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Transcript:

February 8, 2008

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL.

Mike Huckabee came out of super Tuesday wearing the shiny buckle of the Bible Belt. On the strength of born-again evangelical Christians he carried West Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and his home state Arkansas.

NEWS COVERAGE OF HUCKABEE: President of the United States of America. Thank you! God bless you! Thank you!

BILL MOYERS: But elsewhere he didn't do as well. Exit polls show he received only about a third of born-again Christian votes across the country -- about the same as John McCain and Mitt Romney. A strong reminder that evangelicals are a far more diverse group of believers than you might think from just watching Huckabee and his homogenous Southern Baptists.

Hispanic evangelicals, for example. Not only are Hispanics the fastest-growing group of voters, they're the fastest growing group of evangelical Christians. At least 8 million Hispanics identify themselves as evangelicals. In 2004 two out of three of them supported President Bush --almost double the number from the year 2000. But this year their votes are up for grabs, and that's why the reverend Samuel Rodriguez was recently identified by NEWSWEEK magazine as a new leader to watch.

Reverend Rodriguez is President of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, which claims 18,000 churches as members. No wonder he's being courted by both Republicans and Democrats. He is here with me now in the studio. Good to have you.

SAM RODRIGUEZ: Thank you for having me

BILL MOYERS: What excites you about this year?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: The 2008 election is the convergence-- it's the nexus of those dynamic threads of the American political experience. It's about sex, gender, Hillary Clinton. It's race, Senator Obama. It's faith, Mike Huckabee, evangelicalism. And it's the military. It's the four dynamic threads of the American political landscape and American popular culture, all coming together in one election cycle. It's an exciting season.

BILL MOYERS: So many Latino evangelicals supported George W. Bush in 2004, that it really is hard for me to think that you're a wild card, that the Latino vote is up for grabs. But in this exciting year, is that the case?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: The Latino vote will decide who the next President of the United States will be.

BILL MOYERS: You said a year ago-- April, I think it was-- that if the immigration bill that was then before Congress didn't pass, it could be that Latinos would vote Democratic in the next three or four election cycles.

SAM RODRIGUEZ: The Republican Party really had it going on. I mean, they really made significant inroads. Forty-four percent of Latinos voted for George W. Bush in the 2004 elections. I mean, - historically, the African-American community has voted Democratic since 1960, since Coretta Scott King and the call-- and it's 1960, African-Americans. The Latino population, 44 percent, Bush 2004-- all of a sudden, the Republican Party is hijacked de facto, by the Sensenbrenner's and Tancredos. By a nativistic…

BILL MOYERS: Congressmen who were very strongly against immigration reform?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: Right. And we're all in favor of border protection and securing the borders, of course. But however, what we actually did see in the Republican Party is the emergence of something that subtle in the Republican Party, the xenophobia, American nativism under the guise of border protection and border security. And the amount of polarization — I'm a generation X'er, born in the great republic of New Jersey — I never would have imaged in my lifetime that I would have to prove my citizenship in order to apply for an apartment in Oklahoma, Texas or Arizona. There's an anti-Latino, a nativism, xenophobic spirit emerging out of the Republican Party. As a result of that, the Republican Party will be hard pressed to engage anything close to 25 percent in the 2008 elections. And they may lose the Latino vote for two or three generations.

BILL MOYERS: Mike Huckabee called you, I understand, and asked you to set up a conference call for him with Latino pastors and theologians. Did you do that?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: We did. Mike Huckabee spoke to the national leadership team of our organization. And Huckabee really presented-- Huckabee's considered by many as a quasi, you know, this moderate, maybe liberal on social justice issues. Huckabee successfully addressed issues of alleviating poverty. Darfur, AIDS — Huckabee's addressing these issues.

BILL MOYERS: And he spoke in Arkansas, he spoke for immigration, right?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: Absolutely. Huckabee is not the personification of the Christian right.

BILL MOYERS: All right. So when he says this, what do you think? Quote: I have opponents in this race who do not want to change the Constitution. But I believe it's a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God. And that's what we need to do. To amend the Constitution so it's on God's standards, rather than try to change God's standards so it lines up with some contemporary view of how we treat each other and how we treat the family. Now, what would you say about that?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: I have a great amount of affinity towards Governor Huckabee. However, I am more of a fan of religious pluralism in America. The notion that America is a Christian nation-- America is a nation that enables us to really serve God, worship God, and exercise our religious belief with freedom. It's religious pluralism that makes us strong. The issue of-

BILL MOYERS: So you wouldn't want to change the Constitution --to reflect the Biblical-

SAM RODRIGUEZ: Well, it would reflect the Biblical God. Or who's definition of Biblical God? Or, you know, what denomination? That enters into a myriad of other issues. I think what we need to look at is the issue of our lifetime globally, is religious totalitarianism, or religious pluralism. And America really needs to present religious pluralism as a viable alternative, not exceptionalism.

BILL MOYERS: How many Latinos are there like you? That is, born again believers?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: Close to 10 million. If you add on the Catholic charismatic group, which identifies themselves as a born again Christian group, it's close to 15 million. And these voices are emerging in every community. There are so many issues in our society that need to be addressed. Not from a Christian right or a Christian left, but from a Christian center. And I do believe — and it's not a messianic presumptuousness — it's more of, I do believe that we're going to really reconcile the white evangelical platform historically, has been on issues of life and marriage.

BILL MOYERS: You mean abortion and-

SAM RODRIGUEZ: Abortion and traditional marriage. The preservation of traditional marriage.

BILL MOYERS: How do you differ from them? I mean, are you for a-- opposed to same sex marriage?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: We- are committed to the sanctity of life, but it's more that it's from the womb to the tomb. I mean, the life platform can't-

BILL MOYERS: You're against the death penalty?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: Personally, I would be. And we have a problem when it's just a life issue right when it's out of the womb. But health care and education are no longer included in the platform of a life agenda And they need to be. we care for the baby while the baby is in the-- in the womb. But after the baby's born, somehow it's you're on your own. That's not truly part of what we interpret to be the Biblical call. And on the issue of marriage, Latinos would be hard pressed to be this emerging voice, a homophobic voice, or a voice that is anti anything in respect to civil unions or rights in the homosexual community.

The Latino community sees the preservation of traditional marriage as the antidote to the proliferation of gang violence in our communities. We know for a fact that if mom and dad are in the home, that these young men and women are going to be hard pressed to be engaged in gangs. Rather not - they would stay at home, they're academically-- the-- the social, economic and educational advancement is directly related to mom and dad being in the home. So to us, it's not a matter of being anti anything. It's a matter of being-- survival for our community.

BILL MOYERS: What about progressive taxation, torture, all these other issues that we're discussing now in terms of large, under the umbrella, social justice? Would you differ from the white evangelicals on this?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: Yes, we would. Because white evangelicals do not in general-- do not see these issues as important issues. As a matter of fact, they'll see them as-

BILL MOYERS: The religious white evangelicals - there are progressive...

SAM RODRIGUEZ: Religious white evangelicals, evangelicals as defined historically in the past 20 years by the Christian right. It's life, meaning abortion, and it's traditional marriage. What about health care, education? What about alleviating poverty? What about AIDS? What about Darfur? What about climate change?

BILL MOYERS: These are all in your agenda?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: These are all part of the Hispanic evangelical agenda. That's why I really believe that we're going to take the righteousness White evangelical platform, and the justice African-American platform, and we're going to reconcile them in the middle, and brown evangelicalism will contextualize that narrative, will tell the story of a balanced gospel narrative that does not adhere to the — for lack of a better term, you know — apostle Limbaugh and prophet Hannity and Bishop Dobs, but will really look at Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and say, here's what the Bible actually expresses in respect to the issues of our time.

BILL MOYERS: For my viewers that don't have a concordance-- Hannity, Sean Hannity, the talk show host. Limbaugh, Rush Limbaugh, and Dobson, brother Dobson, as you say, who is now endorsing Mike Huckabee, because he thinks McCain is too moderate.

SAM RODRIGUEZ: Again, you know, the question is, who do white evangelicals listen to in respect to applying their faith? Let's look at the issue of immigration reform. The group more committed to deporting 12 million people in America are white evangelicals. Now, we have to-- help me out for a second here. These are-

BILL MOYERS: Religious right?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: Religious white evangelicals. But the exit polls and the polling data indicate out of all the groups most staunchly opposed to immigration reform, white evangelicals are right on-- right there on top.

BILL MOYERS: How do you explain that? They're Christians.

SAM RODRIGUEZ: They are-our brothers and sisters.

BILL MOYERS: So how do you explain it?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: That's-- that's-- they're juxtaposed between this issue of the rule of law, of Romans XIII, and of course, the Leviticus nineteen principle, treating a stranger amongst you as one of yourselves. However, the issue is we are Americans. And it-- I'm a Christian first. I'm a Pentecostal. I'm a born again believer. I'm a follower of the teachings of Christ.

BILL MOYERS: I was going to ask you. How-- when you say, "I'm an evangelical Christian," what do you mean?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: I am a born again believer.

BILL MOYERS: That means?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: To me, evangelicalism means born again believer, one who has a-- has experienced a personal encounter. Their lives have been transformed by their commitment to a crucified and resurrected Christ.

BILL MOYERS: Dobson would say that of himself.

SAM RODRIGUEZ: Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: A lot of-- there's a lot of people on the other side of the political fence.

SAM RODRIGUEZ: Correct.

BILL MOYERS: Who'd say, "I'm a born again, committed believer."

SAM RODRIGUEZ: Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: So where do you-- where does the track switch?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: I'm a Christian first.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: I'm an American second.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: That's where the track switches. I think many white evangelicals-- and I say white, and-- and not condescending just to — just for more descriptors for lack of a better term — white evangelicals have placed on the altar of worship the American culture, Americanism. And it's there, right next to the cross. It's-- and sometimes, it supersedes the power of the cross.

I see the cross as a unifying force, not a force that divides, not a symbol that divides, but brings us together. It's a symbol of tolerance and not intolerance, of compromise and reconciliation. And not of xenophobic, not of rejection or refusal. So I think many white evangelicals really see themselves as Americans first and Christians second. I more adhere to a kingdom culture sort of mindset, a re-- a viable Biblical world view would provoke everyone in the evangelical world to see things through the prism of-- from the 1990s, I mean, everyone wore a little wristband - what would Jesus do? It's truly the heart of Christ. It's love of compassion, it's mercy and it's justice.

BILL MOYERS: Who are your heroes?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: Of course. And I say, of course, because it's just a life in the ministry, even from an academic, from an intellectual viewpoint, other than a religious standpoint. Just the passion of the Christ, his life. His narrative. Christ, Jesus.

BILL MOYERS: Right.

SAM RODRIGUEZ: Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr.

BILL MOYERS: Wait a minute. Ronald Reagan?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: Right.

BILL MOYERS: Why?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: Hope. I was born in the summer of '69. And when-- throughout my teenage years-- it was right after Vietnam. Reagan really-- even Senator Obama alluded to this and he was pushed back a bit by President Clinton. But he really, you know, it-- he really gave America this message, or conveyed a message of hope. City on a hill, a better day.

BILL MOYERS: And Kennedy?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: Let's shake it off.

BILL MOYERS: You were born after Kennedy.

SAM RODRIGUEZ: John F. Kennedy-

BILL MOYERS: Five years after he was shot.

SAM RODRIGUEZ: I was a history teacher, and I'm a student of history. John F. Kennedy really personified a transgenerational American experience of hope, of personal responsibility, of civic engagement. Of making sure that we leave behind much more than we ever take.

BILL MOYERS: Martin Luther King?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: Civil rights for the African-American community, for all communities. The nexus of the religious experience with social justice. Coming together, really sharing of America, that any viable movement in this nation, any sort of transformation in this nation needs to incorporate a faith thread. Without faith, there would never have existed an abolitionist movement, or the civil rights movement would never have succeeded. Martin Luther King Jr. really personifies the convergence of these two powerful forces.

What we are lacking in the Latino community are-- are gatekeepers and oracles throughout our country.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean gatekeepers -

SAM RODRIGUEZ: Gatekeepers, oracles, voices that will emerge that contextualize the Latino narrative.

BILL MOYERS: You mean, you need a Jesse Jackson? You need a Martin Luther King?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: I would-- we need-- what we need is not one Martin Luther King, Jr. We need thousands of Martin Luther King, Jrs. We need every community, in every single community, in every city, in every district, for voices to emerge out of the Hispanic American community, and contextualize the narrative of the Hispanic American experience.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean, contextualize the narrative?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: Tell the story, articulate the story.

BILL MOYERS: Eyes on the prize?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: Eyes on the prize. Mobilize the people. We've never been down this road before. You know, do we legitimately need a civil rights movement with the Hispanic American population? I would argue we need a social rights movement.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: I-- it would be hard pressed for Samuel Rodriguez to argue that we are experiencing the same amount of racism or bigotry the African-American community. I believe the civil rights movement, in respect to the African-American community, was a unique experience.

However, there is a call for a social rights movement. This large demographic now, in light of the amount of xenophobia and nativism against the Latino community in America, really needs to come together, come around, coalesce around principles. Our principles are faith and family, but there's a strong social justice ethos to our community that drives us. But what really bothers me is, to a degree, Obama should really resonate. Senator Obama should really resonate with the Hispanic American community.

BILL MOYERS: Is he?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: Not as much. As a matter of fact-

BILL MOYERS: Why?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: I believe the Latino community is the wild card in the Democratic presidential nomination process. Of course, Senator Clinton historically has done very well with the Latino community.

BILL MOYERS: She did terrifically in Super Tuesday, two to one in California among your community.

SAM RODRIGUEZ: That's correct. Now--

BILL MOYERS: How do you explain that?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: Well, the Latino vote looks at Clinton-- Clinton, the Clinton brand reminds them of, this is pre-immigration reform debacle.

BILL MOYERS: Pre George W. Bush?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: This is pre George W. Bush, pre immigration, pre Latinos deported, pre the marches. This is the golden age of the Latino middle class. Latino middle class really emerged throughout the 1990s. Economy, we boomed. If the Latino community does not gravitate towards Obama in these last months of the primary season, Senator Clinton will be the candidate of choice for the Democratic Party. And Obama should be resonating. The ethnic minority experience. His Christian commitment and the incorporation of a social justice platform. H Obama should be-- there's a black-brown divide.

BILL MOYERS: There really is? Right.

SAM RODRIGUEZ: There really is.

BILL MOYERS: Explain that to me.

SAM RODRIGUEZ: You can't deny the fact that racist elements are apparent in every single ethnic group or culture. And we can't deny the fact that there is racism in the Latino-- in the Hispanic-American community. And that's the shame.

BILL MOYERS: What's the fight?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: It goes way beyond race. I think there's an issue here of fighting for the same entitlements, fighting for the same piece of turf, for lack of a better term. The same jobs. Immigration reform. We really-- we, meaning the Hispanic-American community, we reached out to the African-American community and said, march with us. I mean, stand by us here. You understand the story better than we do.

BILL MOYERS: Those big demonstrations last year, half a million in Los Angeles.

SAM RODRIGUEZ: Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: Right. You're saying that the African-American-

SAM RODRIGUEZ: That the African-American community was not as physically present. And you know, the gatekeepers of the African-American community did not go out and hold a press conference, and say, we support our Latino brothers and sisters on this. Is there an issue? Absolutely.

I also understand that there are those in the establishment, in the white establishment, that would love to really focus on the divide between black and brown. I was present when a white politician, in a round table discussion, looked at black evangelical leaders and said, "They are taking away your jobs." They, the Latinos. These immigrants are taking away your jobs. They're taking away your subsidies. They're actually harming your family. They're taking away dollars that should go to educating your kids. Now I heard that. I was there, present, when that rhetoric was presented. So there is an attempt out there to create a wedge. If the African-Americans and the Latino population would ever come together and work in our cities, in our urban areas, we would really bring about a transformational messiology, we would transform our cities. We would transform our nation. Those two-- that partnership is unbelievably powerful, if it would ever emerge. And I'm committed to the emergence of that partnership.

BILL MOYERS: That's your agenda? That's what you want from politics?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: I want the Latino community and the African-American community to come together. And I want us to walk as Peter and John. We may not have-

BILL MOYERS: Peter and John from the New Testament?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: From the New-- Absolutely. And we may not have all the economic resources. I do tell you that. But we don't have silver, we may not have gold. But we have numbers. We have incredible numbers.

BILL MOYERS: So tell me how you think that the Latino evangelical vote can be decisive in the Democratic race and the Republican race.

SAM RODRIGUEZ: In the Republican race, if the Republican Party nominates a candidate that addresses the issue of immigration reform, that really repudiates the xenophobic and nativist threat, and that apologizes.

BILL MOYERS: Well, McCain talks to you. McCain's been-- in fact, he's been criticized by conservatives because he's been moderate on immigration, right?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: Truth be told, McCain has invested more political capital than any other presidential candidate in the 2008 season on the issue of immigration reform.

BILL MOYERS: So that's settled. He is going to be the Republican nominee.

SAM RODRIGUEZ: He is. The question is whether or not McCain will be-- will continue to be committed to an immigration reform platform. I mean, there's an incredible amount of push back from the conservative voters in the Republican Party. And whether or not McCain will stick to his guns and commit himself to an immigration reform platform.

On the other hand, if the Democratic Party presents a candidate that addresses the issues of faith and family within the story of engaging the Latino community and the Latino evangelical community, an attractive candidate would emerge. Senator Clinton did something wonderful prior to the New Hampshire primary. Senator Clinton addressed the issues of abortion. In addressing abortion, she mentioned the fact that we really need to be committed to minimizing the number of abortions and addressing the cause of those abortions. That really-- that resonated within our community. We are a pro-life group, undeniably so. Latinos are more pro-life than any other ethnic group in America. I believe TIME Magazine gave the statistics on that last year. Then, in New Hampshire, Senator Clinton went out. And in those two days prior to the primaries, addressed white single women. And championed herself as the gatekeeper of abortion rights. That's-- that-

BILL MOYERS: And you heard about that?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: It worked in New Hampshire. It did. It got her the vote. It will work against her nationally with the Latino community.

BILL MOYERS: Didn't Tuesday-

SAM RODRIGUEZ: =Well, that's-- well, again. California, the Clinton-- it's immigration and economics. Right now, if you would ask Latino evangelicals, what's your number one issue? Is it abortion, is it marriage? It's immigration. And it's the economy. It's immigration and the economy.

BILL MOYERS: I've read a lot about you, followed you for a while. I know you're trying to write a new story for this country. What's the lead of that story?

SAM RODRIGUEZ: Righteousness and justice. It's justice. This issue. Is America committed to eradicating terror and eradicating Al Qaeda? I would say yes, only if we are as equally committed to eradicating AIDS. We have to be balanced. It can't be either-or. It must be both. If we are committed to some sort of political agenda in respect to economic-- we must be committed to alleviating poverty. There must be an agenda that carries both and doesn't leave absolutely anyone behind. I really do believeit.

Someone recently said, Mr. Rodriguez, what you need to do is tell your people, Latinos, to embrace the American culture, to become American. Does that mean white America? What does it mean to be an American? Anglo-Saxon, be European? To me, an American is any individual who looks at the documents of our founding fathers, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution, and says, "I fundamentally adopt these values. These are my values. I adhere to these values. These are mine." It's not the color of your skin. It's not the language. It's not your accent. It's not your vernacular. It's whether or not those values become your values. That's an American. I call it the American covenant.

My objective is to mobilize the Latino community in America to bring about change in this nation that incorporates righteousness and justice, marries them both, and brings about a spirit of reconciliation where we're no longer polarized between blue and red, black and white, west coast, east coast, academia and the religious faith. We come together in righteousness and justice.

BILL MOYERS: Sam Rodriguez, it's been a pleasure to have you. And I look forward to talk to you again before this year is out. Thank you for having me.

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