My introduction to the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), came by way of YouTube a couple of years ago when I watched the rousing six-minute speech he gave at Ebenezer Baptist Church on MLK Day in 2011 (earlier this year, he became the first Latino speaker to deliver the keynote address for that same event).
In that 2011 speech – which I’ve embedded at the end of this post – Rodriguez sought to reassure his audience, saying with a tinge of humor, “We are not here to teach America the macarena. We are not here to increase the dividend portfolios of those that have invested in Taco Bell. We are not here to make you press one for English and two for Spanish.”
Invoking Dr. King as an inspiration, the fiery Pentecostal preacher went on to say:
I believe that we stand at the precipice of a new civil rights movement in America – a movement committed to righteousness and justice, one where our communities come together like Joshua and Caleb, and with faith in God we will declare the words, “As for me and my house, we shall serve the Lord.” So let us be strong and brave as we carry Dr. King’s dream into the barrios and Beverly Hills, from New York to L.A., from Atlanta to Phoenix, let us remind America that the kingdom of God is not red state or blue state, Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, immigrant or native, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost!
Needless to say, Rodriguez is an evangelical leader worth paying attention to, and now that he’s written The Lamb’s Agenda: Why Jesus Is Calling You to a Life of Righteousness and Justice (Thomas Nelson), more of us are getting the chance to hear what he has to say. I’ll admit from the outset that while I have a great deal of respect for Rodriguez as a Christian leader, and while I’d encourage everyone to give him an attentive hearing, I didn’t love this book, though I really wanted to.
Ever since the age of 14, Rodriguez has considered it a personal calling to reconcile the messages of Martin Luther King and Billy Graham – to help Christians establish “the crucial connection between biblical social justice and spiritual righteousness.” He points to the nexus of the cross of Christ as a model for our lives. Christians are living fully, he argues, when their lives align vertically with God and horizontally with their neighbors. Much of this book is about explaining and reinforcing those essential connections. While the concepts are simple, and may strike some of us as Christian clichés, I’m not convinced the majority of us have fully internalized them yet, so I’m grateful for his impassioned pleas.
Politics is a central theme in the book, and from the start Rodriguez appears to take a refreshingly nonpartisan approach. At a time when Latinos are seen as a demographic up for grabs, and when there finally appears to be traction for bipartisan immigration reform, it’s obviously a timely moment for a book by a politically-minded Latino evangelical leader to be published – a book showing Latinos aren’t a monolithic voting bloc, say, who aren’t going to have their votes coopted. But ultimately I found Rodriguez’s political comments a bit confusing.
As Rodriguez puts it, the Lamb’s Agenda is distinct from the competing and pervasive political agendas of our day, whether of the donkey or the elephant. I agree. Yet Rodriguez’s own agenda – and, in turn, his explanation of what he considers the agenda of the Lamb – is far less distinct. While he’d possibly part ways with some Republicans in his support for immigration reform (recent GOP support for reform notwithstanding), the rest of his political platform is strikingly consistent along party lines – he’s a fervent defender of the unborn, supports traditional marriage, and is deeply concerned about violations of religious freedom, citing the deeply troubling HHS contraceptive mandate (David Neff’s review of the book in Christianity Today has more to say about this). Rodriguez is also a vocal supporter of the Manhattan Declaration.
I respect all of that, even if I’d nuance things differently in some cases. It’s perfectly fine he’s a conservative Republican, writing a book as a Latino leader in support of conservative Republican values. I just wish he’d say so. That would, after all, make for an interesting, important book. But it’s not how this one is presented. (And to be clear, I’d be equally critical if his articulation of the “Lamb’s Agenda” amounted to nothing more than boilerplate for a group on the other side of the aisle.)
Further, when he plays into simplistic, sensationalized ideas about a monolithic entity called “the media” being a sinister enemy, and when he talks approvingly of “manifest destiny” and “American exceptionalism,” he sounds like he’s memorized a set of predictable talking points, rather than truly articulating heartfelt convictions – which is precisely what he does so well in that MLK Day speech, and why I was so eager to learn from him in the first place.
At the end of the day, maybe my beef has more to do with the medium than with anything else. Maybe Samuel Rodriguez communicates best in the pulpit or on the street corner, speaking his mind with passion, not confined to the printed page. After all, a book about the importance of both spiritual vitality and social engagement is generally the kind of thing that tends to be right up my alley.
Rodriguez does well when he reminds us that every man and woman – including those with whom we most disagree – is made in the image of God. I’m just disappointed he risks undoing all that by playing into an us-versus-them culture war mentality that pits Christians against the attacks of government, schools, the media, insert-various-other-sinister-institutions-here. He would have done better, in my view, to skip those tired polemics and instead expand on the ideas, for instance, behind this wonderfully evocative paragraph:
The day of angry evangelicalism is officially over. The day of a loving, Bible-believing community espousing truth with love officially commences right now. For if we truly understand that every human being is made in God’s image, then we can proceed to advance the Lamb’s Agenda.
To that, without hesitation, I say a hearty amen.