Rev. Sam Rodriguez, who heads the evangelical National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, has an extraordinary talent for self-promotion – and for positioning himself as a moderate evangelical while being a fully engaged culture warrior with close ties to both mainstream Religious Right groups and fringier dominionist ones. His reputation is based on the fact that he parts ways with the right on a few issues, like comprehensive immigration reform, for which he has been an energetic advocate.
Rodriguez has repeatedly portrayed himself as a voice of reason calling for more civility in public discourse. His latest gambit is the Imago Dei campaign, whose goal, according to TIME’s Elizabeth Dias, is “to change the narrative of evangelical engagement in the public square, especially when it comes to traditional culture war issues.”
Rodriguez says that too often evangelicals in the United States have become known for what they oppose, and not for what they propose, and younger generations have had enough. “The church of Jesus Christ and the word hatred should not even appear in the same sentence,” Rodriguez says. “What if every single person can recognize the image of God in the other? Wouldn’t that bring down the noise of the hateful rhetoric? Wouldn’t that build a firewall between intolerance and bullying? Wouldn’t that build a firewall against extremism?”
This might sound like a big deal to people who either aren’t familiar with Rodriguez or with the Religious Right leaders who have signed on to his campaign. But it’s hard to see anything new here. Back in 2010, Rodriguez was a signer of the “Covenant of Civility,” which said in part,
“We believe that each of us, and our fellow human beings, are created in the image of God… We pledge that when we disagree, we will do so respectfully, without impugning the other’s motives, attacking the other’s character, or questioning the other’s faith, and recognizing in humility that in our limited, human opinions, “we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
In 2011 he was part of a Christianity Today ad campaign talking about disagreeing with love and civility. That same year, in the wake of the public shooting in Tucson, he was among religious leaders who signed a letter to members of Congress that said “This tragedy has spurred a sorely needed time of soul searching and national public dialogue about violent and vitriolic political rhetoric. We strongly support this reflection, as we are deeply troubled that rancor, threats and incivility have become commonplace in our public debates.” In 2012, he told Patheos blogger Timothy Dalrymple, “We want to look at a new narrative of evangelicalism, one that’s less hostile, less confrontational and more full of civility.”
The language used to launch the Imago Dei campaign comes from Rodriguez’s 2013 book, The Lamb’s Agenda. In the book he says, it is wrong to “marginalize or malign those with whom we disagree….The day of angry evangelicalism is officially over. The day of a loving, Bible-believing community espousing truth with love officially commences right now.”
Well, at least he keeps trying, right?
There are two major problems here: one is Rodriguez’s own rhetoric, which doesn’t always meet his civility standard. Sometimes he comes across as conciliatory, as when he described a meeting with President Obama as “a conversation amongst believers.” But there’s also the Rodriguez who suggests that his political opponents represent “the forces of darkness.” In a Religious Right “prayercast” that unsuccessfully asked God to defeat health care reform legislation, he declared, "the same spirit of Herod who 2000 years ago attempted to exterminate the life of the Messiah today lives even America. The legislation that incorporates death and infanticide all under the canopy of reform.”
In 2012 after Obama came out in support of marriage equality, Rodriguez said the promotion of marriage equality is “an attempt to silence the church of Jesus Christ.”
I do believe that the power of the pulpit in addressing truth and righteousness is critical. We can’t sacrifice Biblical truth because at times it becomes confrontational. Listen, Jesus Christ had very strong confrontational moments. This idea that this is a patsy sort of Christianity. That’s not the Christianity that we follow and adhere to. Sometimes, truth hurts.
But much worse than Rodriguez’s own rhetoric is the fact that his group has formally partnered with Liberty Counsel, an organization whose spokespeople regularly spew some of the most hostile, bullying, confrontational, uncivil rhetoric in the public arena.
To put it bluntly, it is hard to treat with any seriousness a “civility campaign” that features the face of Liberty Counsel’s Mat Staver. As Kyle wrote in 2012 when it was announced that Liberty Counsel had become NHCLC’s official legislative and policy arm, “Few groups operating today can match Liberty Counsel in terms of unmitigated hostility toward gays and Muslims and those with whom they disagree or in terms of overall general craziness ...”
In a press release announcing the Imago Dei campaign, Mat Staver is quoted:
"We should continually remind ourselves that every human being is created in the image of God," said Staver. "This has profound consequences. In the blogosphere and social media culture where people are dehumanized, bullied, and slandered, and where political rhetoric has polarized the populace, the Imago Dei in every person compels us to love and respect all people, including those who disagree with us."
It’s hard not to laugh out loud while reading this. Staver regularly denigrates his opponents, and his Liberty Counsel colleague Matt Barber is even worse.
Just a few examples from an ocean of possibilities: Staver says Planned Parenthood "is not interested in the health and well-being of women" but is really only interested in "their death agenda" and in "damaging the very core and foundation of who we are as Americans and a people of faith and values." Of the movement toward marriage equality, Staver says, “This whole assault on marriage is really an attempt to obliterate not only morality but Judeo-Christian morality, to obliterate marriage and to even obliterate the idea that there even is a God.” And he compares Republicans who are soft on the issue to cockroaches.
Here’s the mini-profile of Staver we prepared for our preview of the 2013 Values Voter Summit:
Mat Staver is the head of the Liberty University School of Law and its legal affiliate, Liberty Counsel, a sponsor of the Values Voter Summit. Liberty Counsel has been implicated in the Lisa Miller kidnapping case, where a client kidnapped her daughter and fled to Central America after a court granted custody to her former partner. At a previous Values Voter Summit, Staver claimed that progressives are using LGBT rights and secular government in order to “ultimately implode America” and that the “agenda of the homosexual movement” is to destroy freedom and western civilization. Through his role at Liberty Counsel, Staver has:
Staver says Obama and his “bloodthirsty administration” are worse than King George. He denounces “homofascists” and praised Putin’s anti-gay laws and the Indian Supreme Court decision criminalizing homosexuality.
We could go on. And on.
Meanwhile, Staver’s Liberty Counsel Matt Barber is a bully who rivals Bryan Fischer in the realm of “rhetorical pornography.” He calls Islam “satanic” and people who don’t get it “useful idiots.” He says marriage equality isn’t about marriage or equality but is a political weapon designed to destroy religious liberty. Barber praises Putin and supports laws criminalizing homosexuality. He says Americans are living under “a tyranny of a secularist minority that wants to engage in religious cleansing." There’s much more.
And to repeat, for emphasis: Staver is a leader of Rodriguez’s new Imago Dei campaign, and Liberty Counsel was chosen by Rodriguez to function as the official legislative and policy arm of his National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.
Just today, Barber tweeted: "Gay marriage" is a disordered, sin-based & oxymoronic novelty that mocks God & defiles any church in which the silly stunt is performed...”
Paging Rev. Rodriguez.