Like any other Bible Belt state, Arkansas contains more than its share of church camps.
Gov. Mike Huckabee thought about that after Hurricane Katrina. The ordained Southern Baptist minister also knew that the summer camping season was over and that thousands of people fleeing New Orleans had to go somewhere.
"I saw on TV people on the bridges of Interstate 10 stranded for days without water, and I thought, this isn't Rwanda. This isn't Indonesia. …
This was the United States of America," said the former governor, who is now part of the throng of Republican presidential candidates. "These were the neighbors just to the south of us in Louisiana. It was beyond my comprehension that we could get TV cameras to those people but we couldn't get a boat or a bottle of water to them."
Thus, he asked religious leaders to open camps all over Arkansas to the evacuees, while urging the public to rally around this blunt public
policy: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
This was one case in which critics didn't challenge his link between private faith and public action, said Huckabee, meeting with journalists at a recent talkback session at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
This didn't turn into another nasty clash between God and the government because the need was great and this faith-based effort united citizens instead of dividing them.
Activists on the right will have to do more of that. Of course, Huckabee told the journalists that he has no intention of surrendering on moral issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Nevertheless, religious conservatives need to be less confrontational when it comes to convincing skeptical Americans that faith can be a positive force in the public square.
After all, he said, it's hard to believe that anyone actually thinks that political leaders are supposed to separate their personal beliefs from their public convictions.
"I sometimes marvel when people running for office are asked about faith and their answer is, 'Oh, I don't get into that. I keep that completely separate. My faith is completely immaterial to how I think and how I govern,' " he said. "To me, that is really tantamount to saying that one's faith is so marginal, so insignificant and so inconsequential that it really doesn't impact the way one lives. I would consider it an extraordinarily shallow faith that does not really impact the way we think about other human beings and the way we respond to them."
No one debated that concept after Katrina. Thus, Huckabee listed several other unifying moral issues that he thinks deserve attention on the political right.
While Americans disagree on what to do about health-care reform, the nation could rally around efforts to provide health care for children, he said. Liberals and conservatives also could focus on funding health-care programs that fight the big three activities — smoking, overeating and "under-exercising" — that fuel soaring medical costs.
While Huckabee acknowledged that environmental issues cause heated debates, he believes that it's time for conservatives to become more involved in efforts to promote the "better stewardship of the environment and in development of an energy source that is not foreign based but domestically produced."
And then there is the issue of corporate corruption, with business leaders drawing giant bonuses while wrecking their companies. Surely, conservatives can agree that this is immoral, said Huckabee.
"I don't see how we can call it anything other than a moral issue," he said. "That's not free enterprise. That's theft."
The point is that religious conservatives are will have to broaden their agendas and be willing to work on new issues, said Huckabee. They can do this without compromising on the essentials.
"I really do think that if Christian conservatives, who have … held the Republican Party's feet to the fire on issues as they relate to traditional conservative social areas, no longer play that role, it not only is going to be the end of relevancy for them, but I also think that it means that the Republican Party will lose a lot of people. They will say, 'Well, you know what, if they're not going to be the party that really cares about these issues, I'll go home to the Democratic Party.' A lot of those folks came from the Democratic Party to begin with."