The problem with hearing Mike Huckabee speak at the Angelus Temple is that you first have to sit through 20 minutes of the temple's house band, Press Play, a kind of Up With Christian People rock ensemble that makes one nostalgic for the 1980s metallurgical hosannas of Stryper. A second problem is that the band is followed by pastor Matthew Barnett. Strictly speaking, the Angelus Temple is not the house that evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson built 80 years ago – reconfigured as a kind of TV sound stage, the Echo Park church belongs to Barnett's Dream Center, an “urban outreach ministry” whose offices are ensconced a few block away in the shell of the old Queen of Angels Hospital.
Barnett, an affable man in his early 30s, is self-deprecating to a fault but has the habit of building every illustrative anecdote and sermon around himself. “I was driving downtown the other day . . .” or “I was playing catch with my son” is how a typical Barnett story might begin before concluding, 15 minutes later, with an “I realized this” or “I discovered that.” Forget all that third-person stuff about the Samaritan who bound up the wounds of him that was wounded, or the time a Pharisee and tax collector showed up to worship at the same time — Barnett's parables are Facebook fables for the Me Century.
Last night, however, the pastor was fairly brief. He introduced a visiting delegation of Canadian Christians to his congregation, making the Canucks struggle through a rendition of “O Canada,” which provoked outbursts of laughter.
Then he brought 10th-ranked American Idol contestant Michael Sarver and his wife to the stage, urging worshippers to vote for Sarver, in the same way Barnett will urge congregants to flood iTunes with download requests for Dream Center friends and favorites. After bringing out a grateful, down-on-their-luck Detroit couple who was staying at the Dream Center until they got settled, Barnett introduced his father, another pastor, who then brought out the evening's star attraction.
Mike Huckabee ambled onto the stage and was handed a bass guitar, which he played with retiring charm through a version of “Sweet Home Alabama.” With his black button eyes and relaxed smile, Huckabee has an appealing face that might make one think of an older brother of Kevin Spacey. Last night he was tieless but cufflinked, and remarkably, for a man who'd made a strong showing in last year's Republican primaries, completely unpolitical. He leaves that part, of course, for his Fox News Network show.
On his own Web site, where Huckabee, the former Arkansas chief executive, is referred to as Governor Huckabee, his daily itinerary is listed for events secular and religious, although the Angelus Temple appearance was not mentioned. Huckabee, himself a former Baptist minister, is an accomplished speaker, which explains why he transmitted so well to the GOP faithful last year, as well as to television audiences. This, even though he is known to deliver Bob Dole-like barbs that often sound mean-spirited.
Huckabee's name is always included in discussions about potential Republican presidential contenders for 2012, but it's hard to fathom how seriously people – himself included — take his chances. Last night, however, he was only concerned with getting into heaven, and told his rapt listeners how it's not the pious who'll necessarily get there, but those whom people would never suspect of having a chance. But here, perhaps, he was secretly speaking of his White House opportunities.
Even the two parables Huckabee used, like Matthew Barnett's, revolved around himself. They both involved airports (in one story a woman confused him with Bob Dole) and showed Huckabee being humbled by events.
“The sin of being good,” Huckabee told his listeners, “is sometimes worse than the sin of being bad.”
“Wow,” said several congregants. And with that Huckabee was gone, leaving us to wait four years to ponder his political resurrection.