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You wouldn't recognize him on the street and he definitely isn't a household name, but the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, the President of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference is more than ready for his close-up. With the country's demographics rapidly changing and immigration no longer on the back burner -- but not quite on the front one either -- Rodriguez is becoming more influential with both sides of the political aisle, has been in regular contact with Team Romney, and is drawing ever so much closer to a number of conservative Christian evangelical leaders.
In short, this is Reverend Rodriguez's time.
While the family and I were on a road trip from Northampton, Mass. to Pepperell, Mass. to visit my son-in-law's folks two weeks back, I opted out of listening to Elmo songs on a Sesame Street CD (being played to satisfy my adorable three-year-old grandson), and instead had my headphones on and portable radio tuned to NPR's program "Tell Me More." Host Michel Martin was doing a segment about the new - some call it groundbreaking -- Christian evangelical initiative on immigration.
In mid-June, a coalition of Christian evangelical activists - called the Evangelical Immigration Table -- unveiled its "Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform" to the Obama Administration, and Senate and House leadership. The statement signed by 140 evangelical leaders urges respect for immigrants' humanity while obeying the rule of law and providing for national security, the Religion News Service reported.
According to Christianity Today, "The statement calls for a bipartisan solution to immigration reform that meets six criteria":
1. Respects the God-given dignity of every person
2. Protects the unity of the immediate family
3. Respects the rule of law
4. Guarantees secure national borders
5. Ensures fairness to taxpayers
6. Establishes a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become permanent residents
"Tell Me More" producers booked two evangelical guests for its immigration segment. Since I fully expected that in typical NPR fashion the guests would represent opposite sides of the political spectrum, I wasn't surprised to hear Martin first introduce Richard Land, the very conservative president of Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).
I was, however, gobsmacked when she then introduced the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, another decidedly conservative religious figure, as the second panelist. For all practical purposes, it was two sides of the same coin.
The conversation revolved around several issues: the new immigration initiative and its focus on treating immigrants more humanely; criticism of President Obama, as well as Congressional Democrats and Republicans, for failing to deal with immigration issues during the first three years of the Obama presidency; and, the admission by both Land and Rodriguez that given the changing U.S. demographics, white evangelicals had best welcome and embrace their Hispanic brothers and sisters or risk becoming an endangered species.
Obama's executive order relating to aspects of the DREAM Act and Romney's opposition to it never came up.
In the end, both Land and Rodriguez seemed to think that despite Romney's negative polling, Hispanic voters were still up for grabs.
The Rodriguez factor
Rodriguez is a fascinating figure and clearly a rising star. He has managed to create a storyline that casts him as a moderate -- which was why "Tell Me More" could book him opposite Land without creating an uproar about being fair and balanced - while at the same time, consistently embracing right-wing issues and organizations.
Last November, Right Wing Watch's Kyle Mantyla wrote: "One thing we have never understood is how ... Rodriguez ... has managed to somehow be both a radical Religious Right activist while enjoying a reputation as a moderate who is regularly invited to the White House and to presidential events." His treatment by the mainstream media is one of the key reasons Rodriguez can pull off his political Jekyll and Hyde act.
Greg Metzger, a teacher and independent writer, has been monitoring and reporting on Rodriguez for quite some time. He recently pointed out on his Faith and the Common Good blog that he was surprised to read a recent statement by Rodriguez that claimed that Mitt Romney had "made a ‘180 turn' with respect to his relationship with the Hispanic community." Metzger thought that "This was a striking comment and one that cried out for substantiation given the fact that Romney has not made any public comments that would suggest waffling or backtracking on his stated positions with respect to key Hispanic issues like the DREAM Act, the President's recent action regarding prosecution of children of undocumented immigrants, or the Arizona law."
The Arizona law that Metzger is referring to is SB1070 (Papers Please) which was largely struck down by the Supreme Court
Metzger noted that Team Romney had included Rodriguez in its list of important Christian conservative evangelicals that it needed to reach out to: "All of this attention to Rodriguez is part of a pattern stretching back years in which Rodriguez is viewed as a vital cog in the Hispanic community. Questions about just how significant he really is, such as those raised by noted journalist [and Talk2Action co-founder] Frederick Clarkson, are important but seemingly besides the point for writers like [The Washington Post's] Lisa Miller who continue to puff Rodriguez as a ‘principled conservative' who President Obama would do well to listen to."
According to Metzger, Miller's advice "ignores two important facts: 1) Obama has actually given Rodriguez wide access to his administration especially when considering that 2) Rodriguez has been a vicious critic of Obama at times ... especially when accusing Obama of leading ‘a government [that] 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.'"
Last September, Metzger wrote about Rodriguez's connection to the Oak Initiative, which according to Right Wing Watch is a "ultra-right wing group founded by Rick Joyner that has been actively promoting anti-Muslim activism and the efforts of anti-Muslims activists like Jerry Boykin and Frank Gaffney."
Metzger reported that the initiative's home page "promotes the book Islam vs. the United States, which is said to expose ‘the strategic plan of the Muslim Brotherhood for the USA. ... Rodriguez's support of the Oak Initiative seemed more than nominal, especially since the NHCLC and the Oak Initiative each have Cindy Jacobs, one of the most controversial figures in American Christianity, on their leadership teams."
The Oak Initiative's home page also featured this warning: "The Muslim Brotherhood, with the complicity of the Obama administration, has infiltrated the U.S. government at the highest levels and is influencing American policy [in a way] that leaves the world's Christians in grave danger."
Rodriguez has claimed that he had little knowledge of the essence of those anti-Islam aspects of the Oak Initiative's mission, and he has since withdrawn his support.
Right Wing Watch also pointed out that Rodriguez participated with Focus on the Family founder Dr. James Dobson and historical revisionist David Barton "and others for the ‘One Nation Under God' DVD aimed at mobilizing millions of Christian to vote Obama and the Democrats out of office."
Hearing Rodriguez expound on the virtues of Mitt Romney on "Tell Me More" reminded me of the old Fake Left, Go Right football play. That he has become a national spokesperson - at least in the halls of the mainstream media -- for Hispanic issues kind of makes one yearn for a little "Happy Tappin' With Elmo."