By Christopher Hooks
When the Iowa caucuses wind down on Monday night, we won’t know who will go on to win the Republican nomination for president. But we’ll know who won’t. Iowa kills unfortified campaigns, like this year’s bid by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. His lengthy career in politics is probably coming to an end tonight, even if he doesn’t immediately drop out. On Sunday night, he staged a curtain call, in the form of a special screening of God’s Not Dead 2 at a West Des Moines metroplex.
Huckabee made a name for himself in the last decade as a smiling evangelical, the friendly fellow who’d go on The Daily Show and crack a few jokes while politely advocating for his beliefs. In 2008, he won eight states in the Republican primary and nearly 20 percent of the vote. He’s less cordial these days, resorting to shock tactics and engaging in an increasingly acidic grudge match with evangelicals who back Ted Cruz, whom he views as a pretender.
But Cruz is ascendant, despite his best efforts. And where does that leave Huckabee? For the moment, in a glitzy suburban Cinemark. God’s Not Dead, the 2014 film that starred Kevin Sorbo as a militant atheist college professor who’s bested by a Christian student then quickly converts before his onscreen death, was a smash hit, grossing some $64 million on a $2 million budget. The sequel, about the persecution of a teacher who talks about Christ in the classroom, features a Huckabee cameo; his campaign has staged this screening in Iowa in an effort to win last-minute support.
Huckabee staffers line the movie theater’s lobby and concessions areas, and Huckaswag is everywhere. Cards handed out with every ticket and stuffed in every theater cupholder urge moviegoers to pledge to caucus for Huckabee; they declare he’ll “burn down the corrupt Washington political machine” and “defeat the forces of radical Islam.”
In the audience is Joshua Feuerstein, who bills himself as a “Social Media Evangelist.” He’s been campaigning with Huckabee, but he’s more famous for a 2015 online video in which he warned that "abortion doctors should have to run and hide and be afraid for their life." He’s helped lead the boycott against Starbucks for their unforgivably plain holiday coffee cups, and encouraged Christians to resist gay marriage with their “Second Amendment rights.” Many in the audience recognize Feuerstein and run over to take pictures with him. He’s asked by one couple if he’s been campaigning. “I’m trying,” he says. “Some people don’t like me too much.” He adds: “The key is truth and love, to speak like Jesus did. I’m still working on that.”
In lieu of previews, a procession of speakers tout Huckabee’s political prowess. Leslie Rutledge, the attorney general of Arkansas, makes a pretty direct pitch. “When I ran for AG, my ad was pretty simple. I told people I am a Christian, pro-life, gun-carrying conservative woman.” The audience applauds. “I want you all to know that my good friend Mike Huckabee is a Christian, pro-life, gun-carrying conservative man.” Fair enough.
Rutledge introduces Jimmy Labriola, a stand-up comedian who’s come from New York to join the campaign. Huckabee, he says, is “the Reagan of our time.”
“Any Home Improvement fans?” There’s a scattering of applause. “OK, five people. Well, I used to play Tim’s friend Benny for five years.” The audience makes noises of recognition.
Labriola introduces Huckabee. What a treat it was to see a movie for free, Huckabee reminds the audience. “There’s one little catch. It was perfectly free to get in,” he said to laughter. “But you see, there’s this Iowa caucus tomorrow night. And in order to get out, you have to sign this card and tell me that you’re going to go caucus for me tomorrow. Otherwise we have to keep you here so you don’t go and caucus against me tomorrow night.” And there was a blizzard coming, he reminded the audience, “so it may be Thursday before you can get out of the theater!” The audience keeps laughing. “The doors will be locked and the only ones who get out are the ones who’ll caucus for me. Am I clear on that?”
God’s Not Dead 2 fits into the mold established by God’s Not Dead, with higher production values, which is to say that it’s a movie in which the good people are very, very good, and the bad people are very, very bad. The hero, played by Melissa Joan Hart, lives at home with her grandfather, played by Pat Boone, who occasionally dispenses the wisdom of old age. “The thing about atheism,” he says early on, “is that it doesn’t take away the pain. It just takes away the hope.”
When Hart stands up for Jesus, the hammer comes down, wielded by a sinister and venal ACLU lawyer, who convinces two materialistic and selfish parents — the dad’s a dickish businessman, the mom keeps wearing leopard-print clothes — to sue the school. It spoils little to say that the good guys win, though like any worthy superhero franchise, a scene past the credits sets up the plot for God’s Not Dead 3.
When the lights come up, supporters line up to talk to Huckabee, who's positioned by an X-Men: Apocalypse poster in the hallway. Huckabee says voter interest in other evangelical candidates is failing. “I think that what they’re beginning to see with these last-minute revelations about these candidates is that they don’t know them that well,” he said. “And they know me. And they’re not going to find anything different in me from 8 years ago or 30 years ago.”
Politics is a bloody business. One year you’re a few happy accidents away from Air Force One and the nuclear launch codes. A couple of cycles come and go and you’re begging for votes and signing Bibles in front of the men’s bathroom of a suburban cineplex. Near a Kung Fu Panda 3 sign, volunteers are handing out letters from Huckabee. “We’ve abandoned the building blocks of civilization,” the notes read.