Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, executive director of the Sacramento-based National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, is regularly tapped by national media outlets like CNN and The New York Times as the leading voice of Latino evangelicals and has been treated accordingly by both major political parties. From 2007 to 2009, he was a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Faith section online, and he frequently appears on NPR’s “Tell Me More.” He is a member of the boards of some of the leading organizations of evangelicalism – Christianity Today magazine, Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, and the National Association of Evangelicals.
But he is not nearly the evangelical moderate that he is presented as being.
The 42-year-old Puerto Rican evangelist often describes himself as a cross between Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, Jr. “with a little salsa tossed in.” He describes Latino evangelicals the same way, with the same joke, and has for years. The humor takes the edge off of the grandiosity, but leaves little doubt about his sense of destiny for himself and the people he seeks to lead towards a distinctly conservative Christian America. He is, in fact, a leader of the Christian Right who says he is not. He is a partisan Republican who claims not to be. And he is conservative on just about everything but immigration policy.
Yet when the Democrats and the Obama White House woo him, for instance to back the Supreme Court candidacy of Sonia Sotomayor or serve on the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, they elevate his influence, his power to oppose LGBT marriage, and even Obama’s own reelection.
His group, NHCLC, purports to represent more than 34,000 churches comprising some 16 million people. Founded in 2001 by Latino leaders in the Pentecostal denomination Assemblies of God, the name echoes the Southern Christian Leadership Conference once headed by Dr. King. The organization’s evangelical constituency and leadership are interdenominational, and Pentecostal or charismatic, but the group also seeks to engage charismatic Catholics. Like Rodriguez himself, the organization claims to seek to address a broader agenda than the usual Christian Right fare.
The organization is, however, small and low-budget. While it has many prominent partners and well publicized efforts to promote comprehensive immigration reform, it has few organizational activities. NHCLC’s reach, too, may be exaggerated. Journalist Sarah Posner points out the NHCLC’s numbers may be grossly inflated since only 6.5 million Latinos in the United States, about 13 percent of the country’s Latinos population, identify as evangelical, according to data collected by the Pew Hispanic Center.
But it is also true that the NHCLC’s core constituency is growing. A 2007 Pew study found that Pentecostal and charismatic “renewalism” is three times more prevalent among Latinos than it is among non-Latinos. What’s more, a majority of Latino Catholics describe themselves as charismatics. This makes Rodriguez’s claim to be the spokesman for this growing constituency all the more deserving of greater scrutiny.
Rodriguez’s main claim to fame is his work with two presidents towards greater fairness in U.S. immigration policy. He has gone so far as to publicly denounce nativism, xenophobia, and mean-spiritedness among elements of the conservative movement and of the Republican Party. However, in addition to conventional Christian and human rights reasons for a more just policy towards immigration policy and immigrants, Rodriguez also has controversial motives. He sees, for example, the immigration of evangelical Christian Latinos as part of the salvation and replenishment of Christian America, and as a bulwark against Islam. Perhaps most revealing is how, for Rodriguez, immigration is nevertheless a decidedly secondary concern. Shortly after the inauguration of President Barack Obama in early 2009, for example, Rodriguez participated in the creation and release of a highly publicized document, Come Let Us Reason Together: A Fresh Look at Shared Cultural Values Between Evangelicals and Progressives. The several signatories announced they had crafted a “Governing Agenda” proposal for the new Democratic president and Congress, including “creating secure and comprehensive immigration reform.” But only a few months later Rodriguez told Charisma magazine that he believed NHCLC had “misplaced its priorities by emphasizing immigration over the sanctity of life and traditional marriage.”
“Immigration is one of God’s values,” Rodriguez said. “But when we have to prioritize, if we are faithful to life and marriage, God’s going to be faithful to making sure we get comprehensive immigration reform.” Rodriguez’s comment came on the occasion of his joining Democratic State Senator Ruben Diaz (who is also a Pentecostal minister) in rallying Hispanic Christians against marriage equality in New York.
Prioritize: Vote Vertical
“This is not an issue of equality,” Rodriguez said regarding marriage equality on a radio show in May 2012. “There is an attempt to silence the voice of Christianity, there is an attempt to silence the voice of truth, of righteousness and Biblical justice.
Although the Lamb’s Agenda is supposed to require both bars of the cross, Rodriguez said, “We must vote vertical. We must look at our legislators and those that represent us on Capitol Hill and say, ‘Religious liberty, the family, biblical marriage and life, must stand protected.”
As off message as it sounds for those who view him as a bridge-builder, Rodriguez’s real views should come as no surprise. A frequent headliner at Christian Right political conferences, Rodriguez was featured, for example, at regional election year conferences hosted by veteran Christian Right televangelist James Robison in the summer of 2012. At the Dallas conference, which drew some 7,000 participants, Rodriguez declared: “The 21st century stands poised to experience the greatest transformative Christian movement in our history.” He denounced such demonic spirits as Jezebel, which he says push people into “sexual perversion,” and the spirit of Herod, which he says is responsible for abortion. “This movement will affirm biblical orthodoxy,” he declared. “It will reform the culture. It will transform our political discourse. I am convinced God is not done with America and America is not done with God.”
This September, Rodriguez was a featured speaker at a capstone political event called “America for Jesus” that was broadcast and livestreamed nationally from Philadelphia outside Independence Hall. Ostensibly a prayer rally, it is part of a 30-year tradition of similar election season events. Another featured speaker is Lou Engle of The Call, who came to mainstream attention in the documentary Jesus Camp, and played a catalytic role in passing the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 in California. At a pre-election stadium rally he hosted in San Diego, Engle and others called for Christian “martyrs” to stop marriage equality and abortion.
Philadelphia’s America for Jesus event is the latest in a series beginning in the 1980s, which brought hundreds of thousands to the Mall for the event “Washington for Jesus” in the run-up to the 1980 and 1988 elections. Televangelist Pat Robertson recalled in a promotional segment for America for Jesus on his Christian Broadcasting Network that the late Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ believed that Ronald Reagan was elected president because of Washington for Jesus in 1980.
Although Rodriguez tries not to flaunt it, he cannot hide the fact that he is a leader in the New Apostolic Reformation, a movement that is transforming historic Pentecostalism and is playing an outsized role in American politics by building networks that span across denominations and churches. For example, many NAR leaders, including Rodriguez, helped organize and attended a prayer rally to help launch Texas Governor Rick Perry’s, unsuccessful campaign for president in 2011 that drew 30,000 people.
NAR’s political roots go back to the era when Pat Robertson led historically apolitical Pentecostals and charismatics off the political sidelines and into the mainstream of the Republican Party. The relationship with the America for Jesus events epitomizes this long-term trend.
Rodriguez’s efforts to downplay his involvement in NAR not withstanding, he is a frequent headliner at events organized by fellow NAR leaders. His NAR apostolic overseer, Bishop Steve Perea, leads a megachurch in Manteca, California, and has been public about his role. Rodriguez, in turn, is the overseer of an international network of indeterminate size and scope called the Third Day Believers Network.
The NAR is seeking to transform traditional Christian denominations into a more powerful social and political force. The leaders of the NAR, who call themselves apostles and prophets, claim authority in and over the church, beyond denominations, and offer what they say are fresh revelations from God to inform what the church should be doing. NAR leaders see themselves as transcending the traditional doctrines and elected leadership of both mainline and evangelical Protestantism.
Islamophobia in Sharp Relief
Last year, Rodriguez’s duplicity on several matters was revealed in a remarkable series of events beginning with growing concern about his involvement in and leadership of the NAR-led, South Carolina-based political project called The Oak Initiative. The Initiative is a religio-political organization with a mandate to save America from what it views as a Marxist/Leftist/Homosexual/Islamic enemy. Rodriquez co-founded the group in 2009 and served as its vice president until his resignation in 2011.
Rodriguez represented the Initiative on conference calls in preparation fora 2011 Detroit event for Lou Engle’s The Call. The event was billed as a rally to help cleanse the city from the demon of Islam by engaging in “spiritual warfare.” The Web site of the event’s sponsor stated: “Transformation Michigan is in partnership with The Oak Initiative. We have established groups in Michigan who, with one united purpose, are taking the Seven Mountains in Michigan. Join us in this warfare.”
Similarly, Rodriguez has also sought to simultaneously oppose both homosexuality and homophobia. In the wake of President Obama’s announcement that he supports marriage equality, African-American Christian Right activist (and fellow NAR leader) Bishop Harry Jackson hosted an event in Washington, D.C. called the Defense of Marriage Summit (which he has since taken on the road). The duo then announced a “Black/Brown coalition to defend biblical marriage.” Rodriguez said: “The partnership aims to engage Hispanics and African American clergy and laypeople in prophetic activism that repudiates homophobia while simultaneously preserving the biblical definition of marriage.”
Rodriguez’s contradictory role extends into right-wing economics. He has been an avatar of the evangelical version of environmentalism (also called “creation care,” according to the National Association of Evangelicals, where Rodriguez is an executive board member) but he is also a global warming skeptic and has served as a front man, along Harry Jackson, for an industry-financed group called the American Power Alliance. Rodriguez signed a statement of the NAE’s Evangelical Environmental Network called “An Evangelical Call to Stop Mercury Poisoning of the Unborn,” but he is also a director of the American Power Alliance, which opposes this regulation.
Nonpartisan, But Somehow Strangely Republican
His nonpartisan image notwithstanding, Rodriguez emerged in July 2012 as a key “Hispanic outreach” adviser for the presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. David Brody of CBN reported that Romney was “regularly meeting” with Rodriguez (in addition to a larger group of some 70 top Christian Right leaders) since he clinched the nomination. Brody also reported that, as a result, the candidate had “made a 180-degree turn and is headed to a significant Hispanic outreach.”
These conversations do not appear to have been about Romney’s views on immigration. Indeed, anti-immigrant lawyer Kris Kobach still serves as the GOP candidate’s adviser on immigration. Kobach helped draft Arizona’s draconian SB1070 law, and promotes similar policies across the country. Rodriguez’s advice is more likely about how to find Latinos who will vote for Romney despite his anti-immigrant views.
Indeed, Rodriguez is part of historic efforts by the Christian Right and the Republican Party to peel off some Latino and African-American voters, and to inoculate other recent immigrants against their traditional affinity for the Democratic Party. Aaron Manaigo, a political operative working for Harry Jackson, told a breakout session at the 2012 Values Voters Summit, sponsored by Christian Right groups like the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C. in September, that they were seeking “some demographic advantage.” To this end, they have staged events in swing states and those with marriage initiatives on the ballot. One notable event in New Mexico featured Rodriguez, Republican Lt. Governor John Sanchez and Fr. Frank Pavone, head of the militant anti-abortion organization Priests for Life. Jackson and Manaigo’s session at Values Voters was titled: “Vertical Vote Campaign for Life, Marriage, and Religious Liberties.”
Despite Rodriguez’s apparent embrace of Mitt Romney’s candidacy, his intentions have been complicated and contradictory over the years. For example, in 2008 he described Mark Gonzales, a Texas pastor and NHCLC’s longtime Vice President for Government Affairs as “a die-hard Republican operative” who “represents a walking billboard for the Hispanic versions of Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, Council on National Policy and Christian Coalition.” He claimed that Gonzales was disappointed with the GOP’s approach to immigration issues and that therefore his main objective was to register voters in states with high concentrations of Latino voters, regardless of party affiliation “as long they vote and demonstrate that Latino Christians represent a deliverable constituency.” This might sound sensibly nonpartisan under the circumstances — except for the fact that, at the time, Gonzales was serving as chairman of the Hispanic advisory council for John McCain’s presidential campaign.
But the Christian Right does want the Latino vote, and its targeted approach to mobilize a specific subset of religiously informed Latino voters is aimed for the long run. An expanding conservative evangelical electorate, including a growing Latino demographic, could be decisive in some parts of the country. Rodriguez and the NHCLC are at the center of that outreach through a partnership with the conservative Champion the Vote which aims to build the Christian Right’s capacity to win a theocratic power bloc in the American electorate.
As Rodriguez told Pat Robertson in an interview on CBN, “The Hispanic electorate may be the salvation of the conservative movement and the Christian Church in America.” Champion the Vote is a project of United in Purpose (UIP), an organization of conservative Christian Silicon Valley entrepreneurs that the Los Angeles Times reports is spending millions of dollars, and using advanced data mining techniques to identify unregistered conservative Roman Catholics and conservative evangelicals. They aim to widen the Christian Right electorate this year by registering and turning out five million new voters, primarily in states where, in the 2008 presidential contest, the margin of difference was less than the number of unregistered conservative Christians. To get there, they are seeking to recruit 100,000 “champions” to follow-up once UIP has identified the right kind of unregistered Christians.
NHCLC and UIP have closely collaborated for a number of years. UIP’s 2010 tax return, for example, shows that it provided $112,500 for “voter registration Fuerza 2010.” (NHCLC was the organization’s only grantee.) Rodriguez claims the Fuerza project registered 268,000 new voters by focusing on evangelical Latino churches in Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas. As part of that effort, UIP issued a video in English and Spanish which stated that “friends have turned into foes”—and then showed pictures of President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and then-Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, all Democrats (The top issues featured in the video were abortion and marriage).
NHCLC is, at this writing, one of some six-dozen Christian Right, anti-abortion, GOP, and Tea Party organizations, and religious broadcasters partnering in Champion the Vote. These include The Manhattan Declaration, the premier alliance of conservative evangelicals and conservative Roman Catholics, and Ralph Reed’s Faith & Freedom Coalition. Champion the Vote’s three foci are anti-abortionism, anti-marriage equality, and “religious freedom”—and its stated mission is “… to get unregistered Christians registered to vote, educated in the Biblical worldview, and voting accordingly on Election Day.”
This year, Rodriguez appeared in the organization’s voter mobilization DVD, “One Nation Under God” — along with Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family; Christian nationalist author David Barton, and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich — but with no Democrats. The ostensibly nonpartisan DVD is intended for use in churches and house parties.