A day later, she called back. She'd run into the church's current pastor, and he discouraged her from giving me the tapes. Huckabee had apparently sent word he "wasn't saying no but he didn't think it was such a good idea," she recounted, adding, "We have nothing to hide. We're so proud of Mike." There it was again, that annoying equivocation—not no but not yes, either—so unbecoming in a man with such strong convictions. That irritating nothing to hide.
This was like dealing with a contractor. Something that seemed so easy in the beginning—build some shelves, listen to some audiotapes—was now taking on monumental complexity. After a few more dead ends—the tape archive pledged to his alma mater, Ouachita Baptist University, was stuck in legal limbo; a librarian's massive personal collection of Huckabeelia had gone missing—I decided to retreat and ask the obvious question: What on earth is hiding on those spools?
We will find out someday. In the meantime, let me offer a few theories. I actually don't think Huckabee is worried about what he might have said about abortion and homosexuality. Those twin pillars of the culture war were not central issues for Southern Baptists in the '80s and early '90s. Anyway, Huckabee is perfectly clear on his feelings about the unborn, and he is on the record from his failed 1992 Senate campaign, in which he called homosexuality an "aberrant, unnatural, and sinful lifestyle" and suggested that AIDS patients be "isolated from the general population." If these are your key issues, you are either with Huckabee or find him repellent, and nothing he said 20 years ago will sway you. Rather, the issues dividing Arkansas Southern Baptists in the years when Huckabee was a rising young pastor are ones that are capable of alienating a much wider swath of people.
1. Gender—In 1989, Southern Baptist leaders were bent on purging liberals and moderates and restoring the denomination to its "Biblical roots." In that atmosphere, the young Huckabee became the surprise compromise candidate for the head of the Arkansas Baptist Convention. "He was no moderate," recalls Hal Bass, a political scientist at Ouachita and a Southern Baptist. "He was considered very conservative but not someone who would hew to the call of the conservative takeover." Big issues that year were whether women should be allowed in ministry, and what the proper role of wives was. The moderates wanted to loosen the rules and allow some women in leadership roles, but the conservatives were dead set against it. Huckabee, Bass recalls, did not take the conservative position but frequently quoted Scripture about women being submissive to their husbands.
2. Race—Pine Bluff was a very racially divided town, recalls Bruce Rodtnick, who was minister of music when Huckabee came on as pastor. African-Americans went to their own churches and whites to theirs. One Sunday morning in 1984, after Huckabee's sermon had been broadcast on the radio, a young black man called the church to say he'd heard it and been saved, and asked whether he could join the congregation. Huckabee let him come to services, but only after much resistance from the congregation. Huckabee did the right thing, but he also had to mollify his congregation, and what sounded racially progressive in Pine Bluff in 1984 may be cringe-worthy now.
3. Creationism—Moderate Southern Baptists were trying to push a less literalist view of the Bible at the time. The conservatives fought back with the slogan, "From Genesis to Maps," meaning that each word in the Bible, from first book to last, means what it says. Huckabee didn't use that slogan; instead, he referred to the more generic "Biblical inerrancy." In one of the recent presidential debates, when he was asked about creationism, Huckabee reframed it as a choice between belief and atheism. He said you either believe "God created this process or it's an accident." He claimed he didn't know how the process happened or how long it took, but he was sure God had had a hand in it. In his early years, he surely gave a sermon or two about the literal meaning of Genesis, and the necessity of believing the earth was created in six 24-hour days.
4. The Queasy Factor—In the one tape I did manage to get—bought on eBay from an enterprising Arkansan—Huckabee preaches on "The Practice of Patience." What could be more pleasant and innocuous, right? Not exactly. Huckabee is his trademark jovial self. He tells a couple of good stories, one about some urban farmers who mistook a watermelon for a mule egg, another about the time his father gave him his first bike—and it was a girl's bike. But all this is building up to a serious point. "How many times do we find ourselves on the surgery table of the Almighty God, who is trying to work His surgery to make us more like Christ, and we say 'God, let me out of here! Lord, don't touch me!' " he thunders towards the end. "It's not that we can't be Christians. The sad fact is most of us don't want to be enough to try our faith to the point of patience and perseverance."
It's one thing to know a presidential candidate was a pastor; that sounds worthy and leaderlike. But it's quite another to actually hear him work himself up into a lather about committing to Christ and not back it up with a joke.