Extreme Makeover: Calif. Theocrat Seeks kinder, Gentler Image

Wealthy Religious Right activist Howard F. Ahmanson Jr. is trying to revamp his image after years of pouring money into one of the most extreme Religious Right groups in the nation.

Ahmanson for many years was a chief financial backer of the Chalcedon Institute, a Christian Reconstructionist group in Vallecito, Calif., founded by the late Rousas J. Rushdoony. Chalcedon opposes democracy and says nations should be run by “biblical law.” Some Reconstructionists advocate executing gays, adulterers, fornicators, blasphemers, “witches,” “incorrigible” teenagers and those who worship “false” gods.

Ahmanson was so enthusiastic about the Chalcedon Foundation that he sat on its board of directors and, over a period of several years, gave the group more than $700,000.

Ahmanson seemed completely steeped in Reconstructionist philosophy, telling the Orange County Register in 1985 that his goal was a “total integration of biblical law into our lives.” He is known for his opposition to legal abortion and gay rights and his advocacy of creationism in public schools. He has poured millions into right-wing groups to remake America as a fundamentalist Christian nation.

Now it seems Ahmanson wants people to see his kinder, gentler side and he’s turning to the Register for help. The newspaper in August ran a five-part series that portrayed Ahmanson in a mostly positive light and delved into his troubled childhood.

Born into fabulous wealth in 1950 his father owned a savings and loan business 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 reported 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 philosophical 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?”

Why the PR blitz now? Ahmanson has apparently realized that cozying up to an extreme organization like Chal­cedon was hurting his political goals. 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 those heady days did not last. 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, Ahmanson 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 offensive, 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.”

Before anyone could breathe a sigh of relief that Ahmanson is “no longer” a fan of stoning, he quickly added, “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.”