In the wake of Mitt Romney's defeat and the historically low support he received from Hispanics it is high time that attention be given not only to Karl Rove, but to "the Hispanic Karl Rove", the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez. The benediction for the opening night of the Republican National Convention was given by Rodriguez, an Assemblies of God leader and the President of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Council (NHCLC). Given that Rodriguez has been known for years as the “Hispanic Karl Rove of evangelicals” it was hardly shocking that Romney chose him for this symbolic task. This July Rodriguez declared that Romney had made a “180-degree turn” in his relationship with Hispanics after a primary in which he had staked out a position to the right of his key competitors. Of Puerto Rican descent, the 42-year old Rodriguez represents, as the Chicago Tribune put it in 2008, “a new generation of evangelical kingmakers on the political scene.” Due to his status as a prominent Hispanic Evangelical and his advocacy for a “compassionate” approach to immigration, Rodriguez has developed a reputation as a progressive-friendly evangelical leader. This reputation, and the privileged access he has enjoyed to the White House during Barack Obama’s first term, is surprising given his outspoken commitments to right-wing causes and organizations. More surprising, and troubling, are the grounds on which he argues for immigration reform, appealing to conservative Christians’ suspicion of Muslims and fear of Christian decline.
Rodriguez has been a prominent conservative activist throughout Obama’s presidency. In 2009 Rodriguez co-founded the Oak Initiative, a right-wing Christian advocacy group, and served until 2011 as its executive vice president. Rodriguez has described the Oak Initiative as a “Christian Tea Party,” and in 2010 he rallied the group with his claim that the Obama administration “has taken over the auto industry, the banking industry, the health industry, soon the energy industry. We have never been in this place before. Our founding fathers are turning in their graves. This is big government on steroids.” Like many conservative groups, the Oak Initiative made strident opposition to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) a central part of its mission. It produced a popular video in opposition to the ACA, which featured the controversial former Pentagon advisor Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin explaining that the ACA moved America simultaneously toward Nazism and Communism and was “laying the groundwork” for a Nazi-esque “constabulary force that will control the population in America.” Under Rodriguez’s leadership the Oak Initiative also distinguished itself as a virulently anti-Muslim organization committed to the notion that Obama is helping to advance an Islamic agenda in America.
In addition to his foundational role in the formation of the Oak Initiative, Rodriguez in 2010 became part of a five-person team leading the Affordable Power Alliance (APA). The APA has played a key role in resisting Obama administration environmental policies that they say would hurt the interests of business. The APA has made a name for itself by claiming that new EPA restrictions amounted to a “war on the poor” and declaring that “the civil rights challenge of our time is to stop extreme environmental policies that drive up the cost of energy.” Nowhere has the effect of the APA been more evident than in its attacks on the EPA’s efforts to decrease mercury poisoning, a regulatory effort that has received widespread report from USCCB and a host of other religious organizations. The APA views this regulation, and the religious groups that support it, as part of a misguided environmental movement that ends up “condemning legions of Third World children to death from real diseases” because of its impact on the global economy.
As his right wing stances solidified Rodriguez began to headline events important to conservatives in general and the religious right in particular. In 2011, Rodriguez promoted and spoke at Texas Governor Rick Perry’s controversial prayer gathering “The Response” and delivered the benediction at the Ronald Reagan award dinner at the CPAC annual convention. He is on the steering committee of the Freedom Federation, an umbrella organization of key conservative Christian groups founded in 2009 to, among other things, “secure the individual right to own, possess, and use firearms as central to the preservation of peace and liberty.” And he has joined the coalition of Christians opposing the HHS Mandate, writing in the Washington Post that “the end of our religious freedom in this country has begun.”
Yet, while Rodriguez has been at the forefront of an array of religious right initiatives, he has also managed to maintain a counter-image as a kind of “new evangelical,” one open to progressive political action and worthy of considerable access to the Obama White House. Rodriguez was one of a small number of religious leaders who led a private prayer service on the morning of Obama’s inauguration. In July 2010, Rodriguez was one of a group of leaders of Hispanic organizations who met with Obama to discuss a push for immigration reform. That same year Rodriguez served on the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which published a report on “Fatherhood and Healthy Families.” In July 2011, even as he continued as a leader of the “Christian Tea Party” he had helped to found, Rodriguez visited the White House with Jim Wallis and ten other progressive religious leaders representing the “Circle of Protection” coalition, formed to resist Tea Party efforts to balance the budget by cutting aid to “the poor and suffering,” as Rodriguez put it at the time. He returned to the White House with a delegation from the National Association of Evangelicals to meet with the president later in 2011. In the spring of 2012 Rodriguez shared the podium with Michelle Obama at a Florida rally for her “Let’s Move” campaign. To this day, the Faith Outreach Director of the Democratic National Committee, the Rev. Derrick Harkins, serves on the Board of Advisors to Rodriguez’s NHCLC.
Rodriguez’s ability to simultaneously stoke the fires of anti-Obama extremism and maintain access to the White House mystifies observers of the Religious Right. He owes his paradoxical image to his unique position on immigration reform, the issue that brought him to national prominence during the George W. Bush administration. Beginning in 2006, Rodriguez’s public advocacy for the needs of undocumented Hispanics centered on convincing white evangelicals, whom Rodriguez accused of promoting “racial profiling, discrimination,” and ethnic hostility, to support immigration reform. Sydney Blumenthal credited Rodriguez with helping to defeat a Republican congressional plan calling for the potential deportation of 12 million Hispanics, a plan Rodriguez called an example of “political expediency, xenophobia and extremism” that “defeated reason, compromise and reconciliation.” Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Ted Kennedy welcomed Rodriguez to high-profile meetings on immigration reform, and many religious progressives rushed to embrace a theologically conservative Hispanic who seemed to share their values.
Thus was born the image of Samuel Rodriguez, post-partisan evangelical and bridge to the burgeoning Hispanic Protestant community. Major media outlets like Newsweek, CNN, and the Wall Street Journal named him as a major Hispanic leader. He became a regular contributor at the Washington Post’s On Faith website and was featured on Bill Moyers Journal. In all cases Rodriguez was presented as a politically moderate, theologically conservative Pentecostal/evangelical whose opinions about the emerging Latino vote could be trusted. In some cases, as in a 2009 report on CNN, media outlets went so far as to describe him as the leader of millions of Hispanic evangelical. Individuals and institutions seeking to unite progressives and moderates seized on Rodriguez as an embodiment of the goal. In 2007 he was one of seven evangelical founders of the Come Let Us Reason Together movement, which sought common ground on culture-war issues. He also formed a bond with the progressive evangelical leader Jim Wallis: he has lectured at Wallis’s Georgetown University class, he serves as a contributing editor for Wallis’s Sojourners magazine, and Wallis wrote a foreword for Rodriguez’s 2009 book Path of Miracles. Mainstream evangelicals have followed Wallis’s lead and embraced Rodriguez and his NHCLC as a key entry point to Hispanic Protestants. Rodriguez serves on the boards of an array of major moderate evangelical and Pentecostal organizations, including Christianity Today, Gordon Conwell Seminary, and the Assemblies of God, and his NHCLC is the official sister organization to the National Association of Evangelicals.
Rodriguez’s conflicting positions and dueling alliances have never been fully acknowledged in national media. When he signed a major statement by evangelical Christians in support of the EPA’s policy to increase regulation of mercury while at the same time heading up the American Power Alliance, which was decrying these regulations as part of a “war on the poor,” news reports focused only on his support of the progressive petition. This lack of scrutiny may be due to the fact that, while Rodriguez has staked out a number of policy positions far to the right of most Hispanics, on the need for comprehensive immigration reform he has generally pushed for policies clearly consistent with the desires of the Hispanic community and largely in keeping with his post-partisan image.
It is this essential issue, however, that raises the most troubling questions about Rodriguez’s positions and arguments. While religious and mainstream media have ignored his reasoning, an abundance of public documents and videos shows that Rodriguez’s pro-Hispanic-immigration activism draws explicitly on anti-Muslim ideology and the promise of a renewed Christian America. While he makes use of arguments focused on human rights and biblical compassion to justify his call for immigration reform, those concepts do not for him preclude arguments that denigrate Islam, promote the salvation of Christian America, or emphasize competition with Catholics.
When Rodriguez speaks to conservatives his appeal for immigration reform centers around three suppositions. First, he argues that support for Hispanic immigration will prevent the United States from becoming what Europe is becoming—a Muslim continent. By emphasizing the threat of a Muslim Europe, Rodriguez taps into a vein of conservative thought that has come to prominence post-9/11. He has spoken about the threat that he believes Europe faces from its growing Muslim communities, and the Oak Initiative continuously plays up the supposed threat to America from stealth efforts to impose sharia law. “There is a crisis in Europe,” he said in 2009, because “Europe is now the emerging Islamic continent in the world. It is not post religious. It is growing in religion but it is not Christianity. It is Islam. It is the Muslim faith. And in America we are blessed that the immigrants that are coming here still believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and have a strong Christian faith commitment.... I look at this community emerging in America as a firewall against…an assault on our biblical worldview.”
In public appearances, Rodriguez’s prayerful rhetoric occasionally gives way to crude caricaturing of Islam. In a 2010 sermon, Rodriguez repeated an aggressively Christian prayer he said he had offered at an interfaith rally for immigration reform. Boasting about his refusal to “compromise truth” in that “politically correct environment,” he explained that a Muslim imam had been asked to offer a prayer before Rodriguez. He described the Imam’s prayer this way: “I come in the name of Allah, Allah and the Prophet Mohammad, blah, blah, blah, pass the ammunition, all that good stuff.”
Second, Rodriguez claims, support for Hispanic immigration will be the salvation of Christianity in America. He speaks in near-messianic terms of the impact Hispanic spirituality will have on America if it is allowed to flourish. In a recent appearance with Pat Robertson on The 700 Club, Rodriguez said, “We are two syllables—‘His’ ‘panic.’ We are His, capital ‘H.’ We may very well be God’s ‘panic’ to the kingdom of darkness in the name of Jesus in America…. At the end of the day the Hispanic electorate may be the salvation of the conservative movement and the Christian Church in America.” An article by Lisa Miller in the Washington Post, “Why Are Evangelicals Supporting Immigration Reform?” quoted Rodriguez explaining that, in convincing the leadership of Focus on the Family to sign a pro-immigration-reform statement, “I spoke about the need. I talked about the possibility of deporting the very salvation of the evangelical community in the twenty-first century.”
Third, Rodriguez argues that support for Hispanic immigration will help Hispanic evangelical and Pentecostal churches gain converts from Catholicism. For example, The Washington Post’s Miller wrote that Evangelicals had not worked directly with Catholics in forming a statement on the need for immigration reform “because competition for Hispanic souls in America is so fierce,” adding that Rodriguez told her, “We call it strategic recruitment.”
Samuel Rodriguez is a prominent figure in Hispanic Christianity, in the debate over immigration reform, and in the Religious Right. Given his central role in Mitt Romney’s abysmal efforts to secure important Hispanic support it is time that he faces careful scrutiny in religious and political circles. While Rodriguez’s success in encouraging right-wing voters and politicians to consider immigration reform is on some level promising it should not be interpreted as representative of a broader progressive or moderate policy agenda and it should not be misconstrued as evidence of a commitment to religious pluralism. In fact, this may be the most distressing part of Rodriguez’s rising profile. By linking the cause of Hispanic rights to the denigration of Muslims he has exchanged one form of prejudice for another, and done so in explicitly Christian terms. While blending social justice for Hispanics with a type of religious supremacism has helped Rodriguez advance his standing among conservatives it is a recipe for further decay of Christian social witness and continued Republican ineptitude among the vast majority of Hispanics in America.