Corporate Media's Go-To 'Expert' on Latino Evangelicals Actually a Right-Wing Political Operative

This article originally appeared at Public Eye, the Web site of Political Research Associates.

Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, executive director of the Sacramento-based National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, is regularly tapped by national media outlets like CNN and The New York Times as the leading voice of Latino evangelicals and has been treated accordingly by both major political parties.  From 2007 to 2009, he was a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Faith section online, and he frequently appears on NPR’s “Tell Me More.” He is a member of the boards of some of the leading organizations of evangelicalism – Christianity Today magazine, Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, and the National Association of Evangelicals.

But he is not nearly the evangelical moderate that he is presented as being.  

The 42-year-old Puerto Rican evangelist often describes himself as a cross between Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, Jr. “with a little salsa tossed in.” He describes Latino evangelicals the same way, with the same joke, and has for years.   The humor takes the edge off of the grandiosity, but leaves little doubt about his sense of destiny for himself and the people he seeks to lead towards a distinctly conservative Christian America. He is, in fact, a leader of the Christian Right who says he is not.  He is a partisan Republican who claims not to be.  And he is conservative on just about everything but immigration policy.  

Yet when the Democrats and the Obama White House woo him, for instance to back the Supreme Court candidacy of Sonia Sotomayor or serve on the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships,  they elevate his influence,  his power to oppose LGBT marriage, and even Obama’s own reelection. 

The Silence of the Lamb

“This is a justice movement,” he is fond of saying. “This is what makes us different. We've never seen this before. We've never seen a movement that is black, white, brown, yellow, committed to both the vertical and the horizontal, that can reconcile Dr. Billy Graham with Martin Luther King, Jr., that is committed to both righteousness and justice.”  But justice, by any standard definition, can be hard to find in the world according to Rodriguez.

He calls this intersection between Graham and King “the agenda of the Lamb.”  Using the metaphor of the cross, Rodriguez views Graham as representing the “vertical agenda” of holiness and faith values while King represents the “horizontal agenda” of social justice.  The Lamb’s agenda, he says, requires both. This bold invocation of historic figures and the bars of the cross is part of what makes Rodriguez a compelling figure, and why he is viewed as a bridge-builder. But on closer examination there seems to be little of the social justice advocacy of Dr. King in this man’s activities, political and otherwise. Indeed, when we set aside the parsing of the metaphors, we see that he is deeply involved in the promotion of a Christian Right worldview, and is engaged in Republican voter mobilization, the results of which inevitably leave even immigration reform behind.  

His group, NHCLC, purports to represent more than 34,000 churches comprising some 16 million people. Founded in 2001 by Latino leaders in the Pentecostal denomination Assemblies of God, the name echoes the Southern Christian Leadership Conference once headed by Dr. King.  The organization’s evangelical constituency and leadership are interdenominational, and Pentecostal or charismatic, but the group also seeks to engage charismatic Catholics. Like Rodriguez himself, the organization claims to seek to address a broader agenda than the usual Christian Right fare.  

The organization is, however, small and low-budget. While it has many prominent partners and well publicized efforts to promote comprehensive immigration reform, it has few organizational activities. NHCLC’s reach, too, may be exaggerated. Journalist Sarah Posner points out the NHCLC’s numbers may be grossly inflated since only 6.5 million Latinos in the United States, about 13 percent of the country’s Latinos population, identify as evangelical, according to data collected by the Pew Hispanic Center. 

But it is also true that the NHCLC’s core constituency is growing. A 2007 Pew study found that Pentecostal and charismatic "renewalism" is three times more prevalent among Latinos than it is among non-Latinos.  What’s more, a majority of Latino Catholics describe themselves as charismatics. This makes Rodriguez’s claim to be the spokesman for this growing constituency all the more deserving of greater scrutiny.

Rodriguez's main claim to fame is his work with two presidents towards greater fairness in U.S. immigration policy.  He has gone so far as to publicly denounce nativism, xenophobiam and mean-spiritedness among elements of the conservative movement and of the Republican Party.   However, in addition to conventional Christian and human rights reasons for a more just policy towards immigration policy and immigrants, Rodriguez also has controversial motives. He sees, for example, the immigration of evangelical Christian Latinos as part of the salvation and replenishment of Christian America, and as a bulwark against Islam. Perhaps most revealing is how, for Rodriguez, immigration is nevertheless a decidedly secondary concern. Shortly after the inauguration of President Barack Obama in early 2009, for example, Rodriguez participated in the creation and release of a highly publicized document, Come Let Us Reason Together: A Fresh Look at Shared Cultural Values Between Evangelicals and Progressives. The several signatories announced they had crafted a “Governing Agenda” proposal for the new Democratic president and Congress, including “creating secure and comprehensive immigration reform.”  But only a few months later Rodriguez told Charisma magazine that he believed NHCLC had “misplaced its priorities by emphasizing immigration over the sanctity of life and traditional marriage.”

“Immigration is one of God's values,” Rodriguez said.  “But when we have to prioritize, if we are faithful to life and marriage, God's going to be faithful to making sure we get comprehensive immigration reform." Rodriguez's comment came on the occasion of his joining Democratic State Senator Reuben Diaz (who is also a Pentecostal minister) in rallying Hispanic Christians against marriage equality in New York. 

Prioritize:  Vote Vertical

 “This is not an issue of equality,” Rodriguez said regarding marriage equality on a radio show in May 2012. “There is an attempt to silence the voice of Christianity, there is an attempt to silence the voice of truth, of righteousness and Biblical justice.

Although the Lamb’s Agenda is supposed to require both bars of the cross, Rodriguez said, “We must vote vertical. We must look at our legislators and those that represent us on Capitol Hill and say, ‘Religious liberty, the family, biblical marriage and life, must stand protected.”  

As off message as it sounds for those who view him as a bridge-builder, Rodriguez's real views should come as no surprise. A frequent headliner at Christian Right political conferences, Rodriguez was featured, for example, at regional election year conferences hosted by veteran Christian Right televangelist James Robison in the summer of 2012. At the Dallas conference, which drew some 7,000 participants, Rodriguez declared: “The 21st century stands poised to experience the greatest transformative Christian movement in our history.” He denounced such demonic spirits as Jezebel, which he says push people into “sexual perversion,” and the spirit of Herod, which he says is responsible for abortion. “This movement will affirm biblical orthodoxy,” he declared. “It will reform the culture.  It will transform our political discourse. I am convinced God is not done with America and America is not done with God.”

This September, Rodriguez was a featured speaker at a capstone political event called “America for Jesus” that was broadcast and livestreamed nationally from Philadelphia outside Independence Hall. Ostensibly a prayer rally, it is part of a 30-year tradition of similar election season events. Another featured speaker is Lou Engle of The Call, who came to mainstream attention in the documentary Jesus Camp, and played a catalytic role in passing the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 in California. At a pre-election stadium rally he hosted in San Diego, Engle and others called for Christian "martyrs" to stop marriage equality and abortion. 

Philadelphia’s America for Jesus event is the latest in a series beginning in the 1980s, which brought hundreds of thousands to the Mall for the event “Washington for Jesus” in the run-up to the 1980 and 1988 elections. Televangelist Pat Robertson recalled in a promotional segment for America for Jesus on his Christian Broadcasting Network that the late Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ believed that Ronald Reagan was elected president because of Washington for Jesus in 1980. 

Although Rodriguez tries not to flaunt it, he cannot hide the fact that he is a leader in the New Apostolic Reformation, a movement that is transforming historic Pentecostalism and is playing an outsized role in American politics by building networks that span across denominations and churches.  For example, many NAR leaders, including Rodriguez, helped organize and attended a prayer rally to help launch Texas Governor Rick Perry's, unsuccessful campaign for president in 2011 that drew 30,000 people.

NAR’s political roots go back to the era when Pat Robertson led historically apolitical Pentecostals and charismatics off the political sidelines and into the mainstream of the Republican Party. The relationship with the America for Jesus events epitomizes this long-term trend.

Rodriguez’s efforts to downplay his involvement in NAR not withstanding, he is a frequent headliner at events organized by fellow NAR leaders. His NAR apostolic overseer, Bishop Steve Perea, leads a megachurch in Manteca, California, and has been public about his role.  Rodriguez, in turn, is the overseer of an international network of indeterminate size and scope called the Third Day Believers Network.   

The NAR is seeking to transform traditional Christian denominations into a more powerful social and political force. The leaders of the NAR, who call themselves apostles and prophets, claim authority in and over the church, beyond denominations, and offer what they say are fresh revelations from God to inform what the church should be doing. NAR leaders see themselves as transcending the traditional doctrines and elected leadership of both mainline and evangelical Protestantism. 

C. Peter Wagner, a longtime professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, is the leading figure in the movement. Christians, he declares, are called to take dominion in all areas of life. One expression of this totalist vision is the “seven mountains mandate” through which Christians are to take control of seven areas of life: business, government, media, arts and entertainment, education, the family and religion.

Researcher Bruce Wilson points out that Wagner stated at a conference that year: “Dominion has to do with control. Dominion has to do with rulership. Dominion has to do with authority and subduing and it relates to society.  In other words, what the values are in Heaven need to be made manifest here on earth. Dominion means being the head and not the tail. Dominion means ruling as kings.”

Since NAR is a movement without a formal doctrine or structure, and comprising many independent networks, it is fair to say that not all may share Wagner's theocratic fervor, but in fact, many do.

Islamophobia in Sharp Relief

Last year, Rodriguez's duplicity on several matters was revealed in a remarkable series of events beginning with growing concern about his involvement in and leadership of the NAR-led, South Carolina-based political project called The Oak Initiative. The Initiative is a religio-political organization with a mandate to save America from what it views as a Marxist/Leftist/Homosexual/Islamic enemy. Rodriquez co-founded the group in 2009 and served as its vice president until his resignation in 2011.  

Rodriguez represented the Initiative on conference calls in preparation fora 2011 Detroit event for Lou Engle's The Call. The event was billed as a rally to help cleanse the city from the demon of Islam by engaging in “spiritual warfare.” The Web site of the event’s sponsor stated: “Transformation Michigan is in partnership with The Oak Initiative. We have established groups in Michigan who, with one united purpose, are taking the Seven Mountains in Michigan. Join us in this warfare.”

As the details of Rodriguez's true views and organizational commitments began to catch up with him in 2011, he sought, in a published interview with journalist Greg Metzger, to minimize his involvement in NAR and the Oak Initiative. However, after a series of articles by Rachel Tabachnick proved Rodriguez’s deep involvement, he was compelled to not only resign but to publicly state: “I repudiate all vestiges of Islamophobia or any other platform that engages in fear-mongering...”  While this statement was issued, it was not publicized, and he has no other obvious public record of opposing the continuing Islamophobia among his religious and political associates. 

Similarly, Rodriguez has also sought to simultaneously oppose both homosexuality and homophobia. In the wake of President Obama’s announcement that he supports marriage equality, African-American Christian Right activist (and fellow NAR leader) Bishop Harry Jackson hosted an event in Washington, D.C. called the Defense of Marriage Summit (which he has since taken on the road).  The duo then announced a “Black/Brown coalition to defend biblical marriage.”  Rodriguez said:“The partnership aims to engage Hispanics and African American clergy and laypeople in prophetic activism that repudiates homophobia while simultaneously preserving the biblical definition of marriage.”  

Rodriguez’s contradictory role extends into right-wing economics. He has been an avatar of the evangelical version of environmentalism (also called “creation care,” according to the National Association of Evangelicals, where Rodriguez is an executive board member) but he is also a global warming skeptic and has served as a front man, along Harry Jackson, for an industry-financed group called the American Power Alliance. Rodriguez signed a statement of the NAE's Evangelical Environmental Network called “An Evangelical Call to Stop Mercury Poisoning of the Unborn,” but he is also a director of the American Power Alliance, which opposes this regulation.

Nonpartisan, But Somehow Strangely Republican

His nonpartisan image notwithstanding, Rodriguez emerged in July 2012 as a key “Hispanic outreach” adviser for the presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. David Brody of CBN reported that Romney was “regularly meeting” with Rodriguez (in addition to a larger group of some 70 top Christian Right leaders) since he clinched the nomination.  Brody also reported that, as a result, the candidate had “made a 180-degree turn and is headed to a significant Hispanic outreach.”

These conversations do not appear to have been about Romney's views on immigration. Indeed, anti-immigrant lawyer Kris Kobach still serves as the GOP candidate’s adviser on immigration. Kobach helped draft Arizona's draconian SB1070 law, and promotes similar policies across the country.  Rodriguez’s advice is more likely about how to find Latinos who will vote for Romney despite his anti-immigrant views.

Indeed, Rodriguez is part of historic efforts by the Christian Right and the Republican Party to peel off some Latino and African-American voters, and to inoculate other recent immigrants against their traditional affinity for the Democratic Party. Aaron Manaigo, a political operative working for Harry Jackson, told a breakout session at the 2012 Values Voters Summit, sponsored by Christian Right groups like the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C. in September, that they were seeking “some demographic advantage.”  To this end, they have staged events in swing states and those with marriage initiatives on the ballot. One notable event in New Mexico featured Rodriguez, Republican Lt. Governor John Sanchez and Fr. Frank Pavone, head of the militant anti-abortion organization Priests for Life. Jackson and Manaigo’s session at Values Voters was titled: “Vertical Vote Campaign for Life, Marriage, and Religious Liberties.”

Despite Rodriguez’s apparent embrace of Mitt Romney's candidacy, his intentions have been complicated and contradictory over the years. For example, in 2008 he described Mark Gonzales, a Texas pastor and NHCLC's longtime Vice President for Government Affairs as “a die-hard Republican operative” who “represents a walking billboard for the Hispanic versions of Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, Council on National Policy and Christian Coalition.”  He claimed that Gonzales was disappointed with the GOP's approach to immigration issues and that therefore his main objective was to register voters in states with high concentrations of Latino voters, regardless of party affiliation “as long they vote and demonstrate that Latino Christians represent a deliverable constituency.” This might sound sensibly nonpartisan under the circumstances -- except for the fact that, at the time, Gonzales was serving as chairman of the Hispanic advisory council for John McCain's presidential campaign.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Rodriguez’s Republican stock soared when he gave the benediction to close the first day of the Republican National Convention in Tampa in August 2012.  His prayer immediately followed a speech by Ann Romney and the keynote address by Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. But, since then, he has maintained a nuanced critical distance. “For Republicans, the bridge to the Hispanic promised land is the Hispanic faith voter, and that bridge is now broken,” Rodriguez declared in September.  “Republicans look and talk like us, but we're not sure they want us.”

Rodriguez and Fresh Faith Voters

But the Christian Right does want the Latino vote, and its targeted approach to mobilize a specific subset of religiously informed Latino voters is aimed for the long run. An expanding conservative evangelical electorate, including a growing Latino demographic, could be decisive in some parts of the country. Rodriguez and the NHCLC are at the center of that outreach through a partnership with the conservative Champion the Vote which aims to build the Christian Right’s capacity to win a theocratic power bloc in the American electorate.  

As Rodriguez told Pat Robertson in an interview on CBN, “The Hispanic electorate may be the salvation of the conservative movement and the Christian Church in America.” Champion the Vote is a project of United in Purpose (UIP), an organization of conservative Christian Silicon Valley entrepreneurs that the Los Angeles Times reports is spending millions of dollars, and using advanced data mining techniques to identify unregistered conservative Roman Catholics and conservative evangelicals.  They aim to widen the Christian Right electorate this year by registering and turning out five million new voters, primarily in states where, in the 2008 presidential contest, the margin of difference was less than the number of unregistered conservative Christians.  To get there, they are seeking to recruit 100,000 “champions” to follow-up once UIP has identified the right kind of unregistered Christians.  

NHCLC and UIP have closely collaborated for a number of years. UIP’s 2010 tax return, for example, shows that it provided $112,500 for “voter registration Fuerza 2010.”  (NHCLC was the organization's only grantee.) Rodriguez claims the Fuerza project registered 268,000 new voters by focusing on evangelical Latino churches in Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas.  As part of that effort, UIP issued a video in English and Spanish which stated that “friends have turned into foes”—and then showed pictures of President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and then-Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, all Democrats (The top issues featured in the video were abortion and marriage).

NHCLC is, at this writing, one of some six-dozen Christian Right, anti-abortion, GOP, and Tea Party organizations, and religious broadcasters partnering in Champion the Vote. These include The Manhattan Declaration, the premier alliance of conservative evangelicals and conservative Roman Catholics, and Ralph Reed’s Faith & Freedom Coalition.  Champion the Vote's three foci are anti-abortionism, anti-marriage equality, and “religious freedom”—and its stated mission is “... to get unregistered Christians registered to vote, educated in the Biblical worldview, and voting accordingly on Election Day.”

This year, Rodriguez appeared in the organization’s voter mobilization DVD, "One Nation Under God” -- along with Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family; Christian nationalist author David Barton, and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich -- but with no Democrats.  The ostensibly nonpartisan DVD is intended for use in churches and house parties.

NHCLC and Champion the Vote’s approach updates the mobilization efforts by conservative activist Ralph Reed who led Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition in the 1990s. The Coalition and others successfully expanded and mobilized the conservative Christian electorate at the time in ways that transformed American politics.  Reed describes his current organization, the Faith & Freedom Coalition, as a “21st century Christian Coalition on steroids.”

Reed claims that his new organization’s experiments in mobilizing conservative Christian voters have been so successful that they may explain why pre-election polls underestimated the winning margin of the conservative Republican candidates by eight to nine points in both the 2009 governor’s race in Virginia and the 2012 recall election in Wisconsin, as journalist Adele Stan has reported. Reed’s associate, Gary Marx, explained at the 2012 Values Voters Summit that they were seeking to find two million unregistered conservative Christian voters and to identify and turn out some eight million more registered voters who did not vote in the last presidential election. Whether they met their voter registration goal, Marx did not say. But he did say that the Virginia and Wisconsin models worked so well that they are now being applied in swing states and nationally.  

It is worth noting that in the 1990s, Reed routinely inflated the membership figures of the Christian Coalition to a unquestioning and credulous national press corps. Church & State magazine eventually proved that the Coalition could not have 1.7 million members as claimed, since the official circulation of its membership magazine, according to U.S. Post Office records, was only about 350,000.  But Reed’s hyperbole notwithstanding, the Christian Coalition’s methods proved to be catalytic in crafting the Christian Right political movement as we know it today.   

“The first strategy and in many ways the most important strategy for evangelicals is secrecy,” Reed once famously declared. “Sun Tzu says that’s what you have to do to be effective at war and that’s essentially what we are involved in... It’s not a war fought with bullets, it’s a war fought with ballots.” 

UIP claims to have compiled a database of some 120 million people and is running it against purchased subscription lists, among other data, to identify anti-abortion and anti-marriage equality Christians who are not registered to vote.  This year, they are looking for five million, but over the next few election cycles, they are seeking to ID and register forty out of the sixty million they believe to be eligible. The Faith & Freedom Coalition uses the same numbers and the same general methods, which suggest a high degree of common purpose and coordination.

Grandiose visions, of course, like anything else, do not always turn out as planned. However, if UIP, NHCLC, and the many other partner organizations find even a few million ideologically oriented new voters who can be engaged in the wider movement we broadly call the Christian Right, it could be, as Rodriguez suggests, a transformational moment in American history.

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