Character is the issue?

A couple of weeks ago, I was busy cataloging library books. I love librarianship because I love students and I love books. Being a librarian gives me opportunity to explore books, especially new titles that come from various publishers. Because I focus on theological librarianship, I get to see new general and academic books released by a host of publishing houses that publish Christian theology. Librarians have to be selective, so we don’t buy every title. Instead, we purchase books (both print and electronic) that support the classes we offer and the mission and purpose of the particular school where we work.

Across my desk came a rather fascinating book to catalog, especially in our day of political Christianity. The book’s title struck me–Character is the Issue: How People With Integrity Can Revolutionize America (Broadman and Holman, 1997) written by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee a quarter century ago when he served in that office.

Everything hinges on character.

The book describes how Mr. Huckabee became governor, not in the usual manner of election to office but as the result of severe illegalities committed by his predecessor, Governor Jim Guy Tucker (who became governor when Governor Bill Clinton won the presidential election of 1992 and moved to Washington, DC). It was a difficult transition for Mr. Huckabee and the citizens of Arkansas, filled with political and legal intrigue. Mr. Tucker was convicted of several crimes and forced to resign. Mr. Huckabee became the first member of his political party to hold that office since Reconstruction in the 1870s.

In the book, Mr. Huckabee offers several maxims about political leadership, the most important one being that “Everything hinges on the character of the men and women we choose to establish public policies” (2). He returns to that theme several times in the book, for example, “Character was the issue; the resolve to do right, regardless of the circumstances or the consequences, was the issue (33).

Character has many ramifications. But at the core, “Character does count. Integrity does count. But if integrity and character are divorced from God, they don’t make sense. If you try to set your own moral thermostat, chances are that a lot of other people will be uncomfortable. Integrity left to define itself becomes evil because everyone ends up choosing his own standards” (86). According to Mr. Huckabee, leaders with character are servant leaders, individuals who seek public office with the goal of serving their constituents and practicing ethical government in ways that cause others to flourish.

Much of the book describes Mr. Huckabee’s move from pastor of a large Southern Baptist congregation (what we would call a megachurch) to the realm of partisan politics. How does someone make such a move? For Mr. Huckabee this transition represented the opportunity for larger influence that would extend his reach beyond the congregation he served and apply his understanding of Christian character to the realms of politics and government. In his view, more Christians need to make this transition because it is only when people of character hold public office that our government can function as the American founders intended. “One of the biggest faults of modern Christians is trying to reconcile a self-centered worldview with Christianity. It is impossible” (136).

Mr. Huckabee’s thinking reflects that of many if not most evangelical Christians during the 1990s. For example, “everything comes down to the faith question, which then leads to the integrity question: Where does integrity of character come from? Either it comes from God or it comes from something we manufacture. If it comes from God, it is fixed…. If I don’t believe there is a God, then I don’t believe character is fixed. I believe it moves as the culture moves” (99-100). Mr. Huckabee argues that in response, Christians can do three things: (1) Live a God-centered life of high moral character; (2) consider running for political office; (3) support candidates who share your Christian standards. “Character is the issue, and your character makes a difference every day–in the work you do, the candidates you vote for, the people who look to you for leadership” (3).

Accidentally prophetic.

While “character” plays prominently in this book, in my view Mr. Huckabee’s purpose was a description of his religious and political biography, the ways he thought about government and politics, and a tract designed to make him better known to Arkansas voters (and national voters in future races should he choose to run for higher office). In my view, there’s no problem with that. As a voter and a citizen, I appreciate knowing what makes politicians and political leaders tick, especially because I still view individual character as primary in my decision making regarding whom I choose to vote for. I’ve been known to vote for someone with whom I have substantial disagreements if I judge that person’s character as more truthful and more honest than someone with whom I might agree with more on various matters of politics and government.

There’s a much larger matter at the heart of this book, one that Mr. Huckabee did not see at the time he wrote it. Let me put it this way. I think that Mike Huckabee, 1997 has a lot to say to Mike Huckabee, 2023. Last month, in responding to Donald Trump’s diatribe at his Waco, Texas rally, Mike Huckabee 2023 said the following, “And it was all back, really about loyalty. Ron DeSantis wouldn’t have been governor of Florida without Donald Trump’s intervention. Yeah, and I think Donald Trump, like a lot of us, think that somehow loyalty matters in politics. I think it does. I think there are two virtues: loyalty and confidentiality. Be loyal to the people who helped you and learn how to keep your mouth shut if you have information that could be hurtful to someone. Be confidential if you’re truly close to someone” (Brandon Gage, Mafia behavior: Mike Huckabee skewered for demanding ‘loyalty and confidentiality’ to Donald Trump,, March 26, 2023).

I wonder if Mr. Huckabee would write this book if he had to do it all over again. It’s a book that is now far more prophetic than its author could ever imagine. Obviously, character no longer matters for Mr. Huckabee and sadly, many evangelical Christians in the United States agree with Mike Huckabee 2023. I don’t and I never will.

Author: Bob Mayer

Bob Mayer recently retired after 24 years as Librarian and faculty member at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He loves good books, especially the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Henri Nouwen, and C.S. Lewis. He also enjoys film, especially movies that cause him to reflect theologically and culturally on important themes and questions.

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