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When he announces next week that he is again running for president, Mike Huckabee will tap into one of the world's great traditions of political combat: religious fear.
Huckabee's problem is that it is not an American tradition — Europe and the Middle East have been its fertile soil — and it will not carry him to the presidency. An Iowa caucus victory could be in the works for Arkansas's former governor, but not the presidency, for which we will have cause to thank the founders, particularly Thomas Jefferson.
In Iowa and other forums, Huckabee said there was an undeclared war on Christianity in the United States and that the goal of the warriors, obviously led by President Obama, was to make it a crime in America to be a Christian. It will be President Huckabee's task to beat back the infidels before they can pass such a law. This is the wildest charge of the young presidential season and it is a giant challenge to the rhetorical excesses of Huckabee's rivals for the evangelical vote in the Republican primaries: Ted Cruz, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio.
"I think it's fair to say that Christian convictions are under attack as never before," Huckabee told pastors in a conference call preparatory to his presidential announcement. "We are moving rapidly toward the criminalization of Christianity."
He had accused Obama of ordering military chaplains to toss their Bibles, not to pray in Jesus' name and not to counsel soldiers on sexual morality, something he apparently picked up from the Moonie newspaper. Huckabee urged Americans not to enter military service until he or another good Christian becomes president.
Huckabee says the Affordable Care Act, which offers health insurance to people with low incomes, and gay marriage are part of the war on Christianity, and last week he urged people to beg God not to let the Supreme Court legalize same-sex unions.
As for Huckabee's hostility to gays, whom God in the Book of Leviticus ordered be killed, he might recall President Lincoln's musings about Southern preachers in Lincoln's day who called attention to the Bible's admiration of slavery. How strange, Lincoln said, that Christians would "dare ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces."
Huckabee, Cruz and their rivals are not the first political leaders to arouse religious fears or stoke hostility to gain power. They account for much of the history of the Middle East, where the struggle for power since 632 A.D. has, in the name of their faiths, incited war between the competing claimants for the Prophet Muhammad's legacy or between other religious faiths. Under Obama as with his predecessors, the United States keeps getting sucked into the wars, primarily to kill or subdue the radical components of the Sunni sect like al Qaeda, the Taliban and the Islamic State but occasionally the opposing Shia believers, which we are currently battling in Syria and Yemen through surrogates.
The alarums of Huckabee and other modern political warriors for God may owe more to the European tradition — the Catholic-Protestant wars of the 16th and 17th centuries with carryovers to modern times in Northern Ireland and precincts in Eastern Europe — than to the ancient Islamic and tribal splits along the southern Mediterranean.
As it happens, when I read about Huckabee's call to arms last week I was in Avignon and Arles in southern France, although on a culinary and sightseeing expedition rather than a search for my spiritual roots. My brother, the historian, sent an email urging a drive over to the alpine village of Antraigues-sur-Volane, where our ninth great-grandfather, Jerome Dumas, was born before the family fled west to England and thence to America to escape the persecution of Huguenots after the Reformation.
Up to 4 million people died in the religious wars of central Europe, and none suffered more than the Huguenots, whom the French throne and nobility and the pope considered infidels who were undermining Christianity.
From your history text or the movies (notably, D.W. Griffith's 1916 film "Intolerance"), you may remember the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572, the height of the wars. The massacre followed the attempted assassination of Gaspard de Coligny, a leader of the Huguenots, which was rumored to have been ordered by King Charles IX with the support of Pope Gregory XIII. The bloodshed spread from Paris to a dozen cities. So many Protestant bodies floated down the Rhone that for a spell the town of Arles stopped drinking its water. Coligny's severed head was packaged and sent to Pope Gregory, who sent the king a golden rose. The massacre was viewed as God's retribution against the French Protestants, including, I suppose, the Dumas clan.
I regret that I did not visit Antraigues, but at Arles, Avignon and other villages I saw the legacy of St. Bartholomew's Day and the extended wars: the beheaded statues of the saints and other destruction at cathedrals, where the vandals of the French Revolution took revenge for the church's alliance with royalty and the nobility against the common people, especially the Huguenots. The wars undermined both the royalty and the Catholic Church and helped produce the French Revolution.
In America, they were enshrined in the First Amendment and the creed of Jefferson, the U.S. minister to France after the French and American revolutions, that the United States must forever take pains to keep church and state separate.
Huckabee must know that, too, but right now capturing the extreme evangelical wing of the party in Iowa and the Southern states is his only route to the White House, narrow as it is. God in his mercy will forgive him.