Understanding the Gospel According to Huckabee

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee i i

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, shown speaking in Miami last month, often uses biblical allusions in his speeches. Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, shown speaking in Miami last month, often uses biblical allusions in his speeches.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

If you heard Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee's victory speech on Super Tuesday, you may have noticed him speaking in what is almost a separate dialect. Some listeners have even asked us what he was talking about. So NPR headed off to the National Mall in search of people who understood Huckabee's biblical allusions.

It proved almost as hard as getting a camel through the eye of a needle.

We started by recounting this story: In November, as Huckabee surged in the polls, a student at Liberty University asked him what was driving his startling success. Huckabee responded, "It's the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of 5,000 people."

We played the tape for Leitha Anthony, who was waiting to go into the Washington Monument. Did she know what he was talking about?

"That's when Moses ... had to feed all the people, the multitude of people that left Egypt," Anthony hazarded. "That's what it was?"

Anthony, who is from Mississippi, was close — the Bible story did involve food — but it was Jesus feeding the hungry crowd. Most of the other people we talked to near the Washington Monument got it wrong, too.

For the next quiz question, we played a clip from Huckabee's Super Tuesday victory speech:

"Sometimes," the former Arkansas governor told his supporters, "one small smooth stone is even more effective than a whole lot of armor."

"Maybe something to do with the war," guessed Dan Booth, who was visiting from Alabama.

"He's talking about peace, the resolution of peace?" ventured his friend Mike Allen.

Actually, Huckabee was comparing himself to the shepherd boy David, who slayed the giant Goliath with one smooth stone right in the forehead.

Only one person knew that one — a disconcerting record as we moved into advanced "Huckabese." The next clip also came from Tuesday night's speech:

"We've also seen that the widow's mite has more effectiveness than all the gold in the world."

We asked Daria Teutonico and Richard Pettit about the widow's mite as they walked to lunch on Pennsylvania Avenue.

"I have no clue," was Teutonico's answer. "I thought a mite was a bug."

"Is it a spider?" Pettit added. They both laughed.

The widow's mite actually refers to a poor woman Jesus observed giving a small coin to God. It was all she had.

Like every person we stopped, Teutonico and Pettit were raised in Christian households and had attended Sunday school. But Boston University professor Stephen Prothero says they're not alone in being mystified by Huckabee's rhetoric.

"Half of Americans can't name any of the four Gospels, and that includes the Christians," Prothero says. "And half don't know that Genesis is the first book of the Bible. Those are much easier questions than things like, you know, 'What's the loaves and the fishes story?'"

Prothero, who wrote the book Religious Literacy, says Huckabee may think he's scoring points with his base.

"You could imagine that ... this is his secret code way that he could speak to evangelicals without alienating more secular people," Prothero says. "But the faulty part of that strategy is the evangelicals don't even necessarily know these stories."

Finally, we happened upon Vicky Frey. She attends a megachurch of 2,500 people in Omaha, Neb. She got every question right. So she was asked about one more Huckabee quote for the bonus round:

"It's almost like when the prophet was looking for a king. He came down, looked through all of Jesse's sons, went through a whole bunch of them, and said, 'Is this all you got?'"

Before the question was finished, Frey was nodding and smiling.

"And that would be Samuel the prophet came down and went through all of the sons — I think there were seven of them — and David was the last one," she quickly responded, adding, "Jesse said, 'No, I still have one more son, but he's the youngest and he's out in the field tending the sheep,' and he chose him.

"And so the lesson that we're supposed to learn from that," she explained, "is it's not on our physical appearance that we're judged, but it's on our heart. So the prophet knew that David would be king because he had the proper heart."

"Do you feel like you're in church today?" Frey asked, laughing.

It just so happens Frey is a Huckabee supporter.

And Prothero's response when he learned we had finally found someone who could understand Huckabee?

"It's an exceedingly small target audience, about as small as the percentage of animals climbing on Noah's ark."

No one knows how long Huckabee's campaign will last. But it's already been nearly 40 days and 40 nights since his surprising win in Iowa.

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