Mike Huckabee wants pastors to be more graphic about Christmas. The former Southern Baptist pastor says that the church has sanitized the holiday and should tell it like it happened. The former governor of Arkansas recently finished his 64-city book tour for his book A Simple Christmas, which was No. 5 on The New York Times bestseller list this week. Huckabee spoke with Christianity Today during his tour in mid-November about his book, the Middle East, and his future in the Republican Party.
You say the church has sanitized Christmas. As a former pastor, how do you think ministers can help their congregations better understand Christmas?
The best way is to be more graphic in the way they understand the humble, humiliating, and horrible circumstances under which Mary gave birth. This was not a neat, clean, quiet, peaceful, tranquil, serene setting where the Hallelujah Chorus was going off in the background. The sky wasn't lighting up with fireworks from heaven. This was a scared, young, unwed teen mother, away from home, with nobody there to help her as far as we know. She goes into labor and has to hurriedly find a place to have the baby, and the best she could find was a little cave where sheep and goats were kept. Under the best of circumstances, sleeping out in the barn with sheep and goats isn't very pleasant, but having been to Bethlehem and seen the grotto, it's obviously not a very comfortable site.
I think sometimes we have a picture of it like the Nativity scenes, and everybody's standing around very quiet like they could just sing "Silent Night." I think what matters about that, and the reason I try to talk about it in the book, is I want to say to people that often we have the feeling, "God, you wouldn't understand. You don't know what it is to be this low. You don't realize how much I hurt, how much I feel." And the truth is, he understands completely. That's why he came the way he did. There's never a point at which we can say, "Lord, I'm lower than you would ever recognize."
Every year there seem to be court battles over Nativity displays on government property—Christmas wars. Should Christians spend time, money and energy on these battles? Does that fit in with your idea of a "simple Christmas"?
I think it's a whole different realm. My book's focus is not on the political and legal aspects or political correctness. It's really an intensely personal book about each person finding the true meaning in their own heart and life. I think the idea of public displays of Christmas is very important, but it's not at all the theme of my book.
A lot of people compare you and Sarah Palin as conservative Christian candidates. What separates you two? What makes you different?
Well, it's hard for me to say what's different because I don't know. I don't know how people make the comparison. We were both governors, we certainly are both pretty clear in our expression of faith, so yeah, we share those things. But other than those things, I'm not sure where the comparisons are. We're both Republican, we're both pro-life—there are a lot of similarities that way—but she has a very different political direction than I do. I'm not sure of her future politically, and I'm really not sure of mine either.
There seems to be a lot of talk about an internal struggle within the Republican Party. For instance, should a pro-gay-marriage candidate be welcomed in the party?
It's one thing to say that person should be welcomed in the party. The party is big enough to accept people who have different points of view that don't necessarily agree, but I think the overwhelming majority of the party is still very conservative, both fiscally and socially. While I'm very comfortable with someone saying, "I'm a Republican, but I believe in same-sex marriage," I would not be comfortable with the party as a party deciding to make that part of its platform. At that point, they would lose me. If they became a party that supported the termination of an unborn human life for no reason, I would find that at that point the party has left me. But does that mean everyone has to agree with me? Of course not. You can continue to be part of the party even if the party's official platform is pro-life and pro-marriage.
How does that compare with the pro-life presence in the Democratic Party, with the Stupak Amendment and the health care debate right now?
It's interesting because the Democrats have been very narrow-minded when it comes to their own party. While they lecture the Republicans on a big tent, their tent's more like a pup tent. When [former Pennsylvania Gov.] Bob Casey wanted to speak at the Democratic National Convention, he was denied the opportunity because he's pro-life. There are a whole lot more voices who speak out for abortion rights and same-sex marriage in the Republican ranks than there are Democrats who speak out for pro-life and traditional marriage in the Democratic ranks.
Would you vote for the health-care bill if the Stupak amendment [that bans funding for abortion] was retained in the final version?
Absolutely not. First of all, I don't have any confidence that the Democrats in the House plan to honor that in the long term, and secondly, if abortion wasn't even a part, it's still going to create huge deficits. It's a job-killing bill. It intrudes into an area of people's responsibilities and rights as citizens. I think the bill on its face is unconstitutional, in that it requires the purchase of a product for a person to exercise his or her rights as a citizen. We already decided that's unconstitutional when we outlawed the poll tax that required people to pay money in order to vote, because the Supreme Court declared that you can't make people pay money in order to enjoy the rights and benefits of citizenship. That's exactly what this bill does, and I think it's an outrage and an insult to the Constitution and to the citizens of the United States.
You've lamented President Obama's policy toward the Middle East. What policy actions would you take instead?
Well, for one thing, I would give up the naïve idea that we're going to obtain peace by continuing to press the Israelis for abandonment of their own land and giving up levels of their security. That's unrealistic and unworkable. We need to give up assuming there is some way in which peace can be obtained by forcing the Israelis to yield over both real estate and security while getting nothing in return. The second thing is the Palestinians have not even acknowledged the existence of Israel as rightfully existing. Until that happens, I think we should discontinue any serious conversations about peace. There's not going to be any.
You've called a two-state solution unrealistic.
You can't have two states occupying the same piece of land. If a two-state solution means two states are occupying the same piece of real estate, that's unrealistic. The United States would never accept it if the Canadians began to lob rockets into Buffalo, New York, or Detroit, Michigan. There's no way the Americans would say, "Well, you know what, maybe we should give up major parts of Buffalo and Detroit, and if we do, the Canadians will be nicer about it. And in fact, why don't we just have joint government in Detroit and joint government in Buffalo." There's not a single breathing American who would accept that. Nobody. And yet we're asking the Israelis to accept that for Jerusalem and for major portions of their country. That's why I say we're asking of others what we would never tolerate for ourselves.
You've publicly talked about the importance of healthy living, your difficulties with your weight, and you've called your body the temple of the Holy Spirit. Governor Corzine tried to make his opponent's weight an issue in the New Jersey election. How do you feel about a candidate's weight becoming a political issue?
Well, I think it backfired terribly on Corzine, and it should. That's simply not an issue that should be a part of the political discussion. I think it's absolutely a ridiculous thing to make part of whether a person's qualified or fit to be the governor of New Jersey. And I'm glad it did backfire. I thought that what Christie should have said was, "Okay, I'm overweight; he's incompetent. I can lose weight, but he's still going to be incompetent." That would be the way to answer it.
Do you still struggle with your weight?
From time to time. This past year I picked up about 25 pounds that I'm in the process of getting rid of. Part of it was I ended up with a problem with my foot, some plantar fasciitis, and it really has knocked my running off. And the nutty schedule I've had on this book tour has not been helpful, so it's been kind of tough. I'm back to getting the weight off. I want to get my running game back in gear and start doing distances again.
What factors will you consider in deciding whether to run for president in 2012?
I think the key factors will be, one, after the midterm elections, whether there is a real sense of frustration with the current administration and a willingness to look for someone else, for one thing. I'd want to know there was real, solid, strong support for me within the Republican Party for a primary, and I can't even consider running again without the level of financial support that a person needs to carry it all the way. To hear a person tell me, "Gee, I'd really like to see you run," is great. But if you can't raise tens of millions of dollars to start and hundreds of millions of dollars to compete, as crazy and as obscene as that is, it really doesn't matter.
How would you describe your future in the Republican Party?
Hard to say. That may be determined by other people more than me. I can tell you I hope to be active in helping a number of people who are running for office—that's one of the things that I've given a lot of my time to, people that I think are good, solid candidates. The reason I've kept my path very active is to supply grassroots efforts in support for candidates who are running for office.
The main focus I'm geared on right now is getting the message out on the Christmas book. I'm hoping the context of this being the time of year when people think about Christmas will cause people to stop and read the book and maybe think through very seriously what matters to them, what are their life priorities.
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A Simple Christmas is available at ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
Christianity Today also interviewed Mike Huckabee during the 2008 Republican National Convention.
CT covers more political developments on the politics blog.