Huckabee Stands By a Televangelist

  • Share
  • Read Later
Steve Mitchell / AP

Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee

Presidential campaigns love to put their candidates in the company of influential evangelists. And the advertisement on page 44 of the December issue of the religious magazine Charisma was probably planned with that in mind. It shows Republican hopeful Mike Huckabee, sitting at a table with Texas-based Kenneth Copeland on the Believers Voice of Victory set, next to a bowl of fruit and an open Bible. The ad invites viewers to "tune in as" the two men "sit down for six days of frank discussion on the biblical perspective of character." The ad quotes Huckabee: "Character is who we are when nobody's looking but God."

But the Senate Finance Committee has been looking too. Last week Senator Charles Grassley, the Committee's ranking Republican, announced a probe of the finances of six television preachers. He sent each a letter filled with extremely pointed questions about their multimillion-dollar finances. The longest questionnaire, with 42 specific queries, went out to Copeland and his wife Gloria. Copeland is the founder and head of the multimillion-dollar Kenneth Copeland ministries, and the host in its crown jewel, the daily Believers Voice of Victory broadcast.

A Senate probe is one thing. But the Charisma ad has introduced a campaign wrinkle to it: Will Huckabee, who is riding a wave of momentum and currently polling second among Republicans in Iowa prior to its caucuses, stick by Copeland and risk putting himself on the wrong side of Grassley as he forges ahead with his investigation?

Senator Grassley's letter requested Copeland and his wife's credit card records and information on all offshore banking accounts; receipts for their planes (The Ft. Worth Star Telegram reports that FAA records show Copeland owns three planes and his ministry has several more) and whether trips to Hawaii and Fiji on a ministry plane were for business reasons. Grassley also wants the specifics of a reported deal whereby the ministry — which possesses considerable mineral rights — allegedly used them to "capitalize" a for-profit company. All the questions seem aimed at determining whether Copeland had broken the tax laws regarding non-profits, emphatically and repeatedly.

The letters are not subpoenas. But Grassley has asked for responses in the next month (the week after Huckabee's TV appearance, as it happens), and mused that they may lead to testimony under oath.

The Copeland family is apparently leaning toward not replying to Grassley. TIME attempted several times to reach them without success, but their website asserts that "We operate our church in full compliance with IRS guidelines" and although "we respect the Committee's right to raise issues that could impact the public... we are required only to share our information with the Internal Revenue Service." Unlike some of the other ministries contacted, which posted financial statements or (in one case) a letter from the IRS testifying that it complied with code in 1985 and 1986), the KCM website appeared to make public only an assurance that it was IRS compliant, a simple pie chart, and the name of its accountant.

In the meantime, Huckabee is standing by the Copelands. In an e-mail message to TIME, Huckabee maintained, "Kenneth and Gloria Copeland are about the most gracious, authentic, and humble people I know and I consider them dear friends. They have brought hope to millions and have operated with the utmost integrity as far as I know. I have found them to be as warm and genuine in their private moments as they are in their public moments."

That sentiment will find resonance among those Evangelical Christians who worry that Grassley's pursuit of the six preachers, who all belong to a faction of Charismatic Christianity known loosely as "prosperity gospel," amounts to what one observer called a "saint hunt." It will not play as well with others who have grown increasingly frustrated at the opulent lifestyles of the televangelists. In any case, maintaining a friend's innocence allows Huckabee to continue to access a part of the media important to Republican hopefuls. Charisma's editor, J. Lee Grady, was slightly amused that anyone would think Copeland would be a burden on Huckabee. "Number one," he says, "Just because Grassley's investigating Copeland doesn't mean Huckabee thinks he's guilty. And number two, Huckabee is courting so many different camps, he's gonna go wherever he's welcomed." Neither are Huckabee's presidential rivals likely to press him on the matter: there is no point annoying religious conservatives.

The skillful use of religious media may be more important to Republican presidential wannabes this campaign than in the past. Various religious conservative groups are chasing different agendas so they haven't been trying to unite behind a candidate, which means the candidates must woo them one by one. This could have been done more efficiently when a few shows like Pat Robertson's 700 Club dominated the evangelical remote. But that program has faded and Grady says the Christian TV market is almost as fragmented as the Republican field. The largest network, the Trinity Broadcasting Network, airs several of the more popular Charismatic televangelists. But Grady suspects TBN's Praise the Lord talk/variety program will probably forgo candidate appearances: not only because the religious right is split on which horse to back, but because a significant proportion of TBN's viewers are African-American Pentecostals, some of whom favor Barack Obama. The most influential evangelical radio show is Dr. James Dobson's Focus on the Family, but Dobson has not endorsed Huckabee.

Given an opportunity to try to consolidate evangelical support, SaysGrady, "I wouldn't be surprised if [Huckabee] showed up inpictures with a lot of other people in our magazine." But the possible cost is summed up nicely by Frank Lockwood, religion editor for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, who recently observed Huckabee visit two churches in Irving, Texas: one a non-Prosperity Baptist megachurch and the other a prosperity church. "I think he's been flying under the radar a little bit." he says." A CBS poll of white evangelicals in October showed that 57% said that they didn't know enough about him to answer a question of whether he had strong religious beliefs — and he's a former pastor. So by going on Copeland's show he can reach this huge audience, hundreds of thousands of people at least. But many evangelicals are uncomfortable with Prosperity theology, and they may be put off by seeing him on this particular show. And the real risk is with non-Evangelicals. This could be his Dean Scream moment. Not that he would scream. But he's doing well enough now to draw major media. And he may find himself standing next to a 'prophet' or an 'apostle' getting a message from God. On national TV."