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11.03.08

The Man Behind Proposition 8

The reclusive billionaire, the mother of Blackwater's Erik Prince, and the drive to fund this year's most controversial referendum.

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.”

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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 Jesus Christ 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 Jesus Christ 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.

“My goal is the total integration of biblical law into our lives,” Ahmanson once said.

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.”

Note: This article has been corrected to note the proper name, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, not the Church of Latter-Day Saints as originally published.