What I Wrote This Week @UrbanFaith: July 11-15

Hitchhiker, NYC

  • Foreclosures Hit Churches Hard: A troubling increase in church foreclosures, especially among African American congregations, has us wondering whether too many churches have jeopardized their witness for the sake of an extravagant new building.
  • Was Slavery Better for Black Children?  After presidential candidate Michele Bachmann signed a traditional marriage pledge with potentially racist elements, the pundits piled on. But is their behavior any better than hers?
  • Death Row Inmates Want Pastoral Care: Where should justice and mercy meet when it comes to the lives of prisoners who are facing the death penalty?

I also began work on a story about a black led Tea Party group’s plan to protest the NAACP national convention. Look for it soon.

Celebrating the King James Bible @NJShorePatch

Museum of Biblical Art in New York hosts exhibit celebrating translation’s 400th anniversary.

1611 King James Bible at MOBIAWhile there are plenty of places to celebrate a special anniversary right here at the Jersey Shore, for one as monumental as the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, a trip into New York City to see On Eagles’ Wings at the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA) is just the thing.

The exhibit features a number of historic manuscripts, including a 1611 first folio edition of the bible and a 1440 New Testament. It also includes a collection of breathtaking paintings (my photos don’t do them justice) that contemporary artist Makoto Fujimura created to illustrate a Crossway Books commemorative edition of The Four Holy Gospels.  …

For a full picture of this wonderful celebration, go to Manasquan Patch.

What I Wrote This Week @UrbanFaith: 6/27-7/1

Hitchhiker, NYC

  • New Laws, Shifting Demographics: Whether the issue is gay marriage, the ‘war on drugs,’ African American marriage prospects, or the plight of undocumented immigrants, Americans are confronting the issues.
  • Michael Tait: ‘Living Integration’: The dc Talk veteran and current Newsboys singer on race, politics, and the beauty of diversity in Christianity, music — and food.

Michael Tait at Jersey Shore Will Graham Celebration May 22, 2011Michael Tait is lead singer of The Newsboys. He and the Grammy-nominated band performed an electric set at the Jersey Shore Will Graham Celebration in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, last month. Best known as a member of the pioneering Christian rock/rap group dc Talk, Tait’s career in the Christian music industry has been defined by stretching the boundaries of art, faith, and culture. Urban Faith News & Religion editor I caught up with Tait as he prepared to take the stage. …

  • Out in Greenwich Village: Should a church that helps people who struggle with unwanted same-sex attraction be allowed to stay in one of the nation’s most gay-friendly neighborhoods?

The big news out of New York last weekend was the legalization of gay marriage, but The Village Church in Greenwich Village is under threat of eviction from the public school where it meets and a New York Times op-ed writer says it should be because its ministry to people struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction doesn’t represent the community. I spoke to the church’s senior pastor, Sam A. Andreades, about the church and it’s unique position as the only Exodus International affiliate church in New York City. …

Compromise Keeps Neptune Graduation at Great Auditorium @ManasquanPatch

Neptune High School Graduation Compromise, Great Auditorium, Ocean Grove, NJ

ACLU complaint over holding ceremony at religious venue has been resolved.

Neptune High School seniors will continue decades of tradition tonight when they hold their graduation ceremony at the Great Auditorium in Ocean Grove.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey had threatened to sue the school district if changes weren’t made to the ceremony after a grandmother complained about the location and religious references in the ceremony last year. …

“The Board of Education and the administration is pleased that there has been a resolution,” said Neptune Township Superintendent of Schools David A. Mooij this morning.

“The intent of the district was always to keep the tradition alive. …It’s a building that cannot be duplicated anywhere, let alone within the geographical and municipal boundaries of Neptune. …” he said.

Katie Wang, communications director for the ACLU of New Jersey, declined to comment on the record Thursday other than to say the media had blown the issue out of proportion, but Wang emailed Patch a news release. …

“The national press on this has gotten way out of control,” said Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association Chief Administrative Officer Scott Hoffman Thursday.

It had been reported, for example, that students would be forced to enter the auditorium from the rear so as to avoid passing the prominent white cross that adorns the front of the building, but there are no front entrance doors and students have always processed from the rear, said Hoffman.

“That’s nothing new,” he said, conceding that “minor adjustments” had been made, including allowing the school district to display banners “in a place they think is appropriate.”

“I’m sure their objective there will be to make it hard to see” [two lighted signs at the front of the auditorium], said Hoffman. The historic signs say “Holiness to the Lord” and “So Be Ye Holy.” …

For the whole story and more photos, go to Manasquan Patch.

Lessons from Elite Leaders: Speaking in Different Registers at Work, Part 5 of 8 @TheHighCalling

People are afraid of evangelicals. Why? Laity Leadership Senior Fellow D. Michael Lindsay says his latest research shows that those outside the evangelical fold have fears about evangelicals based on two things:

  1. They’re afraid evangelicals won’t do the  things they say they’ll do.
  2. They’re afraid evangelicals will do some of the things they say they’ll do.

For example, people don’t believe it when an evangelical leader says, “I draw on my faith; it gives me a sense of meaning and purpose; it sacrilizes my work and helps me face some of the challenges that come my way, but I’m not here to convert you or force faith down your throat, or manipulate the work place so that it becomes like a church.”

Likewise, if they’re asked a generic question like, “Do you think evangelicals are trying to take over the country?” they may say yes. But when they’re asked about particular evangelicals they have encountered in leadership, they generally express positive attitudes. The exception is in the political realm, where Lindsay finds significant polarization. He says, “I bracket that off because I don’t know how, as a social analyst, to separate out someone’s faith from their politics. I think so much of how we respond relates to how those things work hand in hand in the political sector.”

He says we need to learn how to “speak in different registers” at work in order to alleviate these fears. …

To find out what he means, read the whole article at The High Calling.

Race to Economic Recovery Goes to the Tortoise @LaceyPatch

State of the Chamber 2011 keynote speaker forecasts solid job growth by summer

After a new slate of Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce officers was installed and elected officials from local municipalities spoke, Joel Naroff, president and founder of Naroff Economic Advisors, delivered a cautiously optimistic business forecast at the 2011 State of the Chamber Meeting in Manahawkin on Feb. 24.

Naroff, who had addressed the group at the height of the economic downturn two years ago, said there’s been significant change since then.

“The problem we have with this recovery is that it is really slow, but it is also the recovery we were always going to get,” Naroff said.

If you think of a recovery as a race, what we wanted was the hare and we got the tortoise. But the tortoise is steadily making its way towards the finish line,” Naroff said. …

Read the Christie administration advisor’s forecast and news about proposed solar and wind farms in Southern Ocean County here.

Who knew the Ivy League gem offered a wealth of free public religion events?

As a girl growing up in Point Pleasant Beach, I didn’t give much thought to Princeton University. It was the 1970s and I was, shall we say, distracted. If I thought about our state’s Ivy League jewel at all, I saw it as an inaccessable, dusty treasure chest full of academic stuffiness and snobbery.

If we’re lucky, we grow up and find out the world’s gems are much more accessable than we ever imagined. What a delight it was then, a few years ago, to learn that Princeton has a thriving faith community and offers a bounty of free public religion events.

It’s a pleasant 45 minute drive west on Route 33 and across Route 1 to the university from coastal Monmouth County and a great way to spend an afternoon or evening while enriching one’s understanding of the religious landscape. …

Read about some upcoming events here. Plus, where to park, eat, and shop in Princeton.

Deceit & Hidden Cameras in the Abortion Debate @TheHuffingtonPost

As a Christian, a pro-lifer, and a journalist, I’m ambivalent about the Planned Parenthood hidden camera sting that was perpetrated here in central New Jersey and reported sporadically by news outlets this week. The California based anti-abortion activist group Live Action sent two actors into a clinic posing as sex traffickers and recorded an employee doling out unethical, dangerous, and illegal advice that would keep the duo in business.

As a Christian I’m uncomfortable with both the failure of the office worker to report the couple to authorities and the entrapment of her by the activists. When is it appropriate to lie? The biblical stories of the midwives who refused to kill male infants as commanded by Egypt’s pharaoh and Rahab’s deception that saved Jewish spies in Jericho both seem to affirm lying when it’s done to save lives, but I question whether or not any lives will be saved as a result of this action.

As a pro-lifer, I doubt this kind of activism ultimately advances the goal of reducing abortion. On one hand, undeniable truth is exposed. On the other, the bad will it inspires is a serious blow to the common ground efforts that I believe hold the best hope of actually bringing down the abortion rate in the United States. Also, as pro-lifer Rachael Laramore writes at Slate,

“Planned Parenthood should be responsible for the actions of its employees. It should at least be held to the same standards that the left wants crisis-pregnancy centers held to–no false advertising, no erroneous medical information. But it’s extremely unlikely that there are multitudes of men walking into Planned Parenthood trying to get cheap abortions for their sex workers. And the young women who count on the group’s cheap birth control will be the ones who are harmed if Planned Parenthood loses its federal funding.”

As a journalist, I’m ambivalent about the use of hidden cameras and deception. At the journalism resource Poynter.org, several articles address the ethical problems inherent in using deception to reveal truth. When it comes to using hidden cameras, an article by Bob Steele offers the following factors to consider:

The Importance Threshold

“Since we are in the business of pursuing truth, there is more than a hint of hypocrisy when we use some form of deceit to pursue the truth. We can only justify that inconsistency and the use of deception when we truly serve a greater principle, such as pursuing a highly important and otherwise elusive truth. Therein lies the first standard for deciding when it is appropriate to use hidden cameras. To justify deception we must be pursuing exceptionally important information. It must be of vital public interest, such as preventing profound harm to individuals or revealing great system failure.”

Tools of Last Resort

“This covert method of newsgathering amplifies any accusations we make. We must insure that the tone and emphasis of hidden camera video meet standards for factual accuracy and contextual authenticity.”

Trinagulate & Test Assumptions

“We must devote enough resources, time and attention to gather the right facts and make sure our facts are right. We must supplement the surreptitious video with insightful observations, seeing and retaining important details of a scene that might not be captured by the camera.”

Know and Respect the Law

“We must pay close attention to the legal land mines in hidden camera reporting. Stations must develop sound strategies that recognize matters of defamation and privacy, including false light and intrusion torts. We can be vigorous in our reporting if we are clear on the law regarding fraud, trespass and surreptitious recording of audio. The law appropriately protects citizens. We should honor the law while also responsibly serving the public.”

Live Action’s amateur investigative work meets the Importance Threshold in my opinion, but I’m not sure it meets the other three criteria. A quick search of the bios on its website reveals that no one on the leadership team has journalistic training. Their success causes me to not only question the veracity and ethics of the work, it makes me lament the fact that more professionals aren’t doing excellent, unbiased reporting like this from ProPublica’s Marian Wang.

In the New Jersey case, the first outcome is that one woman lost her job. While she seems incredibly callous in the video, I assume that hers is a tragically misguided attempt to minimize the consequences of sex trafficking on underage girls who are beyond her reach, or as one commenter at GetReligion suggests, perhaps to get them into the clinic away from the pimps so that they can be helped.

Hidden camera video doesn’t reveal what is in a person’s mind and I don’t believe this is a singular story. The woman identified in the video as Amy Woodruff is culpable for her actions, but she has also become a convenient scapegoat. It’s understandable that pro-life activists wouldn’t be interested in what it means for Woodruff’s family for her to lose a job they believe is immoral, but as a Christian I am concerned about the harm that was done to them in the name of the cause.

*Update: Three additional videos have been released from clinics in Virginia.

Update 2/7: This article has now been published at The Huffington Post.

Connoisseur for Christ: Roberta Green Ahmanson @Christianity Today

Roberta in her office

Roberta Ahmanson in her office, which is in one of three Ahmanson homes that I visited.


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.

DISCOVERING REALITY

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.”

main house chapel

Stained glass window in the courtyard chapel of the Ahmanson’s oceanfront home.

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.”

Roberta at Village of Hope in front of sculpture she commissioned

Roberta Ahmanson at The Village of Hope in Tustin, California, where she and Howard donated art and other ammenities.

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.

The Politics of Hunger @UrbanFaith

Ambivalent about exercising your patriotic duty on Tuesday? I was too, until I interviewed the winner of the World Food Prize and learned why this election is so important to hungry Americans. Here’s the intro:

Hunger is a devastating problem in third-world countries, but according to Bread for the World president David Beckmann, one-quarter of all African Americans live in poverty right here in the U.S. That’s why he believes vanquishing poverty should be at the top of our “Christian” political agendas — and why he’s urging people to vote on Tuesday.

David Beckmann is president of Bread for the World and the recent winner of the 2010 World Food Prize. In addition to being an anti-hunger activist, he is a Lutheran minister and an economist who formerly worked at the World Bank. His latest book is Exodus from Hunger: We Are Called to Change the Politics of Hunger. UrbanFaith columnist Christine Scheller interviewed Rev. Beckmann about his work, hunger in the African American community, and why we should be aware of the federal policies that influence issues of poverty in America. …

And a compelling exchange from our conversation:

I tend to think that living in the United States, hunger is more invisible. How has it changed you working for the World Bank and Bread for the World?

What’s most striking is that the world as a whole has made remarkable progress against hunger, poverty and disease. I believe in God and I see that hundreds of millions of people have escaped from poverty in places like Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Brazil and Britain. That’s why, for me, it makes sense that this is God moving in our history. And then I come back to the U.S.A. where we haven’t made any progress against hunger and poverty since about 1973 and it informs, I think, the U.S. situation. If Brazil and Bangladesh can reduce poverty, it’s clear that we could do it in the U.S. We just haven’t tried for a while. But we did try as a nation. In the ’60s and the early ’70s, we had economic growth and we had a concerted effort under both Johnson and Nixon to reduce hunger and poverty and we cut poverty in half. So it’s doable here too. … I think the fact that we work on world poverty and domestic poverty together makes it all much clearer that our problem in this country is lack of commitment.

Read the whole thing here, and don’t forget to vote.

This interview was reprinted with permission at The Huffington Post on November 2, 2010.

The Smoking Bra Flames Out AKA The Unfunny Side of Modern Feminism @Her.meneutics

I enjoy reading the perspectives of the women at Slate’s Double X channel. (I also like Ann Althouse and Penelope Trunk, two smart, quirky bloggers who live in Wisconsin.) But I’ve had a particular fondness for Double X editor Hanna Rosin ever since she reported on the Christian homeschooling movement because, having done so myself way back in 2002, I think she did it well. I’ve wanted to meet her, which was at least part of the reason I trekked into Manhattan for an event Double X was hosting about feminism and comedy.  I did meet her too, and enjoyed it. We had a little conversation about the word lady, which was used frequently by the women on stage. I found that startling and asked about it in the Q&A. That discussion  made it into the online video, only you never see my face or hear my voice, thank God! As to the comedy, I love a good laugh as much as anybody and I did laugh some, but I’m just not a fan of potty humor, so I wrote about that for Her.meneutics. My analysis begins like this:

Is feminism funny or humorless? That was the question asked and evaluated at a Slate event I attended in New York City called Double X Presents: The Smoking Bra: Women and Comedy. I thought the question was worth exploring because, like so many contentious topics, feminism doesn’t often inspire laughter. Problem is, I was looking in the wrong place for an answer.

I would describe the show in detail, but doing so would violate Philippians 4:8, which instructs us to think on things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable. Much of what I saw and heard was anything but that. …

For a thoroughly sanitized description of what I saw, read the rest here. For un-sanitized clips from the event itself, go here and here. If you do check out the clip from Morgan Murphy‘s routine, perhaps you’ll get a sense of an inherent modesty that comes through her profanity laden performance. Even when she’s joking about “sexting” with a guy, she communicates a certain level of discomfort with the endeavor. Please come back and tell me what you think!

As to the photo above, I lifted it from Google images. It is an advertisement for a product made by Swiss underwear manufacturer Triumph International. I’m sure they won’t mind the free plug. Then again, given the product, I could be wrong.

“Poverty is on the Agenda” at UrbanFaith.com

My first article for Urban Faith is up. It’s a report on the Sojourners/World Vision Mobilization to End Poverty event I attended in Washington D.C. last month. My reporting for Urban Faith focuses primarily on the experiences of other attendees at the event. I was also asked to write a blog post for Sojo.net about my own experience at MEP. After agreeing to do so and then attending the event, I realized I had made a mistake because I couldn’t really do honest journalism for the event host. When an outlet reports on its own event, it is called public relations. I decided to submit an honest account of my experience and let the chips fall where they may. Sojo.net elected not to publish this account. I take the editors at their word that the problem was with the writing and not with my critique. It’s pretty dull, I guess, and perhaps tangential, but I present it here nonetheless. Make of it what you will.

What to make of an anti-poverty event that could easily cost participants $500-$1000 or more, depending on how far they traveled, where they slept and what they ate? I ask the question not as a criticism, but because it influenced my one day experience of the Mobilization to End Poverty gathering, and my early exit from it.

The recommended hotel cost $245 a night, an amount higher than any I have ever paid for a hotel, even when my husband earned a six-figure income. I might have stayed at a hostel for $50 if I had acted early, but instead I camped alone for $16 a night at Greenbelt National Park in nearby Maryland. A late model German station wagon served as my “tent.” For dinner I prepared Trader Joe’s noodles with a cup of hot water that I grubbed at McDonald’s. I covered my interior windows with $9 worth of “made in China” tablecloths I had purchased at a nearby dollar store. They quickly filled my abode with the suffocating smell of formaldehyde. (How toxic must those factories be?) As evening wore on, I tried to read the 100th anniversary edition of Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis, but felt vulnerable, alone and foolish for setting up camp in what passes for a DC suburb.

What little sleep I got was periodically interrupted by the sound of sirens in the distance. Looking put together and professional after such a night is a challenge I don’t care to repeat. It’s a challenge I’m not sure I could endure with grace on a daily basis. By the time I arrived at the convention center, I felt unkempt. Inferior. Apart from attendees I imagined could afford to comfortably lobby and talk about poverty—even though I’ve spent the past six months working hard to gain access to tax-payer funded mental health services for an uninsured and currently uninsurable family member. I rejoice in care of questionable quality because it is something and it’s cheap.

From this vantage point I assessed day one of the Mobilization to End Poverty.

The speakers were inspiring—more consistently inspiring than most on the poverty circuit, according to a couple Sisters of Charity from Leavenworth, Kansas. Biblical mandates flowed freely, and startled when they too closely resembled mandates anointing a different political agenda that had been roundly and rightly criticized from these quarters.

Activists were enthused. A couple expectant Presbyterian fathers from Bradenton, Florida, were there looking for inspiration. They had flown into town, but were staying with friends in the suburbs. One is a church youth group leader; the other a board member of his local chapter of Habitat for Humanity. At the close of day one, both had gained renewed enthusiam for themselves and their ministries. The investment was clearly worth it to them.

 A Lutheran attendee from Pennsylvania said he was excited to be there talking about something other than abortion and gay marriage. Yes, but why must we denounce? The rigor of the abortion debate was appropriate to its time and is evolving in ways appropriate to our time. The gay marriage debate is one worth having. We should applaud it, and add to it, not shirk from it. Ambivalence on this issue dare not speak its name and that’s not good. What does it require of me to oppose hunger or affirm health care reform?  Certainly nothing as gauche as meddling in other people’s sex lives. Unless of course one deigns to get their hands dirty with real people—people like my grandfather, who produced six children and then abandoned them.

It’s easier to meddle in people’s money, especially with an economic crisis and an unpopular war that create convenient platforms upon which to build our case. On Monday afternoon, no less than former CEO and current World Vision president Richard Stearns compared the 2009 economic collapse to the 1989 fall of communism, saying unrestrained capitalism had been found “bankrupt” and “inadequate” in the same way unrestrained communism had twenty years ago. He spoke truth to the choir.

So let me meddle. In addition to denouncing corporate greed, how about, as longtime urban minister Rudy Carrasco suggested to me, we lobby business for its support in the same way we lobby elected officials? Doing it already? Fine. Then don’t dismiss the interests of business.

Instead of comparing and contrasting one pro-life cause with another, as Monday night’s preacher did, how about we make Obama accountable for his promises to support responsible fatherhood, adoption and abortion reduction?

In my husband’s work as case worker and pastor to homeless men at Double R Ranch in Warner Springs, CA, one of his responsibilities was to help men re-enter the lives of their children. Often this meant getting them to see beyond themselves and their own histories of failure to the welfare of others. The process began with caring for the ranch’s 40+ horses and other animals. It also included requiring them to contribute a portion of their minuscule incomes to the support of their children and facing the women who were busy cleaning up their messes.

Last year, I emailed my elected representatives to ask them to vote for the Paul Wellstone-Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, a bill that requires insurers that offer mental health coverage to do so equitably. A bill that President Obama sponsored as a senator and that President Bush signed into law. It’s a pro-life issue I heartily supported as the mother of a child who died by suicide and whose birth was ensured by the advocacy of notorious pro-lifers like the late Jerry Falwell.

I realized this week that I cannot afford face time with my legislators in Washington right now, but I can make a difference. First by caring for my own family members and others within my sphere of influence, second by contributing tax revenue to fund sources of support upon which my loved ones currently depend, third by advocating for a wide variety of pro-life causes and, finally, by challenging my peers.

So let me close with this reflection: It’s great to rally the troops and celebrate our victories, as long as we don’t become the thing we despise. Don’t become the thing you despised Sojourners. You have friends of all political and theological persuasions.

Update: Sojourners included my UrbanFaith article in their media accounts of MEP.