WILLIAMSBURG, Va.—Earl Walker Jackson uses two words to describe his early childhood: juvenile delinquent. His parents separated soon after his birth, forcing Jackson to shuttle around different foster homes until landing with one family at the age of two.
Jackson spent his youth angry and resentful of his biological parents. Police officers came after him for petty crimes and truant officers tracked him down for missing school. He failed fifth grade and joined a gang at the age of nine. He ran the streets of Chester, Pa., with no guidance, refusing to listen to his foster parents.
His was a stereotyped storyline for black boys growing up in America without a father. Except Jackson’s life took an uncommon turn: His father came back.
Hearing that his son was out of control, William Jackson, a welder, said, “I can handle him.” In the early 1960s, he took the 10-year-old Jackson to live with him. He gave his son two rules: Study in school and obey me. “If you do these things,” the elder Jackson said, “then every day with me will be like a day of heaven on earth. But if you fail to do these things then I am going to tear your behind all to pieces.”
E.W. Jackson weighed the options and decided on education and obedience.
Jackson went from failing grades to “A” student. He went from juvenile delinquent to Marine and Harvard Law graduate. This summer, Jackson, now 61 and living in Chesapeake, Va., surprised political pundits by winning Virginia’s Republican nomination for lieutenant governor. Thanks to a fiery speech at the nominating convention, Jackson overcame six better-funded and more-established candidates to become something the Republican Party needs: a black candidate in a statewide race.
But Jackson’s outspokenness about his Christian faith—he has been the pastor of predominately black churches for the last 30 years—also has made him a test case for the future of evangelical office seekers in the face of the country’s cultural shifts.
Almost as soon as Jackson pulled off the nominating upset, journalists and politicians—including some from within his own party—painted Jackson’s views as too outside the mainstream for public office. They wrote about how Jackson displayed a Bible and cross at the entrance to his convention party and that his positions on abortion, gay marriage, and the Democratic Party made him a fanatic with a dangerous agenda.
Republican Bill Bolling, Virginia’s current lieutenant governor, told the media that Jackson’s nomination “will feed the image of extremism, and that’s not where the Republican Party needs to be.”
The passionate rhetoric that got Jackson the nomination is often colorful and occasionally raw and blunt. He called the Democratic Party the anti-God, anti-life, and anti-family party. He said Planned Parenthood has been “far more lethal to black lives than the KKK.” He has opposed gay marriage by saying homosexuality poisons culture and destroys families.
Jackson says he doesn’t have to apologize because he criticizes organizations, worldviews, and lifestyles rather than individuals. He told reporters on the campaign trail that going after his religious views is like “attacking every churchgoing person, every family that’s living a traditional family life.” Jackson argues that he has stayed the same while the culture around him has changed.
“In the end politics is not going to judge me, God is. … I am Christian first before anything else.”
Jackson worries that the media’s depiction of him amounts to a religious test and insinuates that churchgoing, Bible-believing Christians no longer have a place in public office. He doesn’t believe that voters embrace that view, but he blames the country’s ongoing cultural transformations on too many Christians abdicating their roles in the public square.
“I am not ashamed to say that our nation needs prayer,” he says. “Why that has become so controversial is lost on me.”
Jackson became a Christian at an unlikely place: Harvard Law School. During the summer after his first year, his father announced he was reading the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. The news surprised Jackson. His dad didn’t attend church. Jackson decided that he also ought to know something about the Bible.
Jackson approached it as an intellectual exercise, but the Holy Spirit, using the influence of Jackson’s father, soon spoke to Jackson through the Scriptures. By the fall of 1976 Jackson began to feel conviction and comfort while reading about David’s love for God in the Psalms. Jackson started to pray even in the car while his wife shopped for groceries.
After talking to a struggling classmate, Jackson surprised himself by purchasing a Bible for the friend. Jackson professed faith in Christ just before Christmas in 1976, weeping as he answered an alter call at a local church. Some of his family members thought the rigors of Harvard had gotten to him and caused a nervous breakdown. But Jackson stayed in school, taking courses at Harvard’s divinity school as well, eventually becoming a lawyer, pastor, and radio host.
On the campaign trail today, Jackson tells Virginians that he is “not running to be pastor of Virginia or theologian of Virginia.” Instead, he says he wants to “get the government off of our backs.” Jackson says he is an example that an African-American can have success with less government and greater personal responsibility.
“People ask me why are you conservative? My dad instilled those values in me. He was a black man born in 1915 who had an optimistic view about this nation.” His father said he had to work hard and resist the temptation to make excuses. When people find out that you are trying to do something with your life, you will be amazed how help will come from unexpected places, his father told Jackson.
His father lived as a hobo during the Great Depression, riding freight trains across the country looking for work. “My father had people come out of their doors offering sandwiches and lemonade. He saw the fundamental decency of the American people. They didn’t care about the color of his skin. They just knew that he was hurting.”
Years later his father made the young Jackson do his homework right after school and remain within earshot when playing outside afterward. When he heard his father’s whistle—the loudest in the neighborhood—Jackson raced home before his father came to look for him. But his father also saved up to take Jackson to the Wildwood amusement park in New Jersey and promised him a car if he did well in school. When Jackson turned 16, his father could not afford another car. So he gave his own car to his son.
Driving around in his 1960 black Pontiac Catalina, Jackson felt like the coolest teenager on campus. He had one responsibility: He had to pick up his father from work. Jackson still remembers how dirty and soot-covered his father looked coming out of the shipyard along the Delaware River.
Jackson tells families that the blessings in his life aren’t based on government programs. His father hated welfare and food stamps, choosing work instead. “What I want to say to the average black person is do you want the success of seeing your kids get degrees from top schools and get good jobs or do you simply want a check every month that guarantees you a subsistence existence? To me that is an easy choice.”
That’s why Jackson founded Youth With a Destiny, a nonprofit helping inner-city youth avoid gangs and violence. He also began Exodus Now, an effort to encourage Christians in the black community to leave the Democratic Party because its leadership has “abandoned the founding principles of this nation.” Married for 42 years and with three children, Jackson also started the annual Chesapeake Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Breakfast that’s continued for more than a decade.
Jackson had his own exodus. An active member of the Democratic Party during his nearly three decades living in Boston, Jackson once won election to the party’s Massachusetts State Committee. But the party’s stances on abortion brought about a crisis of conscience: He left the party in the 1980s, and in 1998 he left Massachusetts, saying he was looking for a place more compatible with his faith. He settled in Virginia where his ancestors once were sharecroppers.
In stump speeches Jackson doesn’t emphasize race. “I’m not an African-American, I am an American,” is one of his favorite lines. He describes instead the threat he sees to the country’s traditional Judeo-Christian values. He calls that perspective “essential to the character of our country” and fears a nation that turns to government instead of God.
Jackson’s race will be watched by Republicans across the country who are reaching out to minority voters and debating how to handle social issues in the aftermath of the 2012 elections. Some favor moderating or minimizing the party’s social views. But the 2013 Economic Values Survey, published this summer by the left-leaning Brookings Institution, found that more Americans (29 percent) identify themselves as social conservatives than as economic conservatives (25 percent). The polling of more than 2,000 Americans found that 48 percent of Republicans call themselves social conservatives, suggesting that the party ignores such issues at its own risk.
“It is not a battle between Democrats and Republicans or between black and white or rich and poor,” Jackson says. “I think this is ultimately a spiritual battle over vision and values.”