In its 2005 list of the 25 most influential U.S. evangelicals, Time magazine described former religion reporter Roberta Green Ahmanson and husband Howard simply as “The Financiers.” Indeed, that is what they are. But these are no ordinary philanthropists. Roberta, 61, and Howard, 60, are among a rare breed of donor who invests as much intellectual and emotional capital in the projects they support as their Fieldstead and Company philanthropy does vast sums of money. (One source who declined to be identified estimates Fieldstead’s annual giving in the low eight figures based on its projects and staff size.) While Howard’s name is at the fore of their notoriety, as heir to his father’s H. F. Ahmanson & Co. savings and loan fortune, Roberta’s passion and intellect have shaped a good deal of their giving in the
quarter century they’ve been married.
Consider Fieldstead’s $20 million investment into Roberta’s hometown of Perry, Iowa. It was Roberta’s vision that led to an elaborate restoration of the historic Hotel Pattee and the installation of an iconic downtown gateway by acclaimed sculptor Albert Paley. So too did Roberta’s vision secure Paley gates at the Orange County Rescue Mission’s Village of Hope in Tustin, California— and at the Ahmansons’ meticulously designed beachfront home in Corona del Mar. Orange County Register sources valued the home at $30–$35 million last January.
The Ahmansons’ critics focus on their support for conservative causes like Proposition 8 (their donations totaled approximately $1.4 million in 2007–2008), and for conservative thinkers like the late and much reviled Christian Reconstructionist Rousas John Rushdoony. The secular media especially have made and repeated these criticisms over the past decade.
For example, in a scathing 2004 Salon profile of Howard, “Avenging Angel of the Religious Right,” Max Blumenthal took pains to show that the Ahmansons’ ultimate goals are theocratic, a charge that has been widely disseminated. Roberta at once denies and defends the claim: “I never was, and I don’t know if Howard ever was either. I’m afraid to say this, but also, what would be so bad about it?”
Blumenthal wrote, “[Howard’s] money has made possible some of the most pivotal conservative movements in America’s recent history, including the 1994 gop takeover of the California Assembly, a ban on gay marriage and affirmative action in California, and the mounting nationwide campaign to prove Darwin wrong about evolution. . . . And besides contributing cash to George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, Ahmanson has played an important role in driving Bush’s domestic agenda by financing the career of Marvin Olasky, a conservative intellectual whose ideas inspired the creation of the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.”
Meanwhile, Blumenthal described Roberta as a “warm refreshingly humorous . . . spokesperson and indefatigable guardian” of her husband. But he failed to either understand or to communicate the depth of her contribution to their work.
Howard, who has Tourette syndrome, rejects Blumenthal’s portrayal of his marriage. So do numerous sources who know the Ahmansons well and describe them as equals. “Sometimes [Roberta] has to confront me when I have Tourette-related issues,” said Howard, “but she is not really a ‘caretaker.’ ” Roberta added that the Salon profile was “full of lies” and won numerous corrections.
Furthermore, critics and supporters alike may be surprised to learn that Ahmanson is not opposed to domestic partnership rights for homosexuals. She said, “Marriage is something that has had a long definition in history. . . . The thing I’m most concerned about is that religious institutions maintain their freedom of association and their freedom of religious practice. The Catholic Church, for example, should not have to perform same-sex marriages.” After Proposition 8 was overturned, she said, “Everyone knew how the judge would rule. It’s headed for the Supreme Court. Always was.”
In 2005, The Guardian ran a sensational article titled, “Anti-Gay Millionaire Bankrolls Caravaggio Spectacular,” covering an exhibit sponsored by the Ahmansons at London’s National Gallery. The writer repeated many of Blumenthal’s charges and likewise failed to communicate Roberta’s primary role in the project, not to mention her deep commitment to the arts.
I became familiar with the Ahmanson name not through Time or Salon but at St. James Anglican Church in Newport Beach, where the couple was lauded for investing in the church’s legal dispute with the Episcopal Church. Howard and Roberta were members for a dozen years before joining Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, and although Roberta is currently between churches, she describes former St. James rector David Anderson, president and ceo of the American Anglican Council, as her pastor.
Meeting Roberta for the first time last winter, when she was in New York speaking at the International Arts Movement’s Encounter conference, I too found her to be a warm and generous conversationalist. Our discussion quickly turned from art and philanthropy, topics she covered in her conference talk, to mutual friends to the bipolar diagnosis that she and a member of my family share.
The interview led to a three-day stay at the Ahmanson guesthouse, where conservative luminaries like Anderson, Olasky, Thomas Oden, and Terry Mattingly had stayed before me. The well-appointed, art-filled home is located around the corner from the main residence and across the street from another that houses their private offices and Roberta’s extensive dish collection. On the weekend of my visit, Howard was driving Roberta’s red Range Rover to Hillsdale College in Michigan to collect their son David, who was completing his freshman year after a tutor-led primary education. Roberta stayed behind to host a lecture by Dallas Willard at their home. Afterward, she would meet her family in Michigan to begin a classic cross-country road trip before flying to Rome, where she would speak at a conference on Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand’s philosophy of love. Next, they would return home and host a week-long celebration of the completion of their elaborate three-year home reconstruction, the subject of The Orange County Register’s interest.
To say Ahmanson’s passion for art permeates every space she inhabits is to underestimate her commitment. As we toured the main house, her running commentary on its extensive collection rivaled anything an art historian might offer. Although she was fighting a cold during frenzied preparations, she picked me up in Howard’s Toyota sedan to tour the Village of Hope, a traditional housing program whose Paley gates, sculpture, and stained glass showcase her artistic vision.
Ahmanson chairs the board of the five-year-old Museum of Biblical Art (mobia) in nyc and belongs to the Collectors Committee at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. She began arranging furniture and pictures when she was a young child and fell in love with painting in eighth grade, but love of art is not what drives her. Her life’s primary animating force was found in her strict Regular Baptist upbringing: her desire“to know if there was a God and if it mattered.”
She found the answer “painfully” at Calvin College, from which she graduated in 1972 before earning an M.A. in English at the University of Michigan in 1974. “When I was 21, I admitted that there was a God and that I believed Christianity was true, that it was the best description of reality. That’s how I think of it, and if there were a better description of reality, I hope, with C. S. Lewis, that I would embrace it. But it keeps proving itself to fit.
“Once you start on that path, you want to understand the world. It connects to my journalism, because what we believe shapes what we do. It shapes the art we create, the buildings we create, the institutions we create, the governments we create. All those things grow out of what we believe to be the nature of reality. So it’s the biggest question.”
Ahmanson taught (unsuccessfully, she says) in Canada before moving to California to pursue journalism. At Calvin, she had become aware of the biblical theme that we become what we worship. “We worship dead things, we become dead. We worship the living God, we become alive,” she says.
“And one of the attributes of that living God is beauty. Beauty leads us to him. We really cannot live without it.”
A mutual friend introduced her to Howard in 1984, when she was working at The Orange County Register. They married two years later. Conversations with people who minister to the poor taught her that beauty can inspire the downtrodden to improve their lives. Additionally, she says, “We live in an increasingly visual age, one in which art museums have become the new temples, art an alternative to religion. Art can serve God or be an idol. Given who God made me, it seemed that I had a responsibility to get involved in the work and the larger conversation.”
This is not to say that the art she supports is saccharine or safe. Quite the contrary. The Caravaggio exhibit featured work from the 16th-century painter’s final years, after he had murdered an associate. The same newspaper that vilified its sponsors published an admiring review that said, “There is a frisson of the transgressive about Caravaggio’s art, a morbidity as much spiritual as it is—to modern eyes—sexual and social.”
Dawson Carr, the exhibit’s curator, researched online about the Ahmansons after they had approached the museum to fund Christian exhibits. The art historian was apprehensive about what he found. “I got all of the ins and outs and ups and downs and vitriol and the like, and I just thought to myself, Oh my goodness, what is this going to be like?” He discovered that the couple “may be doctrinally conservative, but in point of fact these are not ignorant, mean-spirited, nasty people the way they’re often portrayed.”
Carr also says their sponsorship of Christian art is vital and that they never tried to influence the content or presentation of the show. mobia director Ena Heller echoes Carr’s sentiments. “I have learned, sometimes the hard way, that when it comes to religion, people get very personal, very defensive, and slightly illogical, and I have never seen that with Roberta.”
ANCIENT CHRISTIAN VISION
Early in their marriage, the Ahmansons befriended Methodist theologian Tom Oden. Some 20 years ago, as they were sitting on their front porch overlooking the Pacific, Roberta asked Oden a question that would lead to one of their most significant projects: “What do you want to do with the
rest of your life?” He was taken aback, but had been thinking for several years about a major scholarly project on the ancient church fathers’ Bible commentary. He recalls, “Right quickly I said, ‘Well, this is the project that if I really could do it, I would feel I’d been most useful.’ ”
InterVarsity Press publisher Robert Fry- ling describes the resulting 29-volume Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series,co-funded by Fieldstead, as “the most significant publishing project in the history of InterVarsity Press.” He says it has been acclaimed by evangelical, mainline Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic leaders, including two popes. “This extraordinary series would not have been possible without Howard and Roberta.” Meanwhile, the Ahmansons are funding another Oden project, the Center for Early African Christianity, whose mission is “to educate African leadership in the depth of African intellectual literary achievements, especially those from the Christian tradition of the first millennium.”
Roberta’s passion for journalism began when she was in high school and has continued throughout her life. She co- authored Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion, and Fieldstead funds two projects that relate to this interest and involve Roberta’s longtime friend Mattingly: the GetReligion blog of the Media Project and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities’ Washington Journalism Center, which Mattingly directs.
Mattingly, for one, doesn’t think Roberta was fundamentally changed by marrying into great wealth. “The lady still reads like a tornado. She’s obsessed with the same kind of artistic and cultural and political and religious stuff. The same person that I knew as a reporter, chasing people around asking questions about all that, is frankly the same person that I know today.”
When pressed, Ahmanson describes herself as a “Reformed Anglo-Catholic” and a philosophical realist. Two-thirds of the way through 2010, she had already read 74 books in the categories Mattingly mentioned, among them William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain: A Journey among the Christians of the Middle East; Willard’s Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge; volumes in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series; James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World; several books on the arts; several by Pope Benedict XVI; and the fiction of Frank Tallis, Jaqueline Winspear, and Henning Mankell.
Like Mattingly, Olasky knew Ahmanson before she married Howard. When they met, he was an associate journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin working on an article for Eternity magazine. Fieldstead solicited Olasky’s help editing the Turning Point Christian Worldview Series, a 16-book collection that was co-published with Crossway Books. The Ahmansons went on to help finance (to various degrees) Olasky’s summer writing sabbaticals, international research trips, a James Madison Fellowship at Princeton University, and World Magazine, of which Olasky is editor in chief.
The second of the Turning Point books, on international poverty, emerged from a series of meetings that Fieldstead sponsored in Villars, Switzerland, and then at their California home. The meetings, Olasky says, also informed his thinking about domestic poverty and led to his influential book The Tragedy of American Compassion. Newt Gingrich commended the book in his 1995 inaugural address as Speaker of the House of Representatives, and former President George W. Bush, in the foreword to Olasky’s Compassionate Conservatism (2000), described him as “Compassionate Conservatism’s leading thinker.”
As Blumenthal noted, Howard and Roberta also have strong ties to intelligent design, which purports that life on earth is best explained by reference to a creator. “We are probably the single largest supporter of the intelligent design movement, and have been since the beginning,” said Roberta. Her perspective on theistic evolution is unflinching: She rejects it because it “legit-imates naturalism as the mode of understanding reality.” Even so, she is not a seven-day creationist, and Fieldstead funds projects at institutions that promote evolution (see “Where Does Their Money Go?” sidebar).
Ahmanson is equally un-flinching in her defense of Rushdoony, controversial in part for his belief that the Levitical laws should be applied in modern society. Roberta claims he wasn’t “the ogre” he was made out to be and explains his theodicy as a response to his family’s flight from the Armenian genocide in Turkey. “His whole life project was to try to figure out what could protect you. In the end, he came down to the only thing that is solid is God’s law. Well, you say the word law in the 20th or 21st century, and people break out in a rash.”
Peb Jackson, the principal of Jackson Consulting Group, has known the Ahmansons throughout their marriage. When I asked him about their connection with Rushdoony, he said he hadn’t thought about it in years, but, upon reflection, said, “I think they were perhaps a little bit zealous in reference to their powerful support for Rushdoony in that effort. It’s really a reflection of the passion that they bring to wanting to focus on the forces in culture and society and faith, and wanting to use their God-given resources to influence those forces.”
When asked if it bothers her that their philanthropy is often overshadowed by criticism of their activism, Ahmanson said, “It used to bother me. My husband, for one thing, became a Democrat [in 2009], and he’s much more complicated than this kind of cardboard figure that they try to create. Even The Guardian must have figured it out, because they didn’t do any scare kind of stories about ‘The Sacred Made Real’ exhibit we sponsored at the same museum [in 2010]. They just left it alone, and the show got nothing but rave reviews, including one in The Guardian.”
Fred Smith, founder of the Christian philanthropy group The Gathering, says the Ahmansons are generally ten years ahead of their peers in Christian philanthropy. He mentions their foundational support of the pro-life movement in the 1980s, as well as their art patronage and interest in the early church. Smith thinks people don’t realize how much Roberta has changed. When he first met her, he says, “She would get angry and just kind of stomp out of the room figuratively and say, ‘You guys are never going to get it.’ I think over the years, she’s learned to temper that a great deal.”
Smith attributes some of Roberta’s early frustration to the transition from religion reporter to wealthy patron. “In some ways, she responded by saying, ‘Now I have a bully pulpit,’ and then went through some of the painful experiences of finding out that you can burn some bridges with this new bully pulpit until you get comfortable with it.” He adds, “I think everybody assumes that wealth brings perfection and omniscience. Sometimes the wealthy foster that myth as much as anybody. She’s had to grow up and stumbled around some in that, but I think she’s growing up. She’s not against things as much as she’s now for things. I think that’s made a big difference.”
Roberta Ahmanson is a force of nature. She brings intelligence, passion, conviction, and energy to the projects she pursues, and yet, she is defined even here in terms of Howard; with characteristic mirth, she declares she is amused by this fact. “Well, I am his wife and it’s a very important part of my life,” she offers. But she is so much more.
Where Does Their Money Go?
Roberta Ahmanson identified her and her husband’s most significant beneficiaries:
• The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture
• The Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture
• The Center for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia
• Orange County Rescue Mission’s Village of Hope
• Perry, Iowa (Roberta’s hometown)
• The Museum of Biblical Art
• Faculty development grants at Biola University
• The Center for Early African Christianity at Eastern University
• The Pacific Symphony’s Class Act Program
• The National Endowment for the Arts intern sponsorship in the chairman’s office
• The Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project
• The Christian Community Development Association
• Food for the Hungry
Recent 990 tax forms for the Ahmanson Charitable Community Trust and Fieldstead and Company include donations to:
• Pepperdine University
• Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation
• International Arts Movement
• Association for Community Education
• Breast Cancer Awareness Foundation
• World Food Prize Foundation
• Heartland Film Festival
• map International
• Trinity Christian Community (New Orleans)
• The Media Project
*This article first appeared in the January 2011 issue of Christianity Today.