Behind the happy, healthy, guitar-strumming campaign style that has so besotted the national press corps, Mike Huckabee looks like something considerably less charming — a zealous proponent of the "biblical" reformation of every aspect of American society.
If that sounds too extreme to describe the smiling Huck — who introduced himself to the country as "a conservative, but I'm not angry about it" — then consider how he explained his urge to revamp the nation's founding document. At a public forum on the eve of the Michigan primary, while mocking Republican opponents who don't want to append a "marriage amendment" or a "life amendment" to the Constitution, he said: "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 rather than try to change God's standards."
The next day, Republican speechwriter and strategist Lisa Schiffren complained: "Mike Huckabee is going to force those of us who have wanted more religion in the town square to reexamine the merits of strict separation of church and state. He is the best advertisement ever for the ACLU."
Not so long ago, Huckabee attributed his rising political fortunes to the hand of the Almighty. "There's only one explanation for it, and it's not a human one," he said. "It's the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of 5,000 people, and that's the only way that our campaign could be doing what it's doing ... That's honestly why it's happening."
He later denied that he meant to suggest that God wants him in the White House. But his deliberate reference this week to conforming the law to "God's standards" sounds uncomfortably like the ideology sometimes known as "Christian dominionism" or "Christian reconstructionism," which declares that America, indeed every nation on earth, is meant to be governed by biblical law.
Back in 1998, when he was still serving as governor, Huckabee helped write Kids Who Kill, a short book purporting to analyze the outbreak of school shootings by teenagers. His coauthor was George Grant, a well-known militant Christian reconstructionist author, activist, and educator. That same year, the libertarian Reason magazine published an exposé of reconstructionism titled "Invitation to a Stoning," which identified Grant and quoted him on the movement's ambition for "world conquest." Scorning the moderation of other conservative Christians, Grant explained, "It is dominion we are after. Not just a voice ... not just influence ... not just equal time. It is dominion we are after."
Of course, Huckabee must have had no illusions about Grant's baroque worldview, since it is clearly reflected in their book. The school shootings were mere symptoms of American civilization in decline, they thundered, with communities "fragmented and polarized" by "abortion, environmentalism, AIDS, pornography, drug abuse, and homosexual activism."
As governor, he also promoted the faith-based programs of a reconstructionist minister named Bill Gothard, and even boasted that he had gone through Gothard's "basic program" himself. More reputable evangelicals consider Gothard to be a cultish fringe character, but he has built an enormous empire, which depends on funding from local and state governments to bring his authoritarian version of the Gospel to prisoners, police officers and welfare recipients, among others.
Huckabee's rhetoric has surely changed, if not his views. He no longer denounces environmentalism, for example, at least not publicly. But he still maintains contact with reconstructionist leaders, some of whom are supporting his presidential candidacy. Just last month, Huckabee attended a campaign fund-raiser at the Houston home of Steven Hotze, who became one of the nation's most notorious advocates of dominionist ideology when he led the religious right's takeover of the Texas Republican Party. Huck's old friend Gothard was also at Hotze's home, along with a bevy of extremists including Rick Scarborough, author of Liberalism Kills Kids.
Does Huckabee still believe that his narrow version of Christianity must dominate every detail of human existence in this country? He doesn't like to answer hard questions about the intersection of his faith and his politics, but it is long past time that somebody demanded a straight answer.
Joe Conason writes for Salon.com and the New York Observer.