Huckabee Set a Faithful Tone From Governor’s Mansion
Photo credit: Lauren Burke, WDCPix
When Mike Huckabee was sworn in as governor of Arkansas in 1996, Rita Sklar, executive director of the state ACLU office, was braced for the worst.
“Here’s this Southern Baptist preacher,” Sklar said in a phone interview last week. “We thought we were going to have out-and-out open support of religious endorsement.”
She imagined the new governor encouraging public schools to take steps the U.S. Supreme Court had long ago ruled unconstitutional—like requiring prayer and handing out bibles. She was especially concerned about any moves he might take on faith-based initiatives, worried that religious groups might be tempted to move beyond the provision of publicly funded social services and use the opportunity to spread their beliefs.
But after closely watching – and sometimes investigating—the Huckabee era, her verdict came as a pleasant surprise. “There was no ‘Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!’” Sklar said. “He wasn’t like that.” Instead, she and others interviewed have said, while Huckabee took steps on a few high-profile and controversial issues like marriage and abortion, his faith was most evident in the broader tone he set.
“The changes were more symbolic than substantive,” said Jay Barth, director of the department of politics at Hendrix College in Conway. “There clearly was an enhanced comfort level with bringing faith into the public arena, and with using faith-based entities as delivery vehicles for government goods.”
The religious backgrounds of the current crop of presidential candidates has become a central focus of this year’s campaign, with Huckabee, Mitt Romney, the Mormon former governor of Massachusetts, and others repeatedly asked to explain how their personal views would affect their governing style. Huckabee’s comments last week that the Constitution should be amended to reflect God’s standards have renewed questioning about his vision of the role of religion in the public square.
An assessment of Huckabee’s efforts on faith-based initiatives during his time as governor reveals a chief executive who was more active in this realm than most of his peers in other states. And yet, despite that enthusiasm, his actions seem to have drawn few concerns about overstepping the line between church and state, even among his critics.
While it was President George W. Bush who drew the greatest attention to faith-based initiatives, it was the 1996 federal welfare reform law that set out the so-called Charitable Choice guidelines. Those rules barred government agencies from disqualifying faith-based groups from competition for public funding of social programs simply because they are religious and established ways for faith-based groups that get government funding to maintain their religious character.
Huckabee launched a governor’s office of faith-based services and issued an executive order instructing state agencies to take all necessary steps to implement the Charitable Choice guidelines. Those early moves helped make Arkansas one of only 12 states to receive a passing grade in a 2000 assessment of compliance with Charitable Choice conducted by the Center for Public Justice, a group that advocates for faith-based social services. (The only state to receive an A+ was Texas, where then-Gov. Bush was praised for the “first and most aggressive compliance with Charitable Choice,” including the rewriting of state procurement rules and redesign of spending programs “to maximize openness to faith-based organizations.”)
Huckabee took other steps as well during his tenure, like improving the information available about contract and grant opportunities, streamlining the contracting process to make it more accessible to smaller groups, and providing training to faith-based groups that were seeking government contracts.
Chris Pyle, who oversaw Huckabee’s faith-based initiatives, remembered the early part of his tenure as a difficult one, because many faith-based groups wrongly assumed that, rather than simply being allowed to compete with other social service providers, new funds would be set aside for them.
In a 2003 interview with the Roundtable on Religion & Social Welfare Policy at the Rockefeller Institute of Government, State University of New York, which [closely] monitors faith-based initiatives, Pyle spoke about the unusual situation Huckabee encountered:
…the governor is a former Southern Baptist pastor and the former president of the Arkansas Southern Baptist Convention. So he understands the importance of faith-based providers, and he also understands the balance he has to walk as governor. We have an inherent credibility with the faith community, but at the same time, we don’t want to cross that line—making it sound like the governor is telling churches what to do. So far, we’ve done that successfully.
The governor meets with pastors once a month when we do a community forum day in the state. The governor meets with civic organizations, schools, business people, and clergy. That gives him a chance to talk to the clergy and say, “What are the needs of your community? How can we help you meet those needs? How can we partner together?”
Steve Copley, a United Methodist pastor and past president of the Arkansas Interfaith Conference, said that among mainline religious groups, “there was always a little suspicion of the whole faith-based initiative effort,” attributing that reticence to concerns about blurring First Amendment lines, rather than any discomfort with Huckabee and his handling of the program. But, Copley said, “It certainly was more appealing” to the Baptist traditions, the non-denominationals, the Pentecostal traditions and Assembly of God churches.
For her part, Sklar says she would occasionally hear about a program that “seemed to be overstepping the bounds and involved in proselytizing rather than promoting its program in a secular way.” She complained that some groups, including those that used an abstinence-only curriculum, did not have printed materials or took place behind closed doors where they were difficult to evaluate.
Nonetheless, she said, after many investigations, the group never uncovered what she called “proselytizing in such an obvious way that it would be easily litigable,” and the group did not bring any lawsuits against faith-based programs.
Pyle rejected any suggestion that groups that received Charitable Choice funding in Arkansas were routinely and secretly spreading a religious message. “Did somebody go over the line in some small town where they might have gotten a small grant?" he said last week. "Potentially. But all grants were reviewed, and all recipients were instructed as to what they could and couldn’t do with the taxpayer-funded portions of the program.”
While the faith-based projects may have may have some critics, Barth, the politics professor, said he is more surprised about the limitations to Huckabee’s embrace of faith-based efforts from the governor’s mansion. Tops on the list of interesting things that Huckabee did not do, he said, were to push school vouchers or charter schools, pet projects of many conservatives. “He really didn’t do as much as you would have thought, given his background.”