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.”
A quick interpolation: In 2008 Jackson published a book called Ten Commandments to an Extraordinary Life: Making Your Dreams Come True that discusses the merits of donating directly to one’s spiritual leader. On page 177 he says: “While giving to the poor is important, the most powerful giving for wealth building is upward giving.” On p. 178, Jackson uses his own case to explain how this works:
For example, as you read this book, you may feel a deep spiritual affinity for the things I am teaching and therefore a profound spiritual kinship with me. We may never meet in person, but you can draw on the anointing which God has placed on my life by sowing into my ministry. That opens a spiritual door for you to partake at a deeper level and for me to impart to you as one in Covenant with me. That is how I have come to support other ministries. Wherever you are moved to give, do it consistently and generously. This will start a flow of prosperity in your life which will enhance all the other principles you have learned.
For those with financial difficulties, Jackson recommends meditation on Scripture verses promising wealth, like Deuteronomy 8:18 (“And you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth, that He may establish His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day.”). “As you meditate on wealth, you draw it to you,” Jackson writes. He also says: “‘Generational curses’ [such as dying young] can be perpetuated by or broken by meditation.”
Anyway, after worship, tithes (a musician played keyboard while attendees walked to the front of the room to put their donations in baskets), announcements, and a Scripture reading, Jackson launched into his sermon.
His text was II Chronicles 7:14, which reads, “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”
Jackson began his sermon in a relaxed tone, leaning against the podium and discussing King Solomon. Solomon’s success caused him “to go awry,” Jackson added, citing Deuteronomy 8:11–20 as an example of the dangers success can bring. The passage ends on an ominous note; verse 20 reads, “As the nations which the Lord destroys before you, so you shall perish, because you would not be obedient to the voice of the Lord your God.”
“Wow, that was a solemn warning to Israel,” Jackson said. “But I believe it applies to the United States of America.” He added that it applies to individuals, too. It has “become anathema, a thing of ridicule” to suggest that America and individuals are accountable to God, he said. Jackson used quotes from George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln to argue that America’s founders wanted Christianity to have a prominent role in public discourse. He also mentioned that Franklin Delano Roosevelt led the country in prayer before the D-Day invasion.
“And there was no ACLU suing anybody over it!” he said. “There was no hue and cry about him violating the separation of church and state, because it was part of the fabric of our nation.”
Without mentioning his campaign or making any explicit reference to statewide electoral politics, Jackson obliquely defended himself from a number of criticisms that have been leveled against him since he entered the public eye, including his comparison of abortion and slavery. After all, he argued, supporters of abortion rights argue that a fetus isn’t a human and doesn’t have rights of its own.
“That sounds exactly like what they were saying during slavery times!” he said. “So if anybody asks you, please clarify.” The audience cheered and applauded.
After criticizing American culture, which he described as degenerate, Jackson said that the political process won’t cure what ails our country. The cultural problem is too deep, he said, and Americans need God.
“We need a Great Awakening,” he said. “We need a mighty revival to sweep the land.”
Among the American cultural problems Jackson identified were the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage, the prevalence of abortion, and the social unacceptability of corporal punishment.
“They [your children] will pick up the phone and call Social Services on you if you say, ‘I’m gonna whup you!’” Jackson said. He followed that with a quick caveat — “I’m not advocating beating your children” — but said his father whupped him.
Another cultural problem: that 50 percent of Americans, according to Jackson, depend on the government.
“That becomes a kind of pseudo-slavery,” he said. “They get a guaranteed subsistence, which only breeds lethargy.” He followed that with another caveat: If you’re disabled and can’t work, there’s no shame in taking support from the government.
Jackson added that you can’t say God is judging America, but that people talk about karma without being criticized.
“I hear people talk about karma all the time,” he said. “If you make it New Age, it’s okay! So if you want to call it God’s karma, go right ahead!” Another caveat: Jackson said he isn’t actually calling for God’s judgment on America.
By this point in the sermon, he was in front of the podium, close to the audience. His volume was gradually increasing, as was the crowd’s response — a chorus of mmm-hmm’s and amen’s.
Laws reflect morality, he continued; same-sex-marriage legislation and drug-legalization legislation reflect moral systems of belief.
“The only question is, whose vision of moral rectitude does it reflect?” he said. Jackson added that the only question about morality is whether it is created by humans or by God. If humans made morality, “then we’re in the fight of our lives, because you know who wins that fight? Whoever’s got the most guns.” Remember, he said, Hitler said killing Jews was moral. If moral standards don’t come from God, “then we just have to fight it out.”
He then cited a passage in Jeremiah referring to the prophet’s having fire in his bones.
“One of the questions they’re asking now is, are they going to be able to shut E. W. Jackson?” he said. “And the answer is no, because there’s a fire in my bones!”
By that time, Jackson was practically yelling. “Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ love and righteousness!” he cried.
“You try to build this nation on anything or any other foundation, and it will fall!” he cried. “Glory to God!”
As he wrapped up the sermon, he noted what he felt was one last paradox in the progressive mindset: Progressives believe that abortion isn’t a moral issue, but that global warming is, he said. “As if God’s gonna let mankind destroy the planet with SUV’s!” he cried. “It’s silly, when you think about it.” Another caveat: It’s perfectly legitimate to work for clean air and clean water, and to try to reduce pollution, Jackson said. But “hysteria” about environmental concerns is unwarranted.
He concluded with a call for anyone who wasn’t saved to become a child of God. There was a closing prayer, and the June 2 service of Exodus Faith Ministries was a wrap.
After chatting with attendees, Jackson sat down with me for an interview. While his sermon ended with flair and bombast, he was soft-spoken and earnest as I questioned him about how his religious beliefs interact with his political views. Christian values make us free, Jackson told me, and people should live as they see fit as long as they don’t hurt others. While he opposes same-sex marriage, he said he wouldn’t support any sort of ban on gay sex. He also said there shouldn’t be any legal sanction of a religion, and that he would oppose a constitutional amendment naming Christianity as America’s official religion. But that doesn’t mean that our culture isn’t historically Judeo-Christian, he added, and influenced by the Bible. Acknowledging that isn’t an imposition of religion.
He also told me that the pro-life movement should focus more on persuading people to oppose abortion than on just changing the laws. Without cultural change, political change is empty, he said.
We also talked about his surprise victory at the state convention. That win, Jackson said, wasn’t a surprise to him and his camp. The last polls his campaign took before the convention were too good to be true, he said, and he almost couldn’t believe them.
Jackson, as you’ve probably figured out by now, is a man of belief. He told me he became a Christian while attending Harvard Law School. Jackson’s father told him he was reading the Bible cover to cover, and Jackson decided to try it out as well. “I ought to know something about the Bible,” he said. “It might come up at cocktail parties, who knows.” His attitude started to change when he got to the Psalms.
“David, of course, was a warrior, a man of tremendous courage and boldness,” Jackson said, “but yet, he talked with this just tender intimacy about God, and it really got to me. And I began to say, Man, what would make a man like this talk about God like he was in love with him? And I began to pray.”
That was in October of 1976. On December 22 of that year, he woke up and felt different. “When I woke up, I knew that God was real,” he said. “I didn’t see anything visibly, I didn’t hear anything audibly, but the presence of God was just so strong that it was as if he were standing in the room, and it just elevated me.”
The change was so sudden and dramatic that his wife and the rest of his family thought he’d had a nervous breakdown.
“From the drinking, smoking, cussing Jackson to, ‘Let’s talk about Jesus!,’ it’s like, ‘Uh-oh! Harvard Law School’s just been too much for him!’” Jackson recalled with a laugh. “It took them a while to figure out I hadn’t lost my mind, I’d really found it.”
When the pastor gave the invitation at church that Sunday, Jackson said he sprinted to the altar — at least, that’s what it felt like — where he laid and wept.
From that point on, you couldn’t keep him away from church. The change seemed especially sudden to his fellow law students.
“Walking down the hallway of Harvard Law School was like the parting of the Red Sea,” Jackson said. “They’d say, ‘Here he comes, get away, he’s gonna talk to you about Jesus.’ And they were right, I would!”
Jackson finished law school, passed the bar, and then entered the ministry. Within a few years, he had left the Democratic party, partially under the influence of Ayn Rand’s writings.
A few decades later, he’s late for the church service he leads because he was at a campaign stop in Northern Virginia the night before.
He said he talks with Cuccinelli every two or three days — “In fact, we were texting just this morning” — and is learning a lot from his party’s gubernatorial candidate.
“Look, this is my first rodeo as a statewide general-election candidate,” Jackson told me. “It’s not his, and so he’s got a lot to teach me.”
And Jackson seems eager to learn.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.