God's Own Party:
No part of the United States has played a more important role in the
volatile spiritual politics of the past two decades than the Southern
Crossroads, a religiously distinct region of the country that comprises
Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Arkansas. This is the native soil
of Bill Clinton and Ken Starr, of George Bush and Tom Delay, of James Dobson
and John Ashcroft—and of Mike Huckabee, the little-known former
governor-cum-Baptist minister from Arkansas who in December turned the
current Republican presidential race on its ear.
A land of borders
and boundaries, the Crossroads is the natural home of showdowns, a crucible
of competing attitudes and ideologies, where politicians and their flocks
wear religion on their sleeves. It is a place where even the most picayune
theological distinction can have far-reaching political consequences. You
can’t understand them if you don’t know the territory.
Huckabee is a case
in point. At once Brother Mike and Governor Mike—or Bro-Gov, in the coinage
of the weekly Arkansas Times—he never made any secret of the fact
that he governed as both minister and politician. In his worldview, politics
and religion coalesce. For him, of course, it’s Baptist political religion,
but even more, a peculiar species of Baptist political religion.
To understand the
seemingly contradictory strands of Huckabee’s thought (“family values”
conservatism coupled with populist concern for illegal aliens, for
instance), you’ve got to be able to differentiate the Arkansas Baptist
menagerie. Are we speaking of Southern or Missionary Baptists? If
Missionary, then white or black? Are they hard-shell Baptists or those
mavericks of city Baptist churches, the new Cooperative Baptists who ordain
women and sponsor food pantries for the indigent? And what part of the state
do they hail from?
well-versed in the ways of Arkansas Baptists, knowing the answers enables
one to make educated guesses about socio-economic background, social
attitudes, political allegiances, and so on.
thing about Hucka-bee is his mixed Baptist identity. He grew up in a
Missionary Baptist Church in his hometown of Hope, in the southwest part of
the state. But he migrated into the Southern Baptist world, attending
(Southern Baptist) Ouachita University, pastoring a Southern Baptist
congregation in Pine Bluff, and eventually serving as head of the state
(Southern) Baptist Convention.
This tale of two
Baptist worlds is one I happen to know well, because of my own religious
background. I know no other way to make sense of Mike Huckabee than to tell
something of my own story—one whose contours will be familiar to many
Arkansans but well beyond the ken of most of those outside the Crossroads.
Like Huckabee, I
came of age at the intersection of Missionary and Southern Baptist worlds.
My maternal grandmother spent her girlhood in a Missionary Baptist community
about twenty miles southeast of Little Rock. I use the term “community”
deliberately because the town, such as it was, consisted solely of the
white-frame Baptist church beside which stood the schoolhouse (a miniature
of the church) and the cemetery—an ensemble set amidst small farms.
I knew the church
and schoolhouse intimately, since my childhood and adolescence were marked
by visits to both, as well as to the cemetery, where four generations of my
family are buried, and where we continue to be buried. Each year, the church
observes Confederate Memorial Day with an annual “graveyard working,” in
which families gather to tidy and decorate the graves of their loved ones.
The following Sunday
is “homecoming”—a dinner on the grounds in front of the church, to which
worshiping families present and past bring food to share under the alley of
old oaks. During my grandmother’s lifetime, it was unthinkable for us to
miss homecoming. My brothers, cousins, and I played in the schoolhouse,
scribbling on slates generations of children inscribed to learn their ABCs,
thumbing the well-worn McGuffey readers that taught my grandmother and her
nine siblings to be such avid readers and exemplary spellers.
difficult to write of the dinner without lapsing into well-worn Southern
pastoral tropes: huge platters of fried chicken, the chickens freshly
butchered by country cousins the day before; trestle tables groaning with
cakes and pies contributed by every family in attendance, from which a
greedy child might choose any and all; fresh garden vegetables seasoned to
perfection; delicious light bread rolls and cornbread; frosty iced tea; and
dishes impossible to replicate in a world from which the ingredients have
vanished—such as fried corn made from green field corn shucked instantly
after it was picked, and just as quickly milked into a black iron skillet
frothing with butter and bacon grease, to form a crusty, custardy pudding
that was corn’s very essence.
Then, when dinner
was over and sensible folks might have napped, the religious roots of the
early summer festival asserted themselves. Church elders would circulate
among the fanning, drowsy families, issuing invitations to “the house.” This
meant a worship experience that, for a city-bred Southern Baptist like
myself, was totally unlike any with which I was familiar.
After we had all
made our way into the church, we sat to sing. The pews were plain wood worn
by the backs of generations of worshipers, the windows clear glass, the
walls devoid of ornament. There was no organ; a lowly piano picked out the
notes for the songs we sang all afternoon.
The singing was
“lined.” Someone in the congregation would call out a hymn, and the song
leader would then read it, line by line. After that, he would sing it, again
line by line, to ensure that all would be familiar with every note and
syllable. If anyone needed an aide memoire, there were the worn yellow
Stamps-Baxter hymnals at the back of each pew, with shape notes indicating
the melody for those who could not otherwise read music.
The singing was, to
my child’s ear, crude. It had no frills, no furbelows, no grace notes, no
long tapering amens. People sang as loudly and fervently as possible, and
with utter self-abnegation. The hymns were a declaration of faith, not a
musical performance, and the faces of the older people shouting out the
lines could be downright scary. This was a Baptist life of fervor totally
unknown to those of us who spent our Sundays reclining on the velvet
cushions of “First Baptist Churches” in the cities. These folks actually
meant what they were singing.
Prior to the Civil
War and the split it effected between Northern and Southern Baptists, almost
all the Baptists in Arkansas were part of the Missionary movement. Those
churches that remained in the movement following the formation of the
Southern Baptist Convention in 1845 over the years held onto folkways and
religious idioms that preserve an older Baptist reality.
and Southern Baptists share some fundamental beliefs—for instance, in adult
baptism and the self-constituting nature of each local church—the two
communions are decisively separated in Arkansas along class lines.
Missionary Baptists tend to be concentrated in the country, especially in
the southern half of the state. Southern Baptists are city and town folks,
for the most part. (This distinction tends not to apply in other parts of
churches are—certainly in recent years—far more centralized and
well-organized than Missionary Baptist churches. Although Missionary Baptist
associations in Arkansas count less than 100,000 adherents in member
churches, insiders estimate that there may be as many as twice that number,
black as well as white, statewide—close to 40 percent the number of Southern
churches have come to exercise considerable influence over the political
lives of their members, and seek to extend that influence into the region’s
and nation’s political life through well-funded and well-organized
church-based groups. Missionary Baptists lack the clout—and in some cases
the desire—to engage in political ventures of this sort. At the same time,
they have a decided concern to influence the surrounding culture.
Harking back to a
sometimes idealized agrarian past, Missionary Baptists have historically
sought to put the brakes on social change. In the early 20th century, for
instance, they took stands against women bobbing their hair and dressing in
On the whole,
Missionary Baptists in Arkansas are small farmers and working-class folk,
while Southern Baptists run the socio-economic gamut. In the cities and
towns of south Arkansas, members of the First Baptist Church regard
themselves as the social and professional equals (if not the betters) of
Episcopalians or Presbyterians, with whom they rub shoulders and lift
glasses at the country club. They are inclined to call ministers with
doctorates, whose sermons may focus on the parsing of a controverted Greek
word in the New Testament.
Churches sit on imposing knolls in south Arkansas towns, dominating the
landscape with their Greek Revival columns, their stained-glass windows,
their ornate steeples. Inside there are muted colors, rich carpets,
chandeliers, organs. There, one is more likely to hear a Bach cantata on
Sunday morning than a full-throttle rendition of “I’ll Fly Away.”
What makes Mike
Huckabee interesting—and maybe important—is the way his upbringing as a
Missionary Baptist has injected his religious and political outlook with a
populism alien to many contemporary Southern Baptists. When I thumb my own
tattered copy of the Stamps-Baxter hymnal from my grandmother’s church,
here’s what I find.
“Farther Along” asks
why it is that the righteous suffer, while the worldly so often prosper. “An
Empty Mansion” reminds us that we toil on earth for an humble abode, while a
mansion awaits us in heaven. “I’d Rather Have Jesus” exhorts us to prefer
the Savior to diamonds and pearls, silver and gold. A favorite of my
brothers and me—yes, because of its kitschy lyrics—“The Royal Telephone,”
declares that, unlike expensive earthly service, the divine line is free to
And then there is
“Footsteps of Jesus,” a hymn my father relished and sang with embarrassing
fervor, and whose message he took to heart. It reminds us that if we walk in
the footsteps of the Savior, we must seek the lost sheep, help the weak, and
walk with the poor and lowly.
These are hymns that
envisage a more egalitarian culture than the one possessing Southern Baptist
church life at present. Huckabee sang them in his childhood. He seems to
have soaked up their message, and turned it into his political calling card.
As he cracked on Leno just before taking Mitt Romney to the cleaners at the
Iowa caucuses, “People are looking for a presidential candidate who reminds
them more of the guy they work with rather than the guy that laid them off.”
Then there’s the
issue of race. Once upon a time, it was not at all uncommon for black and
white Baptists to worship side by side. Indeed, it was not uncommon for
white Baptists to seek out gifted African-American preachers to preach in
In my own family
line, Rev. Mannen Clements brought a number of slaves from Alabama to Greene
County, Arkansas, when he came to minister to Mt. Zion (Missionary) Baptist
church in Walcott. Among these slaves was one Tom Clements, who had such a
noted gift of oratory that white folks are said to have come from miles
around to hear him preach. Tom Clements is buried with Mannen Clements and
To this day,
Missionary Baptists in Arkansas—black and white—retain an affinity for each
other that is alien to the folkways of Southern Baptists, who tend to be
almost exclusively white. Though most Missionary Baptist churches are either
black or white, it is not unheard of for these churches to have biracial
When Mike Huckabee
last ran for governor (in 2002), he received at least a third of the black
vote. This was unusual, given the longstanding commitment of the state’s
African Americans to the Democratic Party. But the explanation is not hard
to find. Many black Arkansans are Missionary Baptists, and in Huckabee they
found a kindred spirit—someone who shares their religious and social
It is his Missionary
Baptist background that led Huckabee, as governor, to welcome the burgeoning
Hispanic population and make sure the children of illegal immigrants were
not denied educational benefits available to other residents of the state.
It may also be the source of his program to commute several death sentences
when he was governor—leading to the now nationally publicized debacle of
Wayne Dumond, the rapist who was released after an alleged religious
conversion but who went on to rape (and murder) again.
Yet Huckabee the
Missionary Baptist lives in uneasy communion with Huckabee the Southern
Baptist. Again, I ask readers’ pardon if I must lapse into autobiography to
tell the other half of the Huckabee story.
In my high school
years, my father’s brother was academic vice-president of Huckabee’s alma
mater, Ouachita University. My aunt taught English at the university. Her
mother, the widow of a Southern Baptist minister, oversaw a women’s
That was when the
fundamentalist movement was just beginning to pick up steam in the Southern
Baptist Convention. My uncle and his wife were decidedly unhappy about this
development. It made their work at a Baptist college onerous—fraught with
anxiety about watchdogs for political and religious orthodoxy who might seek
to cause trouble if their syllabi or administrative practices did not
conform to the growing new orthodoxies of the SBC.
On one occasion,
my uncle invited to campus the theologian Nels Ferre, who was known to
believe in Darwinian evolution. Though he was told by not a few sober
members of the state Convention that an evolutionist had no business
speaking at a Baptist college, he managed to survive. Today, it would be
unthinkable for a Baptist college that remains under the thumb of the SBC to
invite an evolutionist to present a lecture sponsored by the college.
My uncle also
permitted dances to take place at Ouachita—as long as they were called
“functions.” When one of my cousins was on her way out to one of these
functions, her roommate pled with her to remember that her body was the
temple of God and did not belong on a dance floor. My cousin recounted the
story to her mother, my mother’s sister, who told her to tell her roommate
that, given the opportunity, she would gladly take her temple to the dance
floor on any occasion that arose.
As these stories
indicate, in the latter part of the 20th century many older Southern
Baptists were happy to keep their distance from the hard-shell Baptist
sensibility of their youth that is still well-represented in Missionary
Baptist churches. My own relatives have tended to see the fundamentalist
takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention—and its attendant lunge to the
political right—as an unhappy occurrence, a step backwards to beliefs and
practices whose demise they celebrate even as they lament the loss of the
old religious populism.
My mother often
spoke of how scarring revivals were to her as a child, and how she promised
herself that she would never subject any child of hers to the kind of
fire-and-brimstone sermons that kept her awake night after night in her
childhood. Nor did my parents wish to return to a world in which dancing,
card-playing, and consumption of alcohol were frowned upon. We certainly
knew Southern Baptists who adhered strictly to those taboos, but we did not
wish to be bullied by narrow-minded morality police.
Nor did we wish
to return to a world in which the teaching of evolution could be called into
question, in which fundamentalist religion assured that the education we
received would stigmatize us as we pursued our professional lives. The
church had no business dictating what was taught in the public schools or
how it was taught, we believed.
Above all, we
remembered—we venerated—the historic Baptist rejection of government control
and the longstanding Baptist commitment to keeping church and state far
apart. We were not about to let any minister or group within the Southern
Baptist Convention tell us which politician or political party to support.
If we went that route, all that our ancestors had toiled for within the
Baptist church would be null and void.
Because we viewed
the politicization of the Southern Baptist Convention with some alarm, when
two of my cousins chose to enter the ministry and went to Southwestern
Seminary, which Huckabee also attended, my uncle and aunt expressed great
concern that the seminary experience would move them closer to a
church-state position we abhorred.
To be Baptist in
Arkansas is thus, very often, to engage worlds that exist in tension with
each other. Much that baffles national commentators in Huckabee’s political
outlook makes sense only in terms of such tension.
standards, Huckabee has a Missionary Baptist social outlook liberated from
some of its more Puritanical cultural values—opposition to rock music, for
example—but strongly overlaid by a Southern Baptist ideology forged in the
fundamentalist takeover of the Convention and the concomitant rise of the
In his early
twenties, Huckabee went to work as publicist for the Southern Baptist
televangelist James Robison, and in that capacity was present at the at the
1980 National Affairs Briefing in Dallas, where the national Religious Right
came into being. In this newly politicized Southern Baptist world, he could
rise into the realm of Arkansas movers and shakers as pastor and politician,
and even aspire to become Bro-Pres.
Should he in fact
become president, Huckabee will no doubt remain strongly committed to the
conversion of culture. Like most Baptists, Southern as well as Missionary,
his vision of cultural transformation will doubtless remain largely
individualistic and moralistic, focused primarily on “family” issues,
including opposition to equal rights for gays and lesbians.
The question would
be whether, under pressure from the economic conservative wing of the
Republican Party, he can maintain his Missionary Baptist concern for the
weak, the poor, and the lowly, for the brother to whom the lifeline must be
thrown. It was hardly a testimony of his fidelity to his spiritual roots
that, on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, he pledged to introduce a
constitutional amendment denying citizenship rights to the children of
illegal immigrants (and then quickly withdrew the pledge).
But even if he falls well short of the
country’s highest office, he will have put the fear of God into the
Republican establishment. Evangelical Christianity, even of the latter-day
Religious Right variety, cannot forever ignore the powerful gospel
imperatives to throw the moneychangers out of the Temple and help the least
among us. Preserved within the bosom of Missionary Baptist churches, these
are always in danger of bursting forth, when the time is ripe.