Mike Huckabee has harshly lashed out at evangelical leaders in Iowa for backing Ted Cruz over him. Said Huckabee,
“A lot of these organizations wouldn’t have the ability to do urgent fundraising because if we slay the dragon, what dragon do they continue to fight? And so, for many of them, it could be a real detriment to their organization’s abilities to gin up their supporters and raise the contributions, and I know that sounds cynical but, Todd, it’s just, it is what it is.”
Mike Huckabee was actually the subject of a discussion in one of my seminary classes. To understand the problems Mike Huckabee has had with evangelicals, particularly the leadership, you need to know some very basic history.
In 1983, the national meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention was held in Pittsburgh. The convention began as it typically did with a pastors’ conference. As can be expected, the messages in that conference all circled around the authority, inspiration, and inerrancy of the Bible. One message in particular drove the point home. That previous fall, in the suburbs of Chicago, seven people had died from taking Tylenol pills, pills that had been tampered with and laced with potassium cyanide. That set off a national panic and was still quite fresh in the minds of Americans in the summer of 1983. One particular speaker at the pastors’ conference held up a bottle of Tylenol. “If I knew there was one capsule in that bottle that was laced with cyanide, I would throw the whole bottle out,” he thundered. Then he picked up his Bible. “If I knew of one error in this book” — everybody saw it coming — “I’d throw the whole thing out.”
The conservatives who believed in the inerrancy of the Bible won the day.
Fast forward to 1989 and the split between moderate and conservative Southern Baptists had only gotten worse. By then, Mike Huckabee was an up and coming pastor and the inerrancy fight was still going on. From Newsweek in 2007,
In 1989, Huckabee, then 34 years old, was elected the youngest-ever president of the Arkansas Southern Baptist Convention. Nothing prepared him for the elbows-out world of big-time Southern Baptist politics. When salvation is at stake, no one backs down without a fight. The convention was deadlocked over the issue of Biblical inerrancy. Conservatives insisted that Scripture was to be taken literally; others advocated a less-strict interpretation. Huckabee tried to have it both ways. He sided with the conservatives, but urged members to be tolerant of differing views. “I resent sometimes when we get on our high horses about what is right and wrong,” he says. “I’ve always believed in grace. Who am I to cast judgment on someone else?”
The moderates who rejected Biblical inerrancy, or the idea that the Bible is without error on anything about which it speaks, overwhelmingly backed Huckabee against Ronnie Floyd. Floyd, in 2015, became the President of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Huckabee remembers he tried to find common ground. Conservatives remember it as Huckabee rejecting Biblical inerrancy. Tony Cartledge, in Baptists Today, pointed out that Huckabee’s definition of “inerrancy” was not the actual definition of inerrancy.
Over this fight, Huckabee has had a hard time making inroads with evangelical leaders. John Rutledge, writing in the Baptist Standard in January of 2008, chronicled all of this. “Huckabee’s nuanced role in denominational politics may have something to do with why the former Arkansas governor, despite earning a grassroots following among conservative evangelicals in early primaries, has failed to garner clear support from the Religious Right’s powerbrokers,” he wrote.
In 2008, conservatives were looking for someone who could beat John McCain. Huckabee rallied social conservatives in Iowa, with a Christian message, and gave McCain an upset. In fact, it becomes important to separate out social conservative leaders vs. evangelical leaders. The former were strong supporters of Mike Huckabee, while the latter were not.
Had Huckabee run in 2012, I suspect he could have been the nominee and many of the evangelical leaders would have preferred him to a Mormon. But he did not run. This time, Cruz and Rubio have both worked overtime on evangelical leaders and both are picking up solid support. Huckabee does not capture the anti-Washington zeal of the base as much as Cruz or Trump and he does not have evangelical leaders opening doors for him at their churches and offices.
When Huckabee gives an interview and attacks evangelical leaders in Iowa, you need to know there is a real and personal history there. Huckabee was not with them when they wanted his help in the fights over inerrancy and they are not going to be there for him now. They might not have been able to prevent Huckabee from tapping grassroots angst in 2008, but they can now and are. There is still distrust.