Connoisseur for Christ: Roberta Green Ahmanson
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."