Mike Huckabee is suddenly aboard a shooting star. This is no doubt thrilling, like falling in love the first time, but now he has to worry about falling off.
The Republican picture is particularly stunning in Iowa, where Mr. Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, has opened a double-digit lead over Mitt Romney 32 percent to 20 percent, with Fred Thompson a disappointing 11 percent.
It's tempting to discount Mr. Huckabee, a former Baptist pastor as well as a former governor "formers" traditionally do well in the Iowa caucuses because 32 percent in Iowa is hardly the stuff of landslides. Only about 4 percent of Iowa Republicans turn out for these caucuses, and a caucus can be a poor measurement of sentiment.
But the Huckabee factor is emerging in other places, too, and a strong showing in Iowa would likely propel him to strong showings elsewhere. He's a factor now even in New Hampshire, a long way from the evangelical redoubts in the deep South whence the congenially wisecracking parson sprang. There are even references to him now as "Huck," and it's difficult to imagine a more congenially American nickname. He has pulled into a narrow lead in South Carolina, just ahead of Rudy Giuliani.
Huck is suddenly getting a lot of ink and air time. This always translates to more scrutiny and inevitable negatives, even when it's "old news" (as the Clintons famously call embarrassing questions about their pasts). Last week, Huck had to deal with questions about his lenient attitude toward convicted rapists. This week, it's about religion. Last week, Mitt Romney attempted to allay fears about his Mormon faith, reprising John F. Kennedy's famous speech to the Baptist pastors of Houston, and now it might be Huck's turn to give reassurances to Christopher Hitchens and the best-selling bishops of the Reformed Church of Latter-Day Atheists.
The offense at hand is a speech that Mr. Huckabee made nine years ago really old news to the Pastors' Conference of the Southern Baptist Convention, challenging them to remember that their "great commission," as set out in the Scriptures, is to preach Christ, that they should resolve to "take back America for Christ." He told them that his getting into politics was "getting inside the dragon's belly," and they should remember that "there's not one thing we can do in those marbled halls and domed capitols that can equal what's done when Jesus Christ touches the life of a sinner."
Scary as this might be to the heathen, it's pretty standard fare from the pulpit of a Baptist pastor, and you could hear it from certain Methodist, Presbyterian or even Roman Catholic pulpits. The governor was, after all, speaking to like-minded pastors. But after the story was reprised from Huck's hometown newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the blog world quickened, many terrified that Huck intends to scatter sawdust on the White House floor and maybe erect a revival tent in the Rose Garden.
So far, the governor has not retreated from who he is. He did observe that the question of his religious faith only comes up when reporters ask him about it and write as if it were the candidate, not the reporter, who wanted to talk about Jesus.
Any candidate who ventures inside a church or synagogue for anything more than a wedding or a funeral invites not only scorn but a distortion of who he is and what he believes. Joe Lieberman, a practicing Jew, learned this to his sorrow as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee. The irony is that far from wanting to prescribe faith for others, these particular worthies understand the peril in that not only to the state, but to the church.
"I have visited many of the magnificent cathedrals in Europe," Mr. Romney said the other day. "They are so inspired ... so grand ... so empty ... [and] stand as the postcard backdrop to societies just too busy or too 'enlightened' to venture inside and kneel in prayer. The establishment of state religions in Europe did no favor to Europe's churches."
So much for this jihad.