Former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said Monday he is withdrawing from speaking at a New Baptist Covenant Celebration next year in Atlanta to protest former President Jimmy Carter’s labeling the Bush administration the worst in history in terms of international relations.

The Florida Baptist Witness first reported that Huckabee, one of three Republican politicians confirmed in a press release last week as speakers at the Jan. 30-Feb. 1 confab for Baptists in North America, was pulling out over what he termed Carter’s “unprecedented personal attack” on President Bush.

“While I continue to have great respect for President Carter as a fellow Christian believer and Baptist,” Huckabee said in a statement on his campaign Web site, “I’m deeply disappointed by the unusually harsh comments made in my state this past weekend regarding President Bush.”

Saturday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette quoted Carter as assessing the Bush administration’s foreign policy like this: “I think as far as the adverse impact on the nation around the world, this administration has been the worst in history. The overt reversal of America’s basic values as expressed by previous administrations, including those of George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon and others, has been the most disturbing to me.”

Huckabee said Carter’s comments represent “an unprecedented personal attack on a sitting president by a former president, which is unbecoming the office as well as unbecoming to one whose conference is supposed to be about civility and bringing people together.”

“President Carter violated an unspoken code that you don’t make personal attacks on others who currently hold the job,” Huckabee said, “you just don’t.”

The New Baptist Covenant Celebration program committee on Thursday reported Huckabee was “committed” to participate in the meeting, alongside Democrat politicians including Carter, former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore. Republican senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Chuck Grassley of Iowa also were listed in what media termed an effort to balance previously announced Democratic headliners.

Yet Huckabee said he only “tentatively” agreed to participate in the Baptist meeting spearheaded by Carter and Mercer University President Bill Underwood, “with the understanding that it was a celebration of faith and not a political convocation.”

Huckabee told the Florida Baptist newspaper the program “does seem to tilt left,” citing Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman, whom Huckabee described as “very, very liberal.”

Based on that, Huckabee said Monday, coupled with “very harsh comments” over the weekend toward President Bush, “I feel it would be best for me to decline the invitation and to not appear to be giving approval to what could be a political, rather than spiritual agenda.”

Bruce Prescott of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, an observer of the Southern Baptist Convention and a co-chair of the New Baptist Covenant Celebration communications committee, speculated “the heat in the SBC kitchen got too hot” for Huckabee.

SBC leaders don’t tolerate dissenters “who cross their political lines,” Prescott said in a blog. “Now we will see if the heat gets too hot for Graham, Grassley and the SBC bloggers who met with Carter and Underwood last week.”

Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics–who recently editorialized about whether the GOP should reward Southern Baptists for their political support by nominating Huckabee, a former preacher and past president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, for president in 2008–said Huckabee’s decision to “cut and run” displayed “a disappointing spirit of fear.”

“If Huckabee can’t stand up to Southern Baptist fundamentalists, how will he as president stand up to Islamic fundamentalists and corporate profiteers?” Parham asked.

“I thought he was a more seasoned, self-defined Republican leader than what his hasty retreat from the New Baptist Covenant program shows,” Parham said. “During a recent Republican presidential debate, he was relaxed, respectful and humorous, looking more like Ronald Reagan than any other candidate.

“Today he sounds like a bewildered politician, who didn’t do his homework and buckled when criticized for involvement in a big-tent approach to real faith, hardly the characteristics needed in a president.”

Parham said blaming Carter for the decision to withdraw “looks like a fig-leaf of an excuse.”

Monday morning on NBC’s “Today” show, Carter appeared to retreat, saying he was responding specifically to a question about President Nixon, whom he credited with having “a very good and productive foreign policy.”

“My remarks were maybe careless or misinterpreted,” Carter said. “But I wasn’t comparing the overall administration and I was certainly not talking personally about any president.”

Carter added that he thinks the current administration’s foreign policy is “much worse” than Nixon’s, but he did not mean to call it the worst in history.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Religion Editor Frank Lockwood–whose reporting set off the controversy–said he quoted the former president accurately, fairly and in context. The proof, he said, is in audio posted on the newspaper Web site and his own blog.

Along with criticizing Bush’s policy in Iraq, Carter was asked in one taped excerpt of the Saturday’s interview about how the Bush administration has crossed the line regarding separation of church and state.

“The public policy of the White House has been to allocate funds to religious institutions, even those that channel those funds exclusively to their own particular group of believers in a particular religion,” Carter said. “Those things in my opinion are disturbing. As a traditional Baptist, I’ve always believed in separation of church and state and honored that, and so have all other presidents … except this one.”

The White House on Saturday declined to criticize Carter’s comments. On Sunday a Bush spokesman fired back, describing the former president as “increasingly irrelevant.”

Discussing it for the first time with reporters at a news conference Monday, President Bush brushed it off as “just part of what happens when you’re president,” while making it clear he disagreed with Carter’s criticism.

“I understand some people … may not agree with the decisions I made,” Bush said. “But what the American people need to know, (is that) I’m making them based upon what’s best for this country.”

Huckabee said if he had spoken at the New Baptist Covenant Celebration, “they would have heard a very conservative message which would be unapologetically pro-life, pro-family and by some definitions, fundamentalist in theology.”

“But I’m a conservative who’s not mad at anyone else and would not want to knowingly participate in a program if the focus was to tear down others instead of to lift Christ up,” he said. Huckabee said withdrawing from the lineup “is one of the few ways that I can show my disappointment in the comments that were made this weekend.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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