USA: With Rally, Christian Group Asserts Its Presence In ’12 Race
To its admirers on the religious right, the American Family Association is a stalwart leader in a last-ditch fight to save America’s Christian culture and the values of traditional families. To its liberal critics, it is a shrill, even hateful voice of intolerance, out to censor the arts, declare Muslims unfit for public office and deny equality to gay men and lesbians because they engage in sinful “aberrant sexual behavior.”
Broadcast on its 192 talk-radio stations, streamed over the Internet and e-mailed in “action alerts” to 2.3 million potential voters, the American Family Association’s pronouncements have flowed forth daily from its sleek offices here in the Deep South.
But now it is doing more than preaching to the choir. This summer, the association has thrust itself into presidential politics by paying for and organizing a day of prayer to save “a nation in crisis” that Gov. Rick Perry of Texas is convening this Saturday. Several Republican presidential aspirants, including Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty, have appeared on a radio program on the group’s American Family network.
The rally, at a stadium in Houston, is expected to draw dozens of the country’s most conservative evangelical groups and leaders, and could burnish Mr. Perry’s national profile and his appeal to religious conservatives as he considers entering the 2012 presidential race.
Mr. Perry invited his fellow governors but only one, Sam Brownback of Kansas, also a Republican, accepted the invitation to the explicitly Christian rally, and in recent days even his attendance appeared uncertain, with his staff stressing that if Mr. Brownback went, it would be in a private, not an official, capacity.
Some legal groups have accused Mr. Perry of breaching the separation of church and state by holding the rally, even though the governor’s aides say no tax dollars are being used.
A federal judge in Houston last week dismissed a lawsuit brought by a group of atheists against Mr. Perry’s participation.
“It’s a plea to God to help our country,” Donald E. Wildmon, the family association’s founder and chairman emeritus, said of the rally, which he, like Mr. Perry, calls a nonpolitical appeal to God.
“We’re at a crossroads,” Mr. Wildmon added in an interview in the association’s headquarters here about his decades in the culture wars, which he acknowledges have not always gone his way. “Either we’re going to maintain a society based on Judeo-Christian values, or we’ll have one based on whatever is popular at the moment.”
In speeches and books, Mr. Wildmon has voiced a sense of siege that is widely shared among evangelicals, one he first expressed 34 years ago as sex and violence crept into television.
But the association has sharpened its edge over the years, moving from its well-known crusades for public “decency” to harshly opposing what it calls an anti-Christian “homosexual agenda” — not only same-sex marriage and the acceptance of gay troops in the military, but any suggestion that homosexual “behavior is normal.” The association also campaigns against antibullying programs that teach tolerance and corporations (like Home Depot, a current target) that support gay pride parades.
Mr. Wildmon warns that if current social trends go unchecked, “homosexuals will become part of an elite class” and “Christians will be second-class citizens at best.”
Mr. Wildmon, 73, has turned over management of the association to his son Tim Wildmon, 48, but the group’s reputation for inflammatory statements rose after the hiring two years ago of Bryan Fischer, a former pastor from Idaho, as the director of “issues analysis” and the host of a daily two-hour afternoon show. Mr. Fischer, 60, silver-haired and a talk-radio natural, has become a public face of the group.
Perhaps most notably, Mr. Fischer trumpets the disputed theory that Adolf Hitler was a homosexual and that the Nazi Party was largely created by “homosexual thugs” — evidence, he says, of the inherent pathologies of homosexuality. Mr. Fischer has also said that no more Muslims should be granted citizenship because their religion says to kill Americans, and that welfare recipients “rut like rabbits” because of what he calls welfare’s perverse incentives.
“I don’t think we are exaggerating the dangers to the country, the culture, the American family,” Mr. Fischer said in an interview. “The stakes are as high as they could be.”
Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow at People for the American Way, a liberal group, says of the American Family Association’s radio network: “Clearly a lot of Republican politicians want to reach the people who are listening to the American Family Association. Many Republican candidates see no shame in lending credibility to the extremism and bigotry on its radio shows.”
A former Methodist pastor, the elder Mr. Wildmon first became nationally known in the late 1970s when he began urging advertisers to shun television shows with sex and violence, with mixed results. As he built a following, Mr. Wildmon, who then called his group the National Federation for Decency, used boycotts and protests to push convenience stores to stop selling Playboy and Penthouse, and he later tormented the National Endowment for the Arts for supporting work he deemed sacrilegious or obscene.
In 1988, the group renamed itself the American Family Association, and it has had a direct if unheralded hand in recent political battles, sending $500,000 to support the down-to-the-wire campaign for Proposition 8, California’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage, for example, and sending a crack political organizer to Iowa last fall for the successful drive to unseat judges who had supported same-sex marriage. The group also sponsors “pastor policy briefings” around the country that seek to mobilize evangelical voters.
Though liberal critics call it a hate group, the association and Mr. Wildmon are widely revered in conservative circles. Working in the relative isolation of Tupelo and lacking a magnetic television personality, Mr. Wildmon is not as widely known as other titans of the religious right, like Pat Robertson or James C. Dobson. But last fall Mr. Wildmon was described as “one of the most effective Christian leaders of our time” as he received a lifetime achievement award at the Values Voter Summit, an annual gathering of top religious conservatives.
Mr. Wildmon, who has remained the association’s guiding force, said the group would spend up to $600,000 putting on the Texas rally. The association has an annual budget of $19 million, raised mainly from small donors, and 128 employees.
Looking back, Mr. Wildmon acknowledged a mix of victories and losses — the campaign to stop Home Depot from supporting a gay rights group as part of a “diversity” initiative, for example, has been rebuffed by the company so far. Penthouse may be sold more discreetly, but television is more profane than ever, and same-sex marriage has gained a strong foothold.
Will a day of concentrated prayer, by tens of thousands of believers in Houston and untold numbers more who may participate from afar, turn the tide? “That remains to be seen,” Mr. Wildmon said. “Anyone who wants to pray to Jesus to save our county is welcome.”
“God didn’t call me to be successful,” he added, sounding more resigned than strident. “He called me to be faithful.”