Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (centrer) sparred with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (right) and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in the CNN/YouTube Republican presidential debate in St. Petersburg, Fla. Photo by Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images
by Mark Silva
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- For a presidential contest in which religion – and indeed the religious faith of at least one candidate – will play a certain role in the choices which many voters make, two questions loom large here: Is every word in the Bible true, and “what would Jesus do’’ about capital punishment.
For Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister who had a career in Christian broadcasting before election as governor of Arkansas – a "pro-life'' governor who has executed the death penalty – these questions set up a couple of quick hits over the fences in last night’s televised debate of the Republican candidates for president.
“Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office,’’ Huckabee said. “That's what Jesus would do.’’
But the ones who are running for the Republican nomination in 2008 confront a political fact: One in four of the potential voters in their primaries and caucuses this winter consider themselves Christian conservatives, though religion will play a greater role for some than for others. And in the campaign of Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts who is a Mormon, the choice which many Evangelical Christians make in Iowa, New Hampshire and beyond may have as much to with who he is as what he says.
“I believe in the Bible,’’ Romney declared here.
And in the context of this campaign for the votes of those who care deeply about “the culture of life,’’ how might one square support for capital punishment with his opposition to abortion?
In came “Joseph,’’ from Dallas, Texas, holding a big Bible for the camera of the video-question which he submitted to YouTube – one of some 5,000 questions screened by the producers of the CNN-YouTube debate that ran for two hours last night and exposed the tension within the GOP’s contest just five weeks from the first caucuses in Iowa and primaries in New Hampshire.
“How you answer this question will tell us everything we need to know about you,’’ Joseph told the candidates assembled on stage in a bay-front theater here. “Do you believe every word of this book? Specifically, this book that I am holding in my hand.
“Do you believe this book?’’
The moderator tossed it right to Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York and front-runner in his party’s polls.
“Well….’’ Giuliani started.
“Do I need to help you out, Mayor, on this one?’’ Huckabee asked to laughter in the hall of the Mahaffey Theater.
“Wait a second, you're the minister,’’ Giuliani said, wrily. “You're going to help me out on this one.
“I'm trying to help you out,’’ Huckabee said.
“OK,’’ Giuliani said. “The reality is, I believe it, but I don't believe it's necessarily literally true in every single respect.
“I think there are parts of the Bible that are Interpretive,’’ he said. “I think there are parts of the Bible that are allegorical. I think there are parts of the Bible that are meant to be interpreted in a modern context.
“So, yes, I believe it,’’ he said. “I think it's the great book ever written. I read it frequently. I read it very frequently when I've gone through the bigger crises in my life, and I find great wisdom in it, and it does define to a very large extent my faith.
“But I don't believe every single thing in the literal sense of Jonah being in the belly of the whale, or, you know, there are some things in it that I think were put there as allegorical.’’
Romney delivered the straightest answer possible, something that a lot of Evangelicals may be looking for in his words:
“I believe the Bible is the word of God, absolutely. And I try to live by it as well as I can, but I miss in a lot of ways,’’ said Romney. “But it's a guide for my life and for hundreds of millions, billions of people around the world. I believe in the Bible.’’
Every word, moderator Anderson Cooper asked?
“You know -- yes, I believe it's the word of God, the Bible is the word of God,’’ Romney said. “The Bible is the word of God. I mean, I might interpret the word differently than you interpret the word, but I read the Bible, and I believe the Bible is the word of God. I don't disagree with the Bible. I try to live by it.’’
Huckabee, the ordained Southern Baptist: “Sure. I believe the Bible is exactly what it is. It's the word of revelation to us from God himself.
“And the fact is that when people ask do we believe all of it, you either believe it or you don't believe it. But in the greater sense, I think what the question tried to make us feel like was that, well, if you believe the part that says "Go and pluck out your eye," well, none of us believe that we ought to go pluck out our eye. That obviously is allegorical.
“But the Bible has some messages that nobody really can confuse and really not left up to interpretation. "Love your neighbor as yourself…
“As the only person here on the stage with a theology degree, there are parts of it I don't fully comprehend and understand, because the Bible is a revelation of an infinite God, and no finite person is ever going to fully understand it. If they do, their god is too small.’’
Huckabee was particularly well-suited to handle the other question as well, from “Tyler,’’ in Memphis: “I have a quick question for those of you who would call yourselves Christian conservatives. The death penalty, what would Jesus do?’’
“You know, one of the toughest challenges that I ever faced as a governor was carrying out the death penalty,’’ said Huckabee. “I did it more than any other governor ever had to do it in my state. As I look on this stage, I'm pretty sure that I'm the only person on this stage that's ever had to actually do it.
“Let me tell you, it was the toughest decision I ever made as a human being,’’ he said. “I read every page of every document of every case that ever came before me, because it was the one decision that came to my desk that, once I made it, was irrevocable. Every other decision, somebody else could go back and overturn, could fix if it was a mistake. That was one that was irrevocable.
“I believe there is a place for a death penalty,’’ Huckabee said. “Some crimes are so heinous, so horrible that the only response that we, as a civilized nation, have for a most uncivil action is not only to try to deter that person from ever committing that crime again, but also as a warning to others that some crimes truly are beyond any other capacity for us to fix.
“Having said that, there are those who say, "How can you be pro-life and believe in the death penalty?’ Huckabee asked himself. “Because there's a real difference between the process of adjudication, where a person is deemed guilty after a thorough judicial process and is put to death by all of us, as citizens, under a law, as opposed to an individual making a decision to terminate a life that has never been deemed guilty because the life never was given a chance to even exist… That’s the fundamental difference.’’
Cooper couldn’t let him go without asking, though: “What would Jesus do? Would Jesus support the death penalty?’’
“Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office,’’ Huckabee replied. “That's what Jesus would do.’’