Avenging angel of the religious right

Quirky millionaire Howard Ahmanson Jr. is on a mission from God to stop gay marriage, fight evolution, defeat "liberal" churches -- and reelect George W. Bush.

Published January 6, 2004 10:58PM (EST)

In the summer of 2000, a group of frustrated Episcopalians from the board of the American Anglican Council gathered at a sun-soaked Bahamanian resort to blow off some steam and hatch a plot. They were fed up with the Episcopal Church and what they perceived as a liberal hierarchy that had led it astray from centuries of so-called orthodox Christian teaching. The only option, they believed, was to lead a schism.

But this would take money. After the meeting, Anglican Council vice president Bruce Chapman sent a private memo to the group's board detailing a plan to involve Howard F. Ahmanson Jr., a Southern California millionaire, and his wife, Roberta Green Ahmanson, in the plan. "Fundraising is a critical topic," Chapman wrote. "But that topic itself is going to be affected directly by whether we have a clear, compelling forward strategy. I know that the Ahmansons are only going to be available to us if we have such a strategy and I think it would be wise to involve them directly in settling on it as the options clarify." It was a logical pitch: As a key financier of the Christian right with a penchant for anti-gay campaigns, Ahmanson clearly shared the Anglican Council's interest in subverting the left-leaning church. Moreover, Ahmanson and his wife were close friends and prayer partners of David Anderson, the Anglican Council's chief executive, while Chapman and his political team were already enjoying hefty annual grants from Ahmanson to Chapman's think tank, the Discovery Institute.

Soon, the money came rolling in to the Anglican Council, with more than $1 million in donations from Ahmanson in 2000 and 2001. And the newly flush Anglican Council redoubled its anti-gay campaign, climaxing in November when the Episcopal Church consecrated its first openly gay bishop, the Rt. Rev. Eugene Robinson. With its war chest full and its strongest pretext yet for a schism, the group cranked up a smear campaign against Robinson, falsely accusing him of sexual harassment and administering a bisexual pornography Web site, prompting three wealthy dioceses to split with the Episcopal Church and join the Anglican Council's renegade network. Now more dioceses and parishes are poised to follow, a prospect that threatens to weaken the progressive Episcopal Church's political influence -- 44 members of Congress are Episcopalian -- and provide an important new tableau for right-wing political organizing.

The Episcopal Church split is only a small part of Ahmanson's concerted efforts to radically transform not only American religion, but the nation's moral culture and, thereby, the country itself. His 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. His financial influence also helped propel the recent campaign to recall California Gov. Gray Davis. 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.

After more than 20 years of politically oriented philanthropy, Ahmanson is now emerging as one of the major financial angels of the right, putting him in the company of Richard Mellon Scaife, the oil and banking heir who bankrolled the groundwork for much of the conservative movement's apparatus and became a household name in the 1990s thanks to his $2.4 million dirty-tricks campaign against President Bill Clinton.

Yet few Americans have heard of Ahmanson -- and that's the way he likes it. Unlike Scaife, Ahmanson donates cash either out of his own pocket or through his unincorporated corporate entity, Fieldstead and Co., to avoid having to report the names of his grantees to the IRS. His Tourette's syndrome only adds to his reclusive persona, as his fear of speaking leads him to shun the media. And while Scaife travels the world in his own jet, Ahmanson shuns luxury for a lifestyle of down-to-earth humility. As his wife of 17 years, Roberta Green Ahmanson, told me, he once gave up his seat on an airplane for a refund. And when he goes out for a spin in his neighborhood in Newport Beach, a posh coastal community 45 minutes south of Los Angeles, he drives a Prius, Toyota's new, environment-friendly hybrid car. It's a modest choice for a man who could afford an entire Hummer dealership, but nevertheless a considerable upgrade from his old Datsun pickup.

At the root of Ahmanson's quirky asceticism and ardent conservatism is his rocky path from cloistered rich kid to Bible-believing philanthropist. Ahmanson's father, Howard Sr., was a savings and loan tycoon whose net worth was valued at over $300 million at the time of his death in 1968. Howard Jr. was only 18 at the time he inherited the fortune. Ejected from his sheltered youth to confront a world suddenly in his palm, the reluctant heir feared that he would never surpass his father's accomplishments; at the same time, he viewed his inherited fortune as a wall separating him from humanity. After wandering the country and the world searching for peace of mind, he returned home in the mid-'70s still a lost soul.

It was then that he found his salvation in the church and in R.J. Rushdoony, a prolific author and an influential theologian of the far right. Rushdoony is the father of Christian Reconstructionism, a strange variant of Calvinism that stresses waging political struggle to put the earth, and in particular the U.S., under the control of biblical law. In his 30-some books, he advocated everything from the end of government-administered social welfare and public schools to the execution of homosexuals. For around 20 years, until Rushdoony's death in 2001, Ahmanson served on the board of his think tank, Chalcedon, granting it a total of $1 million. In exchange, Rushdoony acted as Ahmanson's spiritual advisor, imbuing him with a sense of order and a mission.

Today, Ahmanson says he is more mature than the card-carrying Reconstructionist who told the Orange County Register in 1985: "My goal is the total integration of biblical law into our lives." In brief, written responses to questions I e-mailed to him, he placed special emphasis on his disagreement with Rushdoony's opinion that homosexuals should be executed. "Due to my association with Rushdoony, reporters have often assumed that I agree with him in all applications of the penalties of the Old Testament Law, particularly the stoning of homosexuals," Ahmanson wrote. "My vision for homosexuals is life, not death, not death by stoning or any other form of execution, not a long, lingering, painful death from AIDS, not a violent death by assault, and not a tragic death by suicide. My understanding of Christianity is that we are all broken, in need of healing and restoration. So far as I can tell, the only hope for our healing is through faith in Jesus Christ and the power of his resurrection from the dead."

While Ahmanson was reluctant to speak, his wife clarified his views for me in a series of interviews that marked her first encounter with the press since 1992. In our talks, she recounted how she and her husband met in 1984, in their 30s, while she was covering religion and the San Bernardino square-dancing scene for the Orange County Register. As a dyed-in-the-wool Calvinist, raised Christian in Perry, Iowa, schooled at Calvin College, and a teacher at what she called "experimental Christian" schools throughout Canada as a young woman, she made a perfect match for Ahmanson. Two years later they were married. With her media experience and extensive theological education to go with a warm, refreshingly humorous personality that constrasts starkly with her husband's insularity, Mrs. Ahmanson has enthusiastically taken on the role of his able spokesperson and indefatigable guardian.

Roberta Ahmanson made pains to highlight her husband's charitable side, stressing his donations to the Nature Conservancy, the evangelical humanitarian aid group World Vision, and the Orange County Rescue Mission, a Christian homeless shelter that President Bush recently singled out for funding under his faith-based initiative. For her, Ahmanson is a complicated yet balanced man whose political activism and charitable giving are driven by a higher force.

"His goal is -- this is going to sound crazy -- his goal is to do with his money what God wants him to do," she explained.

And why does God want him to give to so many right-wing causes?

"The Christian view of man is that we're not perfect. You don't give to things that base themselves on the optimistic view that human beings are going to be doing it right," Mrs. Ahmanson explained. When I asked if this meant she and her husband would still want to install the supremacy of biblical law, she replied: "I'm not suggesting we have an amendment to the Constitution that says we now follow all 613 of the case laws of the Old Testament ... But if by biblical law you mean the last seven of the 10 Commandments, you know, yeah."

In 1992, Ahmanson banded together with four right-wing businessmen to back the campaigns of anti-gay, anti-abortion, pro-big business candidates; two years later, they scored their first major victory, propelling the GOP's takeover of the California Assembly. With $3 million funneled through seven pro-business, anti-abortion and Republican political action fronts, Ahmanson and company captured a startling 25 of the GOP's 39 legislative seats for their candidates. Their push ushered two important movement cadres into power: Tom McClintock, a veteran activist and former director of economic and regulatory affairs of the Ahmanson-funded libertarian think tank Claremont Institute; and Ray Haynes, an unknown lawyer from another Ahmanson-funded group, the Western Center for Law and Justice, which once filed a brief defending a local school district for banning Gabriel Garcéa Marquéz's novel "One Hundred Years of Solitude."

Upon seizing power, McClintock sponsored a bill returning the death penalty to California, while Haynes led a failed 1995 attempt to ban state funding for abortion and numerous futile fights to block anti-hate crime and domestic partnership legislation. In 2003, the two Ahmanson cadres became instrumental figures in propelling the campaign to recall Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. In March 2003, Haynes personally convinced a fellow arch-conservative, U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, to bankroll the recall ballot qualification. After the recall qualified with the help of $1.7 million from Issa, McClintock entered the recall campaign, ultimately finishing third as the token cultural conservative. As in 1992, Ahmanson's camp provided the groundwork for McClintock's campaign: John Stoos, an avowed Reconstructionist associated with Chalcedon, served as his deputy campaign manager, and Ahmanson hosted some of the most prominent leaders in the Christian right for a fundraiser in Colorado in September that, according to the Los Angeles Times, raised $100,000.

To complement his electoral efforts, Ahmanson has pumped enormous amounts of money into ballot measure committees, dramatically altering California's social landscape in the process. In 1999, Ahmanson helped to sharply restrict affirmative action in California with a $350,000 donation to Proposition 209; that same year he helped ban gay marriage with a donation of $210,000 -- 35 percent of all total funds -- to Proposition 22. To avoid giving voters the impression that Prop. 22 was somehow anti-gay, its "Protection of Marriage Committee" spent nearly half of Ahmanson's donation on billboards presenting the measure as "pro-family."

Despite his penchant for behind-the-scenes string-pulling, Ahmanson's anti-gay campaigns have attracted close scrutiny by Jerry Sloan, a Sacramento gay-rights advocate and founder of Project Tocsin.

"Ahmanson's financing of these various initiatives both statewide and locally and his financing of anti-gay legislators who fight tooth and toenail against any legislation that would protect people or enhance our rights as citizens has made the struggle for our rights probably two or three times harder than it should be," Sloan told me. "I can't think of anybody who's more dangerous to the average Californian than Howard Ahmanson."

With President Bush running for reelection cautiously signaling support for a constitutional amendment -- modeled after California's Prop. 22 -- to ban gay marriage, one of Ahmanson's key causes has gone national. And as donors to Bush's 2000 campaign, the Ahmansons couldn't be more pleased with the dividends of their investment. "We supported him the first time and we'll support him again," a doting Mrs. Ahmanson said of Bush.

Ahmanson's money has also sustained the operations of influential Washington insiders like Grover Norquist, an anti-tax lobbyist who once compared the federal income tax to date rape, as well as far-out groups like the Spiritual Counterfeits Project, an evangelical ministry entrenched in the shadows of Berkeley's People's Park working to undermine the local New Age scene, or what its monthly journal has called the "neo-pagans."

As an ardent anti-pornography activist, Ahmanson granted $160,000 in 1997 to the woman who helped bring down Gary Hart's 1988 presidential campaign, Donna Rice-Hughes, and her group Enough Is Enough, which this year successfully lobbied Congress to provide web filters in public libraries. "While I might advocate less liberty for vice, I recognize that all we can do in most cases is limit it somewhat and drive what remains underground rather than wipe it out," Ahmanson told me.

One of Ahmanson's most significant investments has been in the career of a man Mrs. Ahmanson describes as his "dear friend," Marvin Olasky, the most influential propagandist of the Christian right in the last decade. A former Jew turned Marxist who counts Rushdoony's Reconstructionism among his influences, Olasky spent most of the 1980s as an obscure journalism professor at the University of Texas in Austin. His first book, "Turning Point: A Christian Worldview Declaration," was published by Ahmanson's privately held philanthropic entity, the Fieldstead Institute, and was co-authored by Fieldstead's director, Herbert Schlossberg. Though theological scholars ignored the book, it found its way into Washington's conservative circles, and by 1989 Olasky was offered the well-paying Bradley scholarship at the Heritage Foundation.

In 1992, Olasky wrote "The Tragedy of American Compassion," an argument for transferring government social welfare programs to the church. In his book, Olasky cites his "conservative Christian" friend Howard Ahmanson as proof that faith can cure poverty, describing how Ahmanson "found that poverty around the world is a spiritual as well as a material problem -- most poor people don't have faith that they and their situations can change."

Ahmanson told me "The Tragedy of American Compassion" is one of his favorite books, as it articulates his long-standing views on government's role in social welfare. "For government, social service is at best a secondary responsibility; it's a primary responsibility for the philanthropic-religious sector," he explained. "Governments feeding people, and priests and nuns firing cannon in national defense, may sometimes be necessary; but they are not the norm."

In 1993, "The Tragedy of American Compassion" earned Olasky an invitation from political strategist Karl Rove to meet with an evangelical Christian running for governor of Texas -- George W. Bush. Eventually the man Time magazine dubbed the "unlikely guru" would become a key advisor to Bush, instilling in him the politics of "compassionate conservatism." And when President Bush signed an executive order to create a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in January 2001, Olasky was standing by his side, beaming with pride as he watched the new president sign his ideas into government policy.

Another man who owes the success of his work to Ahmanson is Bruce Chapman, a former Reagan administration official and founder of the Seattle think tank Discovery Institute, a bastion for the intelligent design movement, which seeks to debunk Darwin's theory of evolution with scientific-sounding arguments. Americans United for Separation of Church and State calls Discovery "the most effective and politically savvy group pushing a religious agenda in America's public school science classes."

Ahmanson has been a major funder of Discovery. According to the Baptist Press, this year Ahmanson granted $2.8 million to the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, Discovery's intelligent design wing. With 48 well-heeled research fellows, directors and advisors, almost all of whom have advanced degrees from respectable universities, the center has given intelligent design a level of influence traditional creationism has not enjoyed.

This September, Discovery lobbied the Texas State Board of Education to mandate language in its high school biology textbooks challenging what Chapman called "fake facts" in evolutionary studies. After a heated debate in which dozens of Discovery fellows and their opponents from the scientific community testified, a panel voted to adopt the textbooks after a promise from the commissioner of the Texas Education Agency that all remaining "factual errors" would be addressed by publishers before the textbooks get into the hands of students. For example, at least one science text has used the common colloquial term "gill slits" to describe a feature found in human embryos; that feature proves to mainstream scientists that humans share an evolutionary lineage with prehistoric vertebrates. But Discovery calls that term "biologically bogus," and when the publisher agreed to drop it, the institute claimed a major victory.

But the victory is at best cosmetic, and hardly a blow against the teaching of evolution. According to Ed Darrell, a Texas social studies teacher and former botanist who testified before the board against Discovery, textbooks will merely use the formal scientific term "branchial arch" instead of "gill slit." Meanwhile, he said, Texas textbooks will continue to convey the science of evolution. "Discovery says they won, but they've got to do that in order to keep Ahmanson happy," Darrell said in an interview. "They came in here with guns blazing and got shot down. But they've got a lot of money and they'll probably be back."

Howard Ahmanson Sr. never let politics get in the way of his good name. Most of his $300 million fortune was made driving California's postwar housing boom through his savings and loan company, Home Savings & Loan (known today as Washington Mutual). In his later years, he spent as much as 60 percent of his fortune on philanthropy and today his name is emblazoned on a cardiology center at UCLA's Medical Center, an entire wing at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and one of Los Angeles' premier theaters. The young Ahmanson was raised to continue this legacy.

Howard Jr. was born in 1950, when his father was 44. By that time, according to Roberta Ahmanson, the elder Ahmanson was "in his palatial stage," feting visiting kings and queens and basking in the opulence of his three-lot mansion on Harbor Island, an exclusive address in Southern California's Newport Harbor. Meanwhile, young Ahmanson was tended to by an army of servants and ferried to and from school in a limousine. As he watched the world go by behind darkened windows, he was gripped with a longing to cast off his wealth and disappear into anonymity. He came to burn with resentment toward his father, a remote, towering presence who burdened him with high expectations. "I resented my family background," he told the Register in 1985. "[My father] could never be a role model, whether by habits or his lifestyle, it was never anything I wanted."

His youth was plagued with loneliness and loss. At age 10, his mother served his father with divorce papers. A few years later, she died. Then, when Howard was 18, his father died too, sinking him into spiraling depths of despair and therapy. To escape his background, Ahmanson drifted to the far-off plains of Kansas and enrolled part-time in college classes. "It was like taking the lid off a pressure cooker," Mrs. Ahmanson recalls of her husband's self-imposed exile.

Ahmanson returned to California to attend Occidental College, where he earned generally poor marks as an economics major. After graduating with a bachelor's degree, he spent a year backpacking through Europe and "being grungy," as he told the Register. He might have stayed there, living off his trust fund, if not for a bout with arthritis, an affliction he later would call his "miracle disease." This sent him back to the States, where he earned his master's degree in linguistics at the University of Texas at Arlington. Because he suffers from Tourette's syndrome, a disease that makes stringing sentences together a frustrating ordeal -- "like a slow modem," his wife explains -- the degree reflected a major triumph. In his single-minded determination to overcome his handicap, Ahmanson became fluent in Japanese, Spanish and German.

When Ahmanson came back to Orange County driving an old Datsun pickup and dressed in clothing more befitting a Seattle alt-rocker than a trust-fund baby, it was clear he was still struggling with the burden of guilt left to him by his father. With millions at his disposal, he had imposed an allowance of $1,200 a month upon himself. Most of his fraternity brothers from Occidental had become evangelical Christians while he was away and reconnecting with them also sparked a new interest for him. He joined a singles group organized by Mariners Church, a Bible-based, nondenominational church in Newport Beach, which he credits with his spiritual and social salvation. It was there, he told the Register, that he was convinced to take full advantage of his inheritance and to stop "cheating God."

Ahmanson sold his stock in his father's company and invested it in lucrative real estate acquisitions, with a goal of earning returns of 20 to 25 percent per year. That assured that his wealth would grow quickly, but it made him feel vulnerable to people who would manipulate his guilt complex to get a cut of his fortune. These were usually the people closest to him -- girlfriends, family members and friends. In one instance, his former roommate at Occidental asked him to fund his surf shop, explaining that the shop could bring in potential Christian converts off the street. Ahmanson wasn't convinced. "If you don't do this, these kids will go to hell," his roommate threatened. In that very hour, according to his wife, he became a full-fledged Calvinist, giving himself to Calvin's doctrine of predestination, which holds that God "elects" individuals for salvation based on factors beyond their control.

"If someone's eternal goal is dependent on him [Ahmanson] giving a grant, then we're all in trouble," Mrs. Ahmanson explained. "So that made Calvin's approach that God is in charge of all of this quite appealing." Ahmanson's sudden religious turn did not automatically lead him to right-wing political activism, according to his wife. He voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976 and, as Mrs. Ahmanson claims, was not politicized until 1979, when the Orange County Rescue Mission, a Christian homeless shelter where he played piano once a week, was condemned when the city of Santa Ana failed to issue it a conditional use permit. As Mrs. Ahmanson recounts, her husband was outraged by what he considered an act of government tyranny; as he stood on a picket line outside the doomed shelter, he became an ardent believer in God-given property rights and the spirit of capitalism.

But contrary to his wife's account, evidence suggests Ahmanson's political conversion was not exactly the result of a heroic epiphany. According to Sloan, founder of Project Tocsin in Sacramento, Ahmanson became a board member of Rushdoony's Chalcedon in the mid-'70s, so by the time he was picketing outside the Mission, he was fully immersed in the right-wing politics that are part and parcel of Chalcedon.

Whatever the case, Ahmanson's Calvinist ideology rapidly crystallized under Rushdoony's tutelage. As Mrs. Ahmanson told me, Rushdoony was like a father figure to her husband when he was young and wayward. "Howard got to know Rushdoony and Rushdoony was very good to him when he was a young man and my husband was very grateful and supported him to his death," she said, adding that they were with Rushdoony at his deathbed.

The Ahmansons today bristle at questions about their past alliance with Rushdoony: "It's like, 'Have you now or ever been?'" remarked Mrs. Ahmanson, comparing journalistic inquiries about her husband's links to Rushdoony to McCarthyite guilt-by-association tactics. Yet it is only by understanding this little-known cleric that one can grasp the philosphy behind Ahmanson's politics. "I discovered his works at a time when I had no clear vision for Christian philanthropy and no model that I liked," Ahmanson told me of Rushdoony. "Here was someone responding to questions that in the late '70s no one was even asking."

Rushdoony descended from six generations of Armenian priests, aristocracy in the world's oldest Christian country. His parents narrowly escaped the Armenian genocide, in which over 1.5 million Armenians were massacred by Turks attempting to "Ottomanize" the country. As a young boy growing up in New York, Rushdoony was haunted by tales of the slaughter that persisted despite impassioned pleas from the Armenian clergy for foreign intervention. As Rushdoony made his way through seminary and religious study during the 1940s and '50s, he was gripped by a bitter cynicism about the betrayal that became his driving force.

"His whole life's work was aimed at finding a philosophy that would stand against the kind of tyranny his parents had to flee," Ahmanson explained.

Rushdoony spelled out his philosophy in painstaking detail in his 1973 magnum opus, "Institutes of Biblical Law," which he self-consciously named after John Calvin's "Institutes of Christian Religion." In the 800-page tome, Rushdoony presents his vision for a new America in which the church subsumes the federal government and society is administered according to biblical law, or at least his interpretation of it. According to biblical law, he writes, segregation is a "basic principle," and slavery is permitted "because some people are by nature slaves and will always be so." Those who don't comply with Rushdoony's rules -- disobedient children, "pagans," adulterers, women who get abortions, repeat criminal offenders and, of course, homosexuals -- would be executed. Mrs. Ahmanson, who described Rushdoony as "quirky in some ways," qualified his extremism: "To impose the death penalty you need two witnesses. So the number of executions goes down pretty quickly."

Though Ahmanson has read "Institutes of Biblical Law," he told me he prefers books by Rushdoony that deal more explicitly with ethical and moral issues. One such book is "The Politics of Guilt and Pity," a polemical suite of caustic riffs on the pathology of liberals. In this book, Rushdoony writes: "The guilty rich will indulge in philanthropy, and the guilty white men will show 'love' and 'concern' for Negroes and other such persons who are in actuality repulsive and intolerable to them ... The Negroes demand more aid, i.e., more slavery and slave-care, and dwell on their sufferings."

There is no indication that Ahmanson shares Rushdoony's bellicose racism, but Rushdoony's scathing critique of "the guilty rich" resonated with the young man constantly beset upon by human parasites seeking a chunk of his money. In possibly his only published piece of work, a 1997 essay for the Acton Institute, a conservative religious think tank, Ahmanson parroted Rushdoony's harsh style and viewpoint: "The argument that we ought not do any particular thing because the poor exist is the argument of Judas, and if you hear it made, know that thieves are about who want to get their piece of the action."

As an avid reader, Ahmanson often explores literature beyond the Bible for insight on his struggle to harness his inheritance. As Mrs. Ahmanson told me, her family is captivated by J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy -- by her count, her husband has read "The Hobbit" six times. "Howard kind of identifies with Frodo," she said, referring to the heroic Hobbit who must destroy a magical ring to save the world.

In my latest conversation with Mrs. Ahmanson, in which she spoke by cellphone while strolling through an Orange County shopping mall on a search for socks and underwear for her teenage son, David, we negotiated my request for an interview with her husband. As she rattled off a litany of engagements he had to make before leaving the following week for a three-month tour of New Zealand, Japan and Australia, I heard a man's voice in the background and realized Ahmanson was there all along. "He'd talk on the phone but he doesn't want to. It just doesn't work well," she explained regretfully, hinting at her husband's Tourette's.

Though Ahmanson himself declined to sit down for a face-to-face interview, Roberta Ahmanson's interviews for this story were her first since a two-part L.A. Times story in 1992 on her husband's role in the Allied Business PAC. "They burned me so badly," she said of the Times. "The reporter didn't know anything and wasn't going to be taught." Her suspicion of the media was often apparent. While the premise for my interview was to discuss her and her husband's involvement in the Episcopal Church split, she bristled at the notion that they are involved in any way other than granting money. "They [Anglican Council officials] don't call us up and say, 'What do you want us to do?'" she insisted.

Unlike other Ahmanson-funded campaigns, Mrs. Ahmanson has assumed a personal role in the Episcopal Church split. She and her husband are longtime members of St. James Church in Newport Beach, a leading parish in the Episcopal Church's Los Angeles diocese where their "good friend" and Anglican Council CEO David Anderson served as rector until this year. (Anderson refused my interview request.) Mrs. Ahmanson, moreover, is on the board of the Institute of Religion and Democracy, a right-wing Washington think tank that shares ideas -- and an office in Washington -- with the Anglican Council.

The institute is directed by Diane Knippers, an evangelical Episcopalian and writer who also happens to be a founding member of the Anglican Council and its acting executive director. She is the chief architect of the institute's Reforming America's Churches Project, which aims to "restructure the permanent governing structure" of "theologically flawed" mainline churches like the Episcopal Church in order to "discredit and diminish the Religious Left's influence." This has translated into a three-pronged assault on mainline Presbyterian, Methodist and Episcopal churches. With a staff of media-savvy research specialists, the institute is able to ply both the religious and mainstream media, exploiting divisive social issues within the churches.

"The larger framework for the challenge to the Episcopal Church is the ongoing right-wing effort to get control of the mainline denominations," says Alfred Ross, president of the Institute for Democracy Studies, a New York think tank that monitors anti-democratic political movements. "As the right looks to consolidate different squares on the chessboard, the mainline churches occupy key positions on that board."

The Institute for Religion and Democracy's project did not come together until 2001, when Knippers and her husband were invited by the Ahmansons for a five-week vacation in Turkey during which Mrs. Ahmanson says the Knippers "inveigled me to go on the [institute] board." In 2000 and 2001, Howard Ahmanson donated $1 million to the Anglican Council. According to Roberta Ahmanson, IRS records show the family gave $15,788 to the Institute for Religion and Democracy in 2001.

In earlier years, however, the Ahmanson family apparently donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the institute. A detailed study in The New Zion's Herald, an independent religious journal published by the Boston Wesleyan Association, reported that the Ahmansons donated a total of $293,095 to the Institute in 1991 and 1992. The Washington Post citing Knippers as its source, reported last year that the Ahmansons have donated $50,000 to $100,000 a year to the institute over an unspecified period of time.

The campaign against the Episcopal Church climaxed on Aug. 5 last year, just a day before the Rt. Rev. Eugene Robinson was scheduled to be elected as the church's first openly gay bishop. In a column titled "The Gay Bishop's Links," Weekly Standard editor and Institute board member Fred Barnes alleged that the Web site of a gay youth group Robinson founded contained links to "a pornographic website." Further, Barnes alleged, Robinson "put his hands on" a Vermont man "inappropriately" during a church meeting "several years ago." The institute shopped the column to various cable news networks but only Fox News broadcast it. Barnes did not return calls seeking comment.

Though Barnes' smear was discredited by a panel of bishops investigating the charges, it helped widen the rift within the Episcopal Church and isolate it from its global affiliates. Since Robinson's Nov. 2 consecration, 13 dioceses affiliated with the Anglican Council have threatened to break with the Episcopal Church and form a renegade network. Though the network has yet to congeal, the momentum for a full-blown split continues to build. And the Nigerian and Southeast Asian churches, which, like the Episcopal Church, belong to the global Anglican Communion, have broken off contact with the Episcopal Church.

The Episcopal Church split is the best evidence yet that Ahmanson's plan to bring America closer to resembling Calvin's elitist "church of the elect," or what Rushdoony has called a "spiritual aristocracy," is working. The split is also the crowning achievement of Ahmanson's nearly 30-year career in the business of radically transforming the country. Though he still remains an unknown quantity to most Americans, he has surpassed his father's accomplishments, and in the process, vanquished -- or at least tamed -- his personal demons.

Reflecting on his prodigious achievements, Ahmanson has every reason to be satisfied. "I may have had 'a plan to change American society' once," he mused. "Now I'm just trying to be faithful with what I have."

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

By Max Blumenthal

Max Blumenthal is an award winning journalist and the bestselling author of "Republican Gomorrah: Inside the movement that shattered the party"

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