At 9:55 a.m. on Sunday, June 2, at the SpringHill Suites Marriott in Chesapeake, Va., a handful of hotel guests are eating their breakfasts of Belgian waffles and Froot Loops, apparently unaware that just a few rooms away from them, one of Virginia’s most singular and surprising political figures is about to launch into a sermon on church and state.
E. W. Jackson is the pastor of Exodus Faith Ministries (not to be confused with Exodus International, a controversial group that promotes “freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ”). It’s a small congregation that holds services in the hotel every week at 10:00 a.m. He is also, as of about two weeks ago, the Virginia Republican party’s nominee for lieutenant governor and, increasingly, an Internet celebrity. He’s starred in a BuzzFeed listicle, a Salon listicle, and one of Melissa Harris Perry’s monologues. He’s also got a pretty extensive archive on Right Wing Watch. Ken Cuccinelli seems hesitant to defend some of Jackson’s BuzzFeed-worthy comments, and current lieutenant governor Bill Bolling has chastised Virginia Republicans for their choice.
There are a few reasons this old-fashioned minister became national news (when was the last time you heard about another state’s lieutenant-governor candidate?), and one is that that’s what happens when you win a major party’s nomination after saying that gays are “frankly very sick people” and that the president “clearly has Muslim sensibilities” and that African-Americans need to end their “slavish devotion” to the Democratic party. If you say those things and you become the nominee of a major party, you get to be famous on the Internet. That’s how it works.
But Jackson’s race isn’t interesting just because he pumps out the kind of sound bites that cable-news producers dream about. It’s also significant because the Virginia Senate is split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, and the lieutenant governor casts the deciding vote if there’s a tie. So if Cuccinelli wins and Jackson loses, then the former’s legislative agenda could theoretically be hamstrung. Of course, that’s assuming Cuccinelli wins — and many state politicos have speculated that campaigning alongside Jackson will hamper his chances. Jackson has an uphill battle, to say the least. But he hasn’t let campaigning keep him from his pastoral duties.
Three stylishly dressed twenty-somethings were leading a crowd of about 40 people — most of whom were African-American — in a few catchy worship songs when Jackson slipped into the hotel conference room and found a spot in the front row next to his wife, Theodora. There was a picture of the two of them in the bulletin, and the opposite page announced that the congregation’s book club would begin discussing The Bait of Satan, by John Bevere, in July. It also reminded attendees that “Bishop’s weekly messages are full of meat that cannot be digested in one sitting. Therefore, it is important to listen to the recorded sermons over and over again so you can internalize what is being taught.” CDs of his messages were available for a donation of $5 at a table by the entrance. The bulletin also suggested that church members “sow a seed of one weeks pay” [sic] for the annual “Founder’s Week” service held in honor of Jackson and his wife. A section in bold at the bottom of the page listing announcements prohibited pictures and recording of the service, and continued, “Members of the press or representatives of political campaigns are required to notify the ushers. Thank you.”
An envelope inserted in the bulletin listed a number of different causes to which attendees could designate their offerings, including “Bishop’s Birthday,” “Bishop & 1st Lady Wedding Anniversary,” “Founder’s Week (& Too Much Blessing Seed)” and “Bishop’s Vacation,” as well as a few ministries, “General Pastoral Support,” and the building fund. The bulletin also announced that the congregation takes up a weekly offering “to provide relief from the cost of gasoline to our members with cars.”