Winter 2008, Vol. 10, No. 3

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From the Editor:
Apologia pro bloga sua

Men in Green

Turning Over the Bowl in Burma

When Germans Convert

Show Me the Money 


The Faith Factor
by John Green

God's Own Party:

Huckabee's Baptism
by William Lindsey


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?

For anyone 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.

The important 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. 

It’s rather 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.

Though Missionary 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 the South.)

Southern Baptist 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 Baptists.

Southern Baptist 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 “men’s” clothes.

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.

First Baptist 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 all.

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 their churches. 

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 his family.

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 congregations. 

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 viewpoint.

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 dormitory there.

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.

By Arkansas 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 Religious Right.

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.


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