of attention to the novelty of Huckabee’s heavy emphasis on religion. What they need to do now is get serious about what a Huckabee presidency or vice presidency — now or down the road — would mean for American democracy.
For example, earlier in the campaign Huckabee called for the U.S. Constitution to be changed to conform to his own religious views: “[Some of my opponents] do not want to change the Constitution, but I believe it’s a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God, and that’s what we need to do is to amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards.” Journalists need to demand that Huckabee clarify exactly what faith-based changes to the Constitution he is looking for. Is he talking about a “human life amendment” — which Republicans have sought for two-plus decades — or would he seek other changes? How does he understand God’s standards? Are those standards open to different interpretations? Are people who don’t share his ideas about these standards still fully American? Still fully human?
And what of Huckabee’s avowed skepticism regarding evolution? How does that translate into how he’d approach funding for the sciences and education in general? The current president has been slow to embrace concerns about global warming, and critics have charged the Bush administration with modifying scientific conclusions regarding environmental standards on everything from greenhouse gases to chemicals in drinking water. Where would Huckabee fall on these matters?
These are all fair questions — crucial questions — to ask of Huckabee or any other candidate who would use faith as a political weapon.
If Huckabee is serious about leading the nation he needs to answer these questions, not avoid or criticize them. And he needs to understand that any scrutiny he draws from journalists is merely him reaping what he has so eagerly sown.
David Domke is Professor of Communication and Head of Journalism at the University of Washington. Kevin Coe is a doctoral candidate in Speech Communication at the University of Illinois. They are authors of The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America (Oxford).