Mike Huckabee and the Rise of Christian Media Under Trump

The former Arkansas governor has a new television show on Trinity Broadcasting Network, and a powerful first guest.

Mike Huckabee in the lobby of Trump Tower in November 2016
Mike Huckabee in the lobby of Trump Tower in November 2016 (Mike Segar / Reuters)

Mike Huckabee’s got a new gig. The former Arkansas governor will kick off a new show on Trinity Broadcasting Network in October, featuring music, faith, and some good old-fashioned politics. He’ll have an auspicious first guest: Donald Trump.

This planned appearance makes perfect sense in the Trump world of power and influence. The president reportedly thrives on television, but his own appearances have been more tailored to reach a core audience: white Christians. He has appeared on a number of Christian shows, doing interviews with Raymond Arroyo of the Catholic network EWTN and the Christian Broadcasting Network titan Pat Robertson.

Huckabee, an early Trump supporter and frequent surrogate for the administration on Fox News, represents a very specific segment of evangelicals: those who are predominantly white, fairly conservative, and actual fans of the president. Like other religious leaders, he claims to speak for his entire religious community, when in fact evangelical Christians are extremely divided over this political moment. In an interview, I asked him whether he was concerned about fellow Christians who feel alienated by Trump, and whether he takes seriously criticism from leaders like William Barber, who has accused Trump-supporting Christians of “theological malpractice that borders on a form of heresy.”

“I totally don’t,” Huckabee said.

I have edited our conversation below for clarity and length—but not by much. Huckabee tossed off conservative talking points about Trump’s job-creation record and Obama’s “almost vicious” attitude toward Israel—claims that elide nuance. Ultimately, his comments offer a look at how some Trump-supporting Christians think about the president. “To me, character is if you’re the same in public as you are in private,” Huckabee told me. “I think that in many ways, that’s what’s appealing about [Trump].”

Emma Green: You have made a bit of a migration. Your new show is on Trinity Broadcasting Network, which is a Christian television network, rather than your old haunt, Fox News. Why is that?

Mike Huckabee: Well, when Rupert Murdoch was still in control of the network, I think his plan was to bring my show back, but when he left, new management didn’t necessarily agree with that. Trinity had been wanting to have discussions with me about doing a show for them, which would be very different than anything I’ve ever done, because all the shows that they’ve done in the past have been openly and intentionally religious in nature. My show is going to be their first attempt for a show that is not directly a faith program.

Green: Particularly over the last year or so, Christian media seems to have gotten a profile boost—organizations like the Christian Broadcasting Network have routinely landed interviews with President Trump.

Why is Christian television having a moment right now?

Huckabee: I think more people are looking to faith in their personal lives because of the uncertainties in the world. Everything from North Korea to natural disasters gives them an extraordinary sense of stress and unease, and the one anchor and rock that many people have discovered gives them perspective and equilibrium is their faith.

I also believe that there’s a real hunger for television programming that is wholesome. Not necessarily overtly religious—people don’t necessarily want to watch all-day preaching or teaching—but they also want to be entertained in a way that does not insult them as individuals.

I think they’re looking for programming that they can safely tune to and not have to rush the children out of the room or to feel like they have to take a shower having watched a show that is frankly insulting to everything they hold dear.

“They don’t care whether or not the guy believes as they do. They just want someone who will respect their beliefs.”

[Huckabee called me from an airport. At this point, intercom announcements made it difficult for us to hear each other. The conversation picks up here on the topic of President Trump.]

Huckabee: I think the president has been very respectful of the faith community, and [evangelicals] overwhelmingly voted for him—in fact, in far larger numbers than they voted for John McCain or Mitt Romney in the last two elections, [and] in fact, even more so than they voted for George W. Bush. So he has enjoyed extraordinary support. He will in fact be my first guest on the first television show that I do.

Green: Really?

Huckabee: Yeah. Nobody pretends that he would be an ideal Sunday-school teacher, to be fair. I don’t think he is a person who is deeply acquainted with the Bible and he’s not known to set attendance records at church. But he’s very respectful of people of faith. And that’s really all people in the Christian community want. They don’t care whether or not the guy believes as they do. They just want someone who will respect their beliefs, and not denigrate them, and not try to use the power of government to silence them. And he’s been very adamant and clear that he believes in religious liberty, believes that people’s beliefs should be protected.

Green: You once wrote a book called Character Makes a Difference, and you’ve observed that “character is that which causes you to make the same decision in public as you would make in private.” We’ve seen evidence not just that the president isn’t acquainted with the Bible, or perhaps isn’t a Sunday school teacher, but that he’s made comments or taken actions in private that don’t necessarily show strong character. Are you troubled by this at all?

Huckabee: Many of the things that have been attributed to him, that he even in fact admitted saying, were things that were 12, 15 years ago—20 years and beyond. Would I like for him to speak every day with the most extraordinary sense of faith? Sure.

But I’ll tell you what I’d rather have. To me, character is if you’re the same in public as you are in private, and I think that in many ways, that’s what’s appealing about him. It’s also what gives a lot of his critics their ammunition. Even his tweets, for example, are very transparent about what he’s thinking, what he’s feeling. But some of the more harsh things that have been attributed to him were things that were said many years ago, and there’s been no indication that during his campaign and during his presidency has he said things that would cause people to just be aghast at what he had said. We’ve had presidents that have done things while they were in the Oval Office that frankly were very destructive and embarrassing. And I don’t think anybody has made those allegations about this president.

“He has not pretended that he’s sitting on the front row of church or that he’s memorized any Bible verses.”

Green: Under President Trump, evangelicals seem to have become more influential, certainly more than in the previous administration. Why do you think it is that evangelicals have been such counselors for President Trump?

Huckabee: I think they respect his candor. They respect the fact that he has been very honest with them. He has not pretended that he’s sitting on the front row of church or that he’s memorized any Bible verses. And I think they’re frankly refreshed by that honesty. But more importantly, they want a president who simply respects them—who recognizes that underneath all the Bill of Rights is religious liberty. Lose that, and they lose everything else. If the government can begin to put restrictions on what a person believes, then the government can put a restriction on what a person says, what he thinks, where he goes, with whom he associates, with how he conducts his or her life. And that is really the essence of the loss of freedom.

Green: What do you see as President Trump’s concrete accomplishments on the topic of religious liberty?

Huckabee: I think his approach to the Johnson Amendment, which should have never happened back in [1954], [and] the fact that he has not used the power of government to go after people like the previous administration, [such as] when the Obama administration actually sued the Little Sisters of the Poor.

Green: Some conservative Christians, including other evangelicals, have argued that President Trump’s executive order on the Johnson Amendment and his order of relief for the Little Sisters actually have not changed the status quo that much. In particular, do you think that the executive order on the Johnson Amendment actually had any consequence?

Huckabee: Well it does, because the agency that would’ve administered it—the IRS—is under his authority. Frankly, I want to see it codified into law. But the fact that he’s essentially taken that threat away from the marketplace is significant in itself. My hope is that he will get a Congress that will start cooperating with him and passing significant legislation. But as we’ve seen, even though we have both houses of Congress in the majority, they’re not altogether helpful to this president.

Green: Some have criticized President Trump’s evangelical advisory committee for sticking with him through various low points—for example, in the wake of his comments about “both sides” being accountable for the violence in Charlottesville. Do you think evangelicals are justified in staying on his advisory council?

Huckabee: Do I think that they’re justified in remaining in supporting—

Green: —on the advisory council.

Huckabee: I think that they’re certainly very happy with what he has done overall. No president’s going to be perfect. But after eight years of having a president who’s essentially very hostile toward the evangelical faith community, and particularly to things that matter to them …

Evangelicals are very supportive of Israel. President Obama was, if anything, caustic and harsh and almost vicious toward Israel, and that was very difficult for many evangelicals. In addition to that, President Obama—even at the [National Prayer Breakfast], he talked about Christians need to getting off their high horse. I mean, those kinds of comments were not helpful.

“What has he said, as president, what has he done as president, that has been anything other than respectful of women? I don’t know.”

Green: Do you have any concerns about the evangelical Christians who might disagree with what you just outlined? Those who see President Trump’s comments on immigrants, his choice to take away DACA, his comments about women and sexual assault, and feel alienated from both the Republican Party and their fellow Christians who voted for Trump in droves?

Huckabee: Well, first of all, the president’s position on DACA is to try to make it legal, but what President Obama did was unconstitutional. This was very frustrating to many of us who believe that you have to be a nation of laws, not of emotions, not of feelings.

President Trump is being accused of being cruel, when in fact, what he’s trying to do is to create a legal way in which these 800,000 people can actually be protected. But that’s not how it’s been portrayed. The media has been very dishonest, incredibly dishonest, about that. They should be thanking him, because he could’ve ended it abruptly or he could’ve waited until the courts decided on it.

My gosh, I was governor for nearly 11 years. I wish I could just bypass the legislature and sign into being what I wanted rather than having to work with it.

And then on women, I mean—I’m not sure when people say it’s not been clear, whatever, on sexual assault. What has he said, as president, what has he done as president, that has been anything other than respectful of women? I don’t know.

Green: Well, to be fair, I think there were many people—and this is not just liberals or the media, it’s many prominent Christian leaders—who were shocked by the comments that came out in the fall of 2016 about grabbing women. These were comments he seemed to make in a blasé way in private.

Huckabee: Let me just point out that those statements were not made recently. They were made like 12 years before. Did he defend them? No, he didn’t. He apologized for them. That was 12 years before.

Green: The question that I’m asking is less about defending President Trump and more about actual people. When you look out at your flock in your church, people who share your same conviction and your same faith, who feel troubled and hurt by our political climate and specifically by the actions and comments of the president, are you concerned for your church?

Huckabee: You know, I’m concerned when a pastor of a church is called an adulterer or is found to have an alcohol problem, because he’s pretending to be something in the pulpit that he’s clearly not. When Donald Trump was a private citizen and said things 12 years ago, when he was out as a business person, saying some things that I found to be totally disgusting—I don’t condone them, I in fact condemn them, but I also …

If he started saying those things as president, I would have a real problem with that. But I have a big problem—you know, I happen to know Hillary Clinton very well, probably better than any Republican who ran, and I know how vulgar her language can be and how demeaning she can be to people who work for her. That bothers me, too. I don’t ever hear people talking about that. It seems like the only person they have a concern about in terms of the way they acted was Donald Trump. And I think that’s an incredible double standard that’s been applied.

“There are a lot of people whose hatred of him is irrational, and it’s so intense, that it borders on a derangement.”

Green: Speaking of your Arkansas days: When you were governor, you often spoke about poor and middle-class Arkansans. You talk about that even now, that the Republican Party has forgotten poor and middle-class Americans.

But other Christian leaders, including people like William Barber, have accused evangelicals who support President Trump of neglecting exactly these people—the poor, the middle class, people who are on margins. What do you say in response to their accusations that conservative Christians are leaving behind the people who are most vulnerable in American society?

Huckabee: The fact that under this president 1.2 million jobs have been created is the best news middle-class people could get. If they start getting to keep more of the money they earn, that’s huge for them.

Green: Do you take seriously any of the accusations that William Barber has made about Christians that have supported President Trump abandoning the vulnerable for the sake of politics?

Huckabee: I totally don’t. If anything, they should’ve been concerned that more African Americans were unemployed under President Obama than had ever been. [President Obama] should have done significant things to improve not only the job rate for minorities—he should have also helped to alleviate crime and incarceration in those communities. They actually went the other way. Violence was up in minority communities. And that hurts everyone who lives there, not just the people who get shot. But it hurts those communities, the property values. I think having a strong approach to law and order is very critical to changing the way in those communities. And giving them access to schools that work and schools that are functioning on their behalf. That to me is also important.

“My daughter said that she spent a lot of time with the president, and she’s only been treated with the highest levels of respect and dignity.”

Green: Your daughter Sarah is one of the most high-profile members of the administration, and arguably one of the most high-profile evangelicals in America. If she were asked to defend a statement or decision by the president that she truly found to compromise her integrity, what would you counsel her to do?

Huckabee: Well I’ve always counseled her to be true to herself, to tell the truth. Fortunately, she’s not been put in that position to compromise her integrity. When we were on The View together, one of the attempts to smear her—which I thought was just disgusting, was just stunning by Joy Behar—was when she said to me, “How could you let your daughter work for this president?” And I [thought], “First of all, my daughter’s 35 years old. I didn’t know that we were living under sharia law, and she had to get my permission to take a job.” For someone who pretends to be a feminist like Joy Behar, I thought that was just an absurd comment.

But my point to her was, I’m very proud of my daughter. She has a very extraordinary opportunity. My daughter said that she spent a lot of time with the president, and she’s only been treated with the highest levels of respect and dignity when she’s around him. He has his many critics, but I would like to believe that the people who actually work with him day in and day out are better judges of what he does and who he is than the people who hate his every utterance and who hate the very air he breathes. And there are a lot of people whose hatred of him is irrational, and it’s so intense, that it borders on a derangement.

Green: On that note, one thing that people talk about a lot from both sides is a concern about the vitriolic rhetoric in our political culture right now—the absolute sense of division, and fracture, and constant hatred. What are your plans to try to counter that on your television show?

Huckabee: I don’t plan to have guests on that we argue with and scream at. That’s one thing that I’m adamant about. I believe that we should have conversations with people that are quite civil, that allow people to finish a sentence.

The political portion of my show will be very different than most cable news in that the focus is going to be on what I call a vertical approach to politics. Most political discussions are totally horizontal: left versus right, Democrat versus Republican, conservative versus liberal. That’s all horizontal. And it’s the gamesmanship of winning and losing. But what I want to focus on is what I call the vertical aspects. Is it good or is it not? Does it help people or does it hurt people? Is it an improvement, is it detrimental? I’m far more interested in whether something is up or down than whether it’s right or left. And that’s the approach I’ll take with the show.

Green: So when will your interview with President Trump air?

Huckabee: It’ll air on the very first show, which will air on October 7 and 8. And I think it’ll be a very fascinating way for us to get started.