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MARCHING ORDERS: Top down.

Against the tide

Politics | E.W. Jackson gained his values from his father. His race for statewide office will test whether those values can still win elections

Issue: "50 years after the bomb," Sept. 21, 2013

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.

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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.

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