When thousands of people displaced by Hurricane Katrina were headed to Arkansas, then-Gov. Mike Huckabee instructed state officials and volunteers to welcome the visitors the way they would want to be welcomed if they were in similar circumstances. This Golden Rule approach—and his willingness to support government programs to address social needs—didn’t win Gov. Huckabee friends among conservative Republicans, but he emphasized principle over party, telling a “values voter” gathering last year, “I do not spell G-O-D ... G-O-P. Our party may be important, but our principles are even more important than anybody’s political party.” Gov. Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, is currently a political commentator for Fox News. Sojourners editor-in-chief Jim Wallis spoke with Huckabee by telephone this summer.
Jim Wallis: What will it take to put poverty on the national political agenda, and do you think that’s possible?
Mike Huckabee: It’s not only possible, it’s necessary. It’s a tragedy that in a country of extraordinary wealth, significant numbers of people every day go to bed hungry. Some people are oblivious to that reality in this country; it’s almost as if they think, “If we don’t see people, then they don’t exist.” That, to me, is one of the great tragedies—that many people who end up in the bubble of politics see only what is allowed into that bubble by the people who handle them. It’s one of the reasons I got involved—the frustration that many people in positions of authority were unaware of the very world that they were supposedly trying to lead.
Wallis: What are some of the key changes we have to make as a society to address the problem?
Huckabee: I’m convinced that part of the reason that poverty is proliferating is that we’ve created a social structure that’s broken down. For example, statistically we know that there is a 700 percent greater likelihood of poverty for a child who grows up in a dysfunctional or broken household. While I know it’s not necessarily politically correct, and I’m not suggesting that we force people to live in monogamous marriages when they don’t want to, the fact is that if you have strong family structures, you lessen the likelihood of poverty. I think as Christians we’ve been afraid to say it, but the truth is, it’s not about being Christian, it’s about being realistic.
Wallis: In 9 million American families, at least one adult is working full time in at least one job, and yet they’re raising their kids in poverty. How do we make work work for these families?
Huckabee: I talked about this on the campaign before anybody was talking about the economy, at least from the Republican side. I got royally chastised for saying that the economy wasn’t really doing that well, when everybody else was talking about how great it was. Maybe it’s great for the guys in the corner office, but the guy up there lifting the heavy stuff and down on the factory floor, he is not experiencing this wonderful economy that you’re talking about.
I’m particularly concerned for children. They are the true victims of this society that makes it very difficult for their parents to get above the rung on the ladder where they are. A good example is that even if they’re in our Food Stamp program, an inner-city kid doesn’t have access to fresh fruits, vegetables, produce—things that would make him healthier. The shopping options are dramatically different in the inner city than they are in the suburbs. The prices are significantly higher. Chances are he’s going to eat junk, processed foods. Even with food stamps, he still can only access the things that he can get to.
Wallis: You’ve talked about public responsibility alongside personal responsibility to overcome poverty. What’s a proper role for government?
Huckabee: One of the things I’m frustrated about is that Republicans have been infiltrated by hardcore libertarians. Traditional Republicans don’t hate all forms of government. They just want it to be efficient and effective. They recognize that it has a place and a role.
Growing numbers of people in the Republican Party are just short of anarchists in the sense that they basically say, “Just cut government and cut taxes.” They don’t understand that if you do that, there are certain consequences that do not help problems. It exacerbates them.
Every law and every government program we have is a direct indictment and reflection that somewhere we’ve failed at the personal level to self-govern. The ideal world is where everybody self-governs and lives by the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” If we all abided by that, we would need no other law. No one would hurt anybody. Nobody would get drunk. Nobody would abuse the speed limits. Nobody would drop out of school. It would be a great world. Unfortunately it doesn’t work quite like that.
I go to a church that feeds a whole lot of people. Some kids still slip through the cracks that my church or somebody else’s isn’t getting to. I could be an ideological purist and say, “That’s not government’s responsibility.” But I’m also a realist, and when all of the other social structures fail—whether family, neighborhood, community, or charity organizations—then we have by default created a demand for government to step in.
I get beat up for this terribly by the libertarians in the party. I call them libertarians and not conservatives, because I think I’m a conservative but I’m not a nut! They ask me if I want government to engage in all these social programs. No, it’s not my preference. But if my choice is that government has a program or a kid goes hungry, then give me the government program. I prefer that over a hungry child. I prefer that over a child that’s wheezing through untreated asthma.
If people out of generosity can do this beyond the scope of government, praise the Lord! But when they don’t, then it’s no different than all the nice conservatives in the gated neighborhoods who really don’t want any government until their home is broken into and they call 911. That’s a call to government. And then they want that person in prison for a long time. If we want smaller government and lower taxes, the best way to get there is to create a more civil social structure in which people play by the rules and self-govern.
Wallis: I often point out that the church can’t rebuild levees and provide health insurance for 47 million people who don’t have it.
Huckabee: Government does have a role. It’s a lot more limited when people exercise personal responsibility, but I don’t think I want to go to a place where the neighborhoods form their own military. When it comes to systems like road-building, bridge-building, and construction of airports and water and sewage systems—the infrastructure of our country has long been neglected. It’s a government function.
I find fault with some people on the left who just say that if we had more government we’d fix these things. People on the right say that if we had a whole lot less government we’d fix these things. It’s not about how much or how little, it’s about what kind of people we have within the society. People who have respect for themselves and for each other, and who live with a personal code of moral behavior, won’t need a lot of government.
Wallis: How have your convictions on these issues been shaped by your faith?
Huckabee: I’m very disturbed by the notion that we should compartmentalize our faith and put it aside when we’re in the public square. If a person can separate himself from his faith as if separating himself from a sweater on a warm day, then I have no confidence in his faith.
Having said that, it doesn’t mean that you want to impose your faith on someone else or create a structure within government where people are forced to accept certain tenets. It simply means that I’m going to be honest and say what drives me to care about children. As a person of faith, I believe that I have a greater responsibility than just to look around in my own neighborhood, in my own yard, and say, “This is it.” It explains what drives me to a certain decision point; that’s a matter of candor that voters have a right to know. What is my value system? What is the framework in which I live? Then people are free to disagree. At least you know what mine is, and that it’s coming from a pretty predictable point of view.
Wallis: What role do you see for the faith community in overcoming poverty?
Huckabee: One of the most refreshing things beginning to happen is that there’s movement within the evangelical world, that people are accepting social responsibility as a vital part of the gospel presentation. I find that delightful! The old days of “get saved, go to church, go to Heaven, and that’s it” have become eclipsed by “get your hands dirty, this is a world of hurt, you’ve got to help it.” That’s a much healthier assessment of the gospel and how it relates to us.
Wallis: Many faith-based organizations and others are leading a campaign to cut poverty in half in 10 years. Is that the kind of concrete goal the president could commit to—not only for the government, but to mobilize the nation, churches, civil society, business, labor?
Huckabee: Absolutely. One of the most important roles the president plays is not only commander in chief of government and military forces, it’s the “communicator in chief” to the spirit and soul of the country. He ought to be encouraging Americans to be at their best not because it’s a government program, but because it’s in the truest spirit of what it means to be American.
One of my greatest frustrations is when politicians approach things, it’s like, “What government program do I create?” There may be a government role, but the real question is, “How have I challenged Americans to make personal sacrifices for their neighbor?”
With all due respect to the president, one of the biggest mistakes made right after Sept. 11—when most Americans were ready to do anything asked of them to say, “We don’t ever want to see this happen again”—the instructions we essentially got were: Go shopping, go back to ballgames, get back to business as usual; and by golly we did! Instead of saying, “Okay, we’ve been attacked. By golly, it’s time for us to show the world what America’s about. Let’s roll up our sleeves and truly put forth a spirit of sacrifice and service that’s never been witnessed in the history of mankind before.” That would have been a remarkable moment in our history, and we could have done it, but instead we went to the mall. Dear God! What a missed opportunity!
Wallis: Having talked to Sen. John Edwards and to you, it strikes me that while you probably disagree on many things, you both are trying to raise up those people who are often forgotten and left behind. It helps me believe that fighting poverty could become a nonpartisan issue and a bipartisan cause.
Huckabee: It’s something we could and should do. I have a philosophy of politics. For politicians, everything is horizontal—left, right, liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican. For most Americans, politics isn’t horizontal, it’s vertical. They don’t care whether the solutions are coming from the left or the right. What they care about is, are we going up or are we going down? It’s those who have vertical solutions that the country will be looking to for leadership. I just hope we can get there. That’s my personal dream and goal.
For an extended transcript of this interview and an audio clip, click here.