Multimillionaire Howard Ahmanson, one of the nation’s top evangelical Christian philanthropists and one of three funders of Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California, recently joined the Democratic Party. Although Ahmanson’s support for Prop 8 earned him critics on the left, his many philanthropic interests funded through his Fieldstead Institute are most often nonpartisan and nonpolitical, from AIDS prevention to public transportation. In an exclusive interview with columnist Kathleen Parker, he explains why he switched political affiliations and what he thinks of President Obama, and he speaks frankly about gays.
"I don’t think [I have any gay friends], but I would stand with them on my opinions. And I would be willing to tell them what I think they should do."
You are what most people would characterize as a far-right Christian. What prompted you to join the “enemy” camp?
I’ve been part of the religious right and I don’t go to great lengths to hide that. I realize that a lot of people who feel as I do are in the socially conservative camp, as I am, but the Democratic Party in a place like California is so large and diverse that there are people of just about every opinion. The crusade for good things is, in the end, bipartisan.
This was a particularly local California phenomenon. A few things on the national level made me nervous, but here, they said, “No new taxes whatsoever no matter what.” They were going to make this a touchstone of orthodoxy in the party... I’m afraid I just got extremely frustrated having to read about this day after day after day. This is no longer my party.
What do you expect to do as a Democrat and what do you expect the Democratic Party to offer you?
I expect to do the same things but in a slightly more bipartisan format. In case someone asked, “intelligent design” is neither Republican nor Democrat. And what I expect the Democratic Party to offer me is knowledge of people—admittedly a fringe—who know that. And of course, though Proposition 8 is a sideline, it won with the support of lots and lots of Democrats.
Why not become an independent?
Being an independent seems a little bit like a coward’s way out. Also, independents are stereotyped as social liberals and fiscal conservatives. [Ahmanson characterizes himself as a social conservative and a fiscal moderate.]
What are your thoughts on the GOP?
My real trouble with the state party was taxes. The national Republican Party has had its tension between the upscales and downscales—the upper middle class and the lower middle class.
If I were in the GOP, I’d advocate the party should be downscaling.
Do you mean going more populist rather than elitist?
So I take it you liked Sarah Palin?
I like her, though I’ll have to confess that I like Bobby Jindal better. I’m now a blue-dog Democrat for Bobby Jindal for 2012.
How would you gauge President Obama’s administration thus far?
It’s a bit early for Obama, and he may do well or he may not do well. It’s a bit too early. There were some things I was disappointed about. I was disappointed in his position on abortion and stem cells, but I knew he was going to do that, so I wasn’t surprised. Something I’m pleased with is, if he dares to uphold the voucher program in D.C. and go on from there, that would be a very good thing and I will actually have an opportunity to say something nice about our president.
As a supporter of President George W. Bush, how would you rate his presidency now? What did he do right and wrong?
For the most part, he did all right. But in the end, I think he was a big spender. It was annoying for him to talk about tax cuts when he was doing that. On the social issues, he did pretty good.
During a 1985 interview with the Orange County Register, you said your political agenda was “total integration of biblical law into our lives.” Is that still the case?
That’s a bit compromised. We have considerable biblical law in the law now. We’ve already succeeded in outlawing murder and robbery and perjury. I don’t think there’s anything wrong or unconstitutional about that.
Well, I think your critics would be talking about things such as biblical treatment of gays.
I certainly don’t mean that now. Maybe in my wild youth.
I guess just living and aging or something.
Have you mellowed with age?
I suppose so.
Do you have any gay friends?
I don’t think so, but I would stand with them on my opinions. And I would be willing to tell them what I think they should do.
First come to Christ and then recover.
So you think homosexuality is something from which one can recover?
Yes, I think we can recover from a lot of other things, too. But I think we’re all equal as individuals.
What is your sense of the evangelical movement today?
I’m pleased with part of it. It’s sound at its core, but has edges that are shallow and losing grip.
The so-called emerging churches that are watering down doctrine. The seeker churches are so seeker-friendly that nobody ever finds anything.
Do you still drive a Prius?
Yes. I’ve had it for more than six years. Before it was fashionable.
So you are an environmentalist?
I think Christians should be environmentalists. According to theology, God is the landlord and we are the responsible tenants. But to believe in environmental stewardship doesn’t mean you have to believe in some of the schemes of elitists to gain control in the name of environmentalism.
Has reaction to your support of Prop 8 been difficult for you?
Not particularly. I’m not particularly disturbed by what [others] think... I have plenty of sins, enough without worrying about the issues I take on.
Have you considered the possibility that the Democratic Party may not want you?
If they don’t want me, they can find ways of purging me.
I don’t know how the Democrats purge people. We’ll see how tolerant they really are.
Read Kathleen Parker's Washington Post column on Ahmanson here.
Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group and author of Save the Males.