The Man Behind Proposition 8


Nov 5 2008

Among the local ballot measures to be decided on Election
Day, California’s Proposition 8 is perhaps the most fiercely
contested. Backers of the proposition to ban same-sex marriage in the
state cast their campaign in apocalyptic terms. "This vote on whether
we stop the gay-marriage juggernaut in California is Armageddon,"
born-again Watergate felon and Prison Fellowship Ministries founder
Chuck Colson told the New York Times. Tony Perkins, the president of
the Christian right’s most powerful Beltway lobbying outfit, Family
Research Council, echoed Colson’s language. "It’s more important
than the presidential election," Perkins said of Prop 8. "We will
not survive [as a nation] if we lose the institution of marriage."

The campaign for Prop 8 has reaped massive funding from conservative
backers across the country. Much of it comes from prominent donors
like the Utah-based Church of Latter Day Saints and the Catholic
conservative group, Knights of Columbus. Prop 8 has also received a
boost from Elsa Broekhuizen, the widow of Michigan-based Christian
backer Edgard Prince and the mother of Erik Prince, founder of the
controversial mercenary firm, Blackwater.

While the Church of Latter Day Saints’ public role in Prop 8 has
engendered a growing backlash from its more liberal members, and
Broekhuizen’s involvement attracted some media attention, the extreme
politics of Prop 8’s third largest private donor, Howard F. Ahmanson,
reclusive heir to a banking fortune, have passed almost completely
below the media’s radar. Ahmanson has donated $900,000 to the passage
of Prop 8 so far.

I first met Ahmanson in 2004, when he and his wife, Roberta, agreed
to an interview request for an article I was writing for Salon. Their
exchanges with me marked the first time since 1984 that Howard had
agreed to make contact with a journalist, and the first time since
1992 for Roberta. Howard agreed to answer questions only by email
because, according to Roberta, his Tourette’s Syndrome made chatting
on the phone with a stranger nearly impossible. He functions "like
a slow modem," she said. Her dual role as her husband’s spokesperson
and nurse quickly became apparent.

Few Americans have heard of Ahmanson–and that’s the way he likes
it. He donates cash either out of his own pocket or through his
unincorporated Fieldstead & Co. to avoid having to report the names
of his grantees to the IRS. His Tourette’s syndrome only adds to
his mysterious persona, as his fear of speaking leads him to shun
the media. While Ahmanson once resided in a mental institution in
Kansas, he now occupies a position among the Christian right’s power
pantheon as one of the movement’s most influential donors. During a
1985 interview with the Orange County Register, Ahmanson summarized
his political agenda: "My goal is the total integration of biblical
law into our lives."

The campaign to teach "intelligent design" in public school classrooms,
the Republican takeover of the California Assembly, and the rollback of
affirmative action in California–Ahmanson has been behind them all. He
has also taken a special interest in anti-gay crusades. Ahmanson’s most
controversial episode related to his funding of the religious empire of
Rousas John Rushdoony, a radical evangelical theologian who advocated
placing the United States under the control of a Christian theocracy
that would mandate the stoning to death of homosexuals. With Prop
8 organizers claiming in a virtual mantra that their measure will
not harm gays or take rights away from heterosexual Californians,
Ahmanson has good reason to conceal his involvement in the campaign.

When Howard F. Ahmanson Jr. was born in 1950, his father, then 44 years
old, was feting visiting kings and queens and basking in the opulence
of his mansion on Harbor Island, an exclusive address in Southern
California’s Newport Harbor. Howard Junior was tended by an army of
servants and ferried to and from school in a limousine. Watching the
world glide by through darkened windows, he was gripped with a longing
to cast off his wealth and disappear into anonymity. He burned with
resentment toward his father, a remote, towering presence, referred
to by friends and foes alike as "Emperor Ahmanson." While Ahmanson
Sr. showered local institutions in the Los Angeles area with charitable
gifts from the fortune he amassed as the founder of Washington Mutual,
his son was starved for attention.

The Emperor’s succession plans began to erode when Ahmanson turned
ten and his beloved mother served his father with divorce papers. She
died a few years later. When Howard was 18, his father died, too,
sinking him into depths of despair. With his $300 million inheritance,
he was now California’s–and perhaps America’s–richest teenager. But
he was without direction, afraid and utterly alone. The tics,
twitches and uncontrollable verbal spasms caused by his Tourette’s
syndrome worsened. He could not cope with his emotions and during
increasingly stressful episodes he would uncontrollably blurt out
shocking statements. Unable to look people in the eye when he spoke
to them, he became socially paralyzed. Diagnosed as schizophrenic, he
spent two years at the Menninger Clinic, a Topeka, Kansas psychiatric
institution. "I resented my family background," he told the Register
in 1985. "[My father] could never be a role model, whether by habits
or his lifestyle, it was never anything I wanted."

After graduating from Occidental College with poor marks, Ahmanson
became drawn to a heavily politicized brand of Christianity that was
growing popular in evangelical circles. He discovered the writings
of a radical right-wing theologian whose family was massacred in the
Armenian genocide, R.J. Rushdoony, Rushdoony’s book, The Politics
of Guilt and Pity, in which the theologian mocked wealthy liberals,
struck a particular chord with the young Ahmanson. "The guilty rich
will indulge in philanthropy, and the guilty white men will show ‘love’
and ‘concern’ for Negroes and other such persons who are in actuality
repulsive and intolerable to them," Rushdoony wrote. Ahmanson read
avidly as though Rushdoony were describing his own life.

While Ahmanson gave no indication he shared Rushdoony’s crude racism,
through the theologian’s scathing critique of "the guilty rich" he
began to release himself from the burden of responsibility to carry on
his father’s legacy. He promptly sold his stock in his father’s company
and invested it in lucrative real estate acquisitions, with a goal of
earning returns of 20 to 25 percent per year. That assured that his
wealth would grow quickly, but it also made him vulnerable to people
who manipulated his residual guilt complex to get a cut of his fortune.

Rushdoony’s political ideas provided Ahmanson with a framework for his
philanthropic machinations. Describing his philosophy as "Christian
Reconstructionism," Rushdoony painstakingly outlined plans for the
church to take over the federal government and "reconstruct" it along
biblical lines. He provided detailed plans for how it would provide
healthcare, pave roads and reorganize schools, and how it would mete
out justice.

Calling for the literal application of all 613 laws described
in the Book of Leviticus, Rushdoony paid special attention to
punishments. Instead of serving prison sentences, criminals would
be sentenced to indentured servitude, whipped, sold into slavery,
or executed. "God’s government prevails," Rushdoony wrote, "and His
alternatives are clear-cut: either men and nations obey His laws,
or God invokes the death penalty against them." Those eligible on
Rushdoony’s long list for execution included disobedient children,
unchaste women, apostates, blasphemers, practitioners of witchcraft,
astrologers, adulterers, and, of course, anyone who engaged in
"sodomy or homosexuality."

After Ahmanson’s awakening, R.J. Rushdoony reveled in his discovery
of a financial angel willing to fund the growth of his think tank,
Chalcedon, while expanding the influence of Reconstructionist
philosophy. He rewarded Ahmanson’s generosity by giving him a seat on
Chalcedon’s board of directors. Ahmanson was profoundly grateful. At
last, in Rushdoony he had found the attentive and approving father he
yearned for his whole life. "Howard got to know Rushdoony and Rushdoony
was very good to him when he was a young man and my husband was very
grateful and supported him to his death," Roberta Green Ahmanson
told me. The Ahmansons were at Rushdoony’s side when he died in
February 2001.

Roberta Ahmanson was not reticent about her and husband’s political
views. When I asked her if they favored biblical law as a governing
model for the United States, for example, she casually responded,
"I’m not suggesting we have an amendment to the Constitution that says
we now follow all 613 of the case laws of the Old Testament… But
if by biblical law you mean the last seven of the Ten Commandments,
you know, yeah."

The year of Rushdoony’s death, Ahmanson gave $1 million to the
Institute for Religion and Democracy, a conservative outfit
in Washington focused on weakening the political influence of
historically liberal mainline churches. The IRD immediately placed
Roberta Ahmanson on its board of directors after receiving her
husband’s donation. Ahmanson’s money was budgeted specifically to
generate a smear campaign against the Episcopal Church’s first openly
gay bishop, Eugene Robinson. The campaign’s spearhead came in the
form of a 2004 column by Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes titled
"The Gay Bishop’s Links."

Barnes, who neglected to mention his membership on the IRD’s board
of directors in his column, falsely alleged that the Web site of a
gay youth group Robinson founded contained links to "a pornographic
website," and claimed without independent sourcing that Robinson
"put his hands on" a Vermont man "inappropriately" during a church
meeting "several years ago." The IRD circulated the column to various
cable news networks, but only Fox News–which also employs Barnes as
a regular pundit and host of a talk show–agreed to broadcast it.

Though a panel of bishops investigating the charges discredited Barnes’
smear, it helped widen the rift within the Episcopal Church and divide
it from its global affiliates. In May 2007, 11 ultra-conservative
congregations from Northern Virginia bolted from the Episcopal
Church and joined forces with the Anglican Church of Nigeria, led by
Archbishop Peter Akinola. Akinola, who once called homosexuals "lower
than beasts," spent much of 2006 lobbying his Nigeria’s legislature
to pass a bill meting out five year prison terms to any gay people
who dare to gather–or even touch one another–in public.

While the Episcopal global schism represented a towering achievement
for Ahmanson, the passage of Prop 8 would be the apotheosis of his
long career. He does not seek credit–recognition only damages the
causes he funds. Ahmanson derives satisfaction from transforming a
nation the same way he transformed himself. "The Christian view of
man is that we’re not perfect," Roberta Ahmanson told me. "You don’t
give to things that base themselves on the optimistic view that human
beings are going to be doing it right."

Tagged as: religion, california, documentary, san francisco, 2008
election, san diego, proposition 8, spiritual warfare, lou engle,
elsa broekhuizen, howard f. ahmanson

Max Blumenthal is a Nation Institute Puffin Foundation Writing
Fellow whose work regularly appears in the Nation. A winner of the
USC Annenberg Online Journalism Award, he is also a Research Fellow
at Media Matters for America.

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