Mullah Makeover: California Theocrat Seeks Kinder, Gentler Image

Wealthy Religious Right activist Howard F. Ahmanson Jr. has a problem: For years he poured money into the coffers of a theocratic organization so extreme that it advocated imposing "biblical law" on America and even executing gays, adulterers, fornicators, blasphemers, "witches," "incorrigible" teenagers and those who worship "false" gods.

Ahmanson was so enthusiastic about the Chalcedon Foundation, a prominent "Christian Reconstructionist" think tank founded by the late Rousas J. Rushdoony, that he sat on its board of directors. Over the years, Ahmanson gave the California-based group more than $700,000.

In 1985, Ahmanson told the Orange County Register that his goal was a "total integration of biblical law into our lives." He is known for his strident attacks on legal abortion and gay people and his advocacy of creationism in public schools. He has poured millions into right-wing groups to remake America as a fundamentalist Christian nation.

But now Ahmanson wants people to see his kinder, gentler side – and he's turning to the Register for help. The newspaper has been running a five-part series that portrays Ahmanson in a mostly positive light and delves into his troubled childhood.

Born into fabulous wealth in 1950 – his father owned a savings and loan and left him $2.5 billion – Ahmanson nevertheless had to struggle with "social awkwardness, odd mannerism and the awareness of being somehow different," reports the newspaper. He was later diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome.

The paper reports how Ahmanson spent his days mostly alone in a mansion surrounded by servants and how embarrassed he was to be sent to school via limousine. When his parents divorced when he was 10, Ahmanson was crushed.

Other stories discussed Ahmanson's courtship of his wife Roberta, former religion editor at the Register, and allowed him to wax philosophically on questions such as "What is your favorite movie?," "What will heaven be or look like?" and "What is your idea of a perfect day?"

Ahmanson apparently realized he had an image problem when politicians starting sending back his contributions. He formed a political action committee in the 1990s that funded social conservatives and free-market candidates. The PAC was so successful that for a brief period Ahmanson's Republican allies took control of the California legislature.

But many Ahmanson-backed candidates failed to win re-election, and as word of Ahmanson's views spread, people began to distance themselves from him. In 2002, he sent a $3,000 check to Linda Lingle, a Republican running for governor of Hawaii. Lingle's campaign sent it back after a local group called Hawaii Citizens for Separation of Church and State pointed out that Ahmanson money funded a group that wants to execute gays.

Even with the PR blitz, Ahmanson can't seem to bring himself to disavow the more extreme elements of the Reconstructionist philosophy. "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," Ahmanson said. "I no longer consider that essential."

But Ahmanson couldn't bring himself to ruling out stoning entirely. "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," he said. "But I don't think it's at all a necessity."

A little advice to Ahmanson's handlers: It take more than a handful of puff pieces in a newspaper to whitewash 25 years of activism on behalf of some of the most extreme Religious Right groups in the nation.

Noted Ahmanson critic Fred Clarkson, "To the degree that there is a threat to constitutional democracy in the long run and the erosion of religious freedom in the short run, Ahmanson owns a lot of responsibility for that."