Mike Huckabee Explains the First Amendment

By Wendy Kaminer

           Friendly, occasionally funny, less doctrinaire than many of his fellow conservatives and more approachable than the authoritarian Rudy Giuliani and robotic Mitt Romney, Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee is the right wing preacher/politician/presidential hopeful that some liberals are learning to like.  “…he prefers consensus to confrontation .. . regards government as a tool for social betterment, (and) … liberalism not as a moral evil, a mental disease, or a character flaw,” Hendrik Hertzberg writes in The New Yorker.

            But (as Hertzberg concedes,) Huckabee also advocates constitutional amendments banning abortion and gay marriage – both of which violate his religious beliefs.  (Nor does he believe that humans are related to apes.) How would he justify governing (and amending the Constitution) in accordance with sectarian articles of faith?  In a June, 2007 appearance before a panel of journalists organized by the Pew Forum, Huckabee generally finessed the question of church/state separationism, (which none of the journalists pressed.)
            In his view, the First Amendment simply states that Congress should not pass laws “where someone’s personal religious faith gets prohibited by the government .. .To me, that’s really simple. … that government can’t dictate to those who have faiths as to what they do and what they believe as long as it does not infringe or endanger someone else.”
            In other words, Huckabee recognizes that the Constitution guarantees the people free exercise of religion and utterly ignores the fact that it prohibits government from establishing religion – meaning that the state may not endorse or otherwise support sectarian religious activities or govern according to the dictates of the Bible or any other holy book.  If anyone at the Pew Forum noticed what Huckabee’s version of the First Amendment omits, no one pointed it out.
            Huckabee also employs a familiar rhetorical trick, implicitly misstating the views of secularists so that he looks like a victim of their irreligious biases.   The First Amendment is “not about people of faith being unable to participate in government,” he slyly says in answer to a question about separating church and state.  No one called Huckabee on this misstatement either and asked who has ever seriously suggested that the First Amendment is about prohibiting people of faith from participating in government.  Indeed, the secularists and civil libertarians I know strongly support the Constitution’s ban on religious tests for public officials; never mind the gross abuse of liberty that would be entailed in denying religious people the right to “participate” in governance by voting.
            No one asked Huckabee about his claim that when “other” unspecified candidates “are asked about faith … their answer is ‘Oh, I don’t get into that; I keep that completely separate.  My faith is completely immaterial to how I think and how I govern.’ ”   I can’t recall ever hearing any serious candidates for high office state that their religious beliefs were irrelevant to how they thought or governed.  On the contrary, most eagerly extol religious faith and testify to its centrality in their lives.  What some candidates also stress, however, is their respect for religious pluralism, their desire not to impose their religious beliefs on others, and their understanding that public officials are constitutionally obliged to refrain from transforming sectarian religious beliefs into law.
            Huckabee doesn’t seem to share this understanding of religious liberty as contingent on secular government, which accommodates diverse faiths without endorsing any of them.  But his views on the role of sectarianism in governing may remain unclear, thanks to his amiability, his apparent popularity among journalists, and the reverence commonly afforded mainstream religious faiths, all of which are apt to deter reporters from persistently probing his commitment to our secular constitution.   God forbid they should give offense.

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