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Will a Wealthy
Social Conservative Have His Way With California Voters

Will a Wealthy
Social Conservative Have His Way With California Voters


Howard F. Ahmanson Jr. has put $900,000 of his own money into passing California's gay marriage ban, but it's not the first time the flush ascetic has injected his religious views into politics. From stemming affirmative action to stoking unrest within the Episcopal Church, Ahmanson has been one of the most influential political donors in the country.

Will the same man who bankrolled a Republican takeover of the California assembly in 1994, underwrote an amendment that gutted the state's affirmative action law in 1996, and fostered the birth of the schism within the Episcopal Church over its gay-inclusive leanings now succeed in taking away the marriage rights of tens of thousands of gays and lesbians in California on November 4?

Weighing in with $900,000 of his own money, Howard F. Ahmanson Jr., a conservative philanthropist and highly influential political donor, is one of the single biggest benefactors of the campaign to pass a ban on gay marriage in California, Proposition 8.

Though Ahmanson is notorious in California circles and has been the subject of several comprehensive pieces in , The Orange County Register , and the Episcopal diocese of Washington among others, the reclusive philanthropist -- who almost never speaks to the press -- isn't on the radar of many Americans even as his impact is being felt across the nation.

Searching Ahmanson on the Internet reveals the tale of a socially conservative ideologue who has put his money where his mouth is, assiduously flexing the muscle of his multimillion-dollar fortune to bend the country's political system to the will of his worldview.

According to multiple reports, he and his friends poured more than $4 million into winning enough Republican seats in the early '90s to briefly wrest control of the California assembly from Democrats; he put $350,000 into dramatically weakening the state's affirmative action laws (Proposition 209) and $210,000 -- 35% of total funding, according to Salon -- into banning recognition of gay marriages from other states (Prop. 22) in 1999; and perhaps his most cataclysmic deed to date was his funneling of $1 million to the American Anglican Council, which helped fuel the rift over gays that has besieged the Episcopal Church. (The Advocate reported more about the upshot of conservative Anglicans' antigay crusade here.)

Ahmanson's moral certitude stems from a variant of Calvinism known as the Christian Reconstructionist movement, founded by the far-right Reverend Rousas John Rushdoony, who has promoted philosophies that might well be considered draconian by modern standards. In his 1973 tome "The Institutes of Biblical Law," Rushdoony concluded that the Bible instructs society to execute people for 18 sins, including: murder, rape of a betrothed virgin, adultery, promiscuity by unwed women, homosexuality, sodomy, striking or cursing a parent, habitual criminality, blasphemy, and bearing false witness. During an interview with Bill Moyers in 1987, Rushdoony said of the death penalty, "This is what God requires."

Ahmanson considered Rushdoony a close spiritual guide -- close enough to be at his bedside when Rushdoony left this world in 2001 -- and, in line with his teacher's thinking, Ahmanson told The Orange County Register in 1985, "My goal is the total integration of biblical law into our lives."

But his later interviews, few as they are, indicate some awareness of the disconnect between Rushdoony's prescription for social order and that embraced by most of the developed world. In 2004, Ahmanson told the Register, "I think what upsets people is that Rushdoony seemed to think -- and I'm not sure about this -- that a godly society would stone people for the same thing that people in ancient Israel were stoned. I no longer consider that essential. It would still be a little hard to say that if one stumbled on a country that was doing that, that it is inherently immoral, to stone people for these things. But I don't think it's at all a necessity."

On the question of executing gays, he further broke with Rushdoony in a written response to Salon in 2004. "Reporters have often assumed that I agree with [Rushdoony] in all applications of the penalties of the Old Testament Law, particularly the stoning of homosexuals," Ahmanson wrote. "My vision for homosexuals is life, not death, not death by stoning or any other form of execution, not a long, lingering, painful death from AIDS, not a violent death by assault, and not a tragic death by suicide.

"My understanding of Christianity is that we are all broken, in need of healing and restoration. So far as I can tell, the only hope for our healing is through faith in Jesus Christ and the power of his resurrection from the dead."

Rushdoony also championed segregation; in what was reportedly one of Ahmanson's favorite texts, "The Politics of Guilt and Pity," he wrote: "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.... The Negroes demand more aid, i.e., more slavery and slave-care, and dwell on their sufferings."

While no reporters have found reason to believe that Ahmanson subscribes to Rushdoony's rabid racism, he does appear to put faith in the idea of predestination -- that certain people are elected to fill certain roles and mustn't let the fate of those less fortunate distract them from their God-given calling.

Fate heavily informs one of Ahmanson's only known writings, "Three New Testament Roots of Economic Liberty," a 1997 meditation on economic justice in which he uses biblical passages and the works of Jesus to argue against equitable distribution of resources, minimum wage, labor laws, and charity for charity's sake.

Ahmanson launches his discussion with the New Testament passage Luke 4:3: "The devil said to him, 'If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.' "

When we consider how to address the scarcity of food and land, Ahmanson says, we must be careful what we ask for. "If someone decrees, therefore, that the demands of justice require large amounts of certain scarce resources to exist in order to meet certain vast needs, he submits to the temptation that Jesus resisted, the temptation to turn stones into bread," he writes.

"Property rights are not somehow inferior to other human rights," Ahmanson continued. "They are the only juridical rights to resources, the only economic rights that exist. Health care is a finite resource; therefore every human being cannot have a juridical right to health care. If every human being is to have modern health care, it requires that resources be commanded into existence."

Later, he addresses the meaning of the many biblical passages devoted to compassion for the poor: "On a couple of occasions Jesus even recommended people to divest their properties and give the proceeds to the poor (Matthew 19:21, Luke 12:33-34). On these occasions, however, Jesus had the spiritual good of the people primarily in view; the fact that more resources were made available to the poor was a secondary consideration."

Ahmanson concludes: "We often hear arguments that we ought not to build a beautiful building, commission a work of art, host a celebration, or even provide for the defense of our nation, because there are poor in the world. The argument that we ought not do any particular thing because the poor exist is the argument of Judas, and if you hear it made, know that thieves are about who want to get their piece of the action."

The piece offers an interesting lens through which to view a man who inherited his father's fortune at age 18 and was burdened by the enormity of how to administer that legacy. Ahmanson seemed to find grounding in an interpretation of the Bible that not only affirmed his destiny but also his right to use that destiny however he presumed would bring him closer to God.

Sometimes the public has sided with Ahmanson's divine inspiration -- as with his insight that affirmative action should be outlawed as a consideration in admitting students to California's public institutions. Proposition 209, known as the California Civil Rights Initiative, was passed by 54% of voters in 1996. At other times, public opinion has parted with Ahmanson's messianic mission, like when he and his cohort mounted an effort to dismantle the state's no-fault divorce law, which since 1970 has made it easier for married couples to dissolve their sacred unions.

Apparently, Ahmanson hopes to advance the Christian right's famous one-man, one-woman phrase to the less popular trinity "One man, one woman, one time." What remains to be seen is if the same voters who want to reserve their right to marry in perpetuity would restrict others from exercising that right just once.

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