Having vaulted into the front ranks of the Republican presidential contenders, Mike Huckabee is now more than an amiable curiosity — and his decade as governor of Arkansas will be scrutinized carefully for clues to his character and temperament. He has established an admirable persona as an evangelical conservative who displays none of the rancor that permeates the religious right. But when he says that his faith defines his life and that there can be no separation of religion from government, what does that mean in practice?
It isn't clear how Huckabee's Baptist outlook influenced his decisions on taxes, education or transportation, but his record in granting clemency and pardons demonstrates the dangers of religious zealotry in power.
The most infamous case of Huckabee's misplaced mercy involves a rapist and murderer named Wayne Dumond, now deceased, who originally went to prison in Arkansas for raping a distant cousin of Bill Clinton's. Eventually that case developed into an obsession among President Clinton's enemies on the right, who spread the notion that Dumond had been imprisoned unjustly and brutalized by the "Clinton machine" and should be released.
When Huckabee became governor, he supported and evidently engineered a parole for Dumond, winning applause from the Republican right — and indirectly causing the death of a young woman whom the former prisoner later raped and killed in Missouri. Dumond died in prison, under suspicion that he had murdered at least one other woman after his release, and Huckabee has sought to shift the blame for that bad outcome onto others.
To rebut critics of the Dumond fiasco and prove he is tough on crime, Huckabee notes that he signed off on 16 executions as governor. But he also used his authority to grant clemency to others found guilty of equally heinous crimes. Indeed, he granted more commutations and pardons than any governor in the previous 40 years. While many of those decisions were surely wise and just, especially when they meant reducing excessive penalties under the drug laws, some of his pardons have raised considerable controversy in Arkansas.
Influenced by his fellow pastors, as well as by friends and relatives of inmates, Huckabee appears to have practiced what might be called "Christian cronyism."
The worst example of that syndrome, chronicled in detail by the crusading journalists at Arkansas' The Leader newspaper, concerned a killer named Glen Green, sentenced to prison for life after confessing to the savage rape and murder of a teenage girl. An Air Force sergeant, Green had bludgeoned the woman with nunchucks, violated her almost lifeless body, run over her with his car and dumped her in a bayou. A preacher friend of Huckabee's convinced him that the girl's murder had been an "accident" and that the convict had repented, come to Jesus and therefore should be freed.
Huckabee seems to have known very little about the horrifying case beyond what his preacher pal told him. He didn't bother to seek the opinions of the prosecutor or the victim's family, and he ignored the dissent of his own parole board. But after the governor announced that Green would be released, a furious public eventually forced him to reverse his decision. Still, he insisted on releasing a number of murderers and other violent criminals despite protests from prosecutors.
Aside from the manifest stupidity of releasing Green, Arkansas citizen groups and newspapers criticized the secrecy of Huckabee's deliberations. He even refused to disclose his reasons for granting clemencies, supposedly because he didn't want prisoners to figure out how to win his sympathy.
But as The Leader sardonically observed, "Huckabee may not have realized it, but every prisoner knew how to get on the governor's good side. Call it Huckabee's religion test. It's a sure ticket to freedom: Tell him you've found religion." Or get a friendly pastor to tell him.
Other prisoners likewise seemed to have a special claim on Huckabee's attention, including those who labored as trusty servants at the Governor's Mansion, relatives of Huckabee's friends and employees and, in at least one case, a drunk driver who happened to be a wealthy real estate developer. (In 2003, he began serving a six-year sentence for repeated drunk driving offenses, but Huckabee let the man go after about six months. In 2006, he nearly killed a police officer in yet another drunk driving incident.)
Mercy is a wonderful quality, whether religious or secular. What seems far less wonderful is the dispensation of political favors disguised as religiosity — and that is exactly what the nation's Founders meant to forbid.
Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer (www.observer.com). To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.