Just before this year’s Values Voter Summit, the progressive advocacy group People For the American Way called on Republican elected officials and candidates to condemn virulently anti-gay and anti-Muslim statements made by the American Family Association’s director of public policy, Bryan Fischer.
Fischer, who hosts a daily radio show on AFA’s radio network of 180 stations, has, among other things, claimed that inbreeding causes Muslims to be stupid and violent; called for the deportation of Muslims and for banning them from military service; claimed that gay sex is “domestic terrorism”; called gay adoption a “terrible, terrible, inexcusable, inhumane thing to do to children”; and claimed that Hitler and his stormtroopers were all gay.
No one took PFAW up on its suggestion, and AFA’s founder and chairman emeritus Don Wildmon was feted at the Summit’s gala with the James C. Dobson Values & Leadership Award, which declared him “one of the most effective Christian leaders of our time.” At the award dinner, anti-gay marriage crusader Bishop Harry Jackson called him a “legend” and “the ultimate advocate for the kingdom of God”; Focus on the Family founder James Dobson called him a “wonderful man of God” who had a “great influence” on the culture; and Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson added, “I don’t think there’s been a more fearless defender of righteousness and truth than Don Wildmon.”
The AFA, founded by Wildmon in Tupelo, Mississippi back in 1977, was known as the National Federation for Decency until 1988. Today, along with Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, it’s one of the powerhouses of the religious right. Contributions to the nonprofit exceeded $19 million last year, according to financial data made available by the Evangelical Council on Financial Accountability. In 2008, the organization donated $500,000 in support of Proposition 8 in California, twice the amount donated by Focus on the Family, and Jackson said it gave him money for his anti-gay marriage effort in the District of Columbia. It was one of the first religious right organizations to claim a role in the Tea Party movement.
“The American Family Association is one of the oldest, largest, and most radical religious right groups, and it has always played a major role in the right wing movement’s efforts to denigrate gay Americans and to convince conservative Christians that liberals are out to destroy religious liberty and silence people of faith,” said Michael Keegan, president of People For the American Way. “The AFA has also played an active role in driving the national right-wing agenda—at the so called Values Voter Summit this year, GOP leaders echoed the AFA’s talking points on gays and lesbians, Islam, and the supposed persecution of American Christians.”
And yet, while the AFA has long been known for its invective against the “homosexual agenda” and its boycotts of companies that fail to meet its standards of “decency,” Fischer (no policy wonk, despite being director of “Issue Analysis for Government and Public Policy”) has taken the public rhetoric to a new, ugly level.
According to former employees of the AFA, the views represented by Fischer are not only tolerated within the organization, but any opposition to its anti-gay, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant invective—including reliance on white nativist sources in the AFA’s media programs—is dismissed. What’s worse, former employees say, anyone questioning such attitudes as un-Christian is denigrated, and in some cases forced out.
Former AFA employees describe Wildmon—who led the organization until just last year—as an autocratic micromanager incapable of socializing with or showing empathy for his own employees.
Since the elder Wildmon passed the presidency on to his son Tim last year, Fischer has increasingly grabbed the spotlight. According to Allie Martin, who worked as a reporter for AFA’s news service from 1997 until he was fired earlier this year, “there’s really nobody else there who could step into that role.”
“On paper,” Martin said, “Tim is in charge,” and is probably the “only person who could reel him [Fischer] in.” But that hasn’t happened.
Within the organization, “people may not be comfortable” with Fischer’s rhetoric, said Martin, “but they aren’t going to say much about it. They are afraid to say anything about it.”
“Puppies in the Corner who Learned to Keep Our Mouths Shut”
Martha Swindle, who worked as the elder Wildmon’s secretary from 1991 until 1999, when he fired her, said that he was perceived by donors to be a “great conservative leader,” and that, “while I was there, the majority of funding came from $10 and $15 donations, people who believed in what AFA stood for.” Swindle, too, believed in that vision, until Wildmon started “snooping” through her desk drawers and even her trash, she believes, ultimately firing her after another employee found an off-color joke email she had forwarded to co-workers, an act she says she now regrets.
In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson for the AFA said it was the organization’s policy “not to discuss issues regarding specific former employees.”
Swindle had initially believed in the AFA’s mission. “I believe God used him for his vision for the ministry,” she said, adding that she is a conservative who supports Focus on the Family and similar ministries, “because I do believe in that vision.”
Swindle said she still supports what the AFA stands for. “But by the time I left, it was no longer God’s ministry. It had become Don’s ministry.”
Brad Bullock, who worked for the organization for 17 years spearheading the launch of the radio station and producing the daily radio report, was forced out 3 years ago. He said he admired Wildmon and considered him a friend, but that in dismissing him, Wildmon told him, “you have a problem and you don’t know it.”
Bullock said the group is “too harsh on homosexuals,” though if anyone voiced concerns, “they would be attacked.” He described the leadership as “autocratic” and tolerant of petty gossip among employees, like spreading rumors about employees having extramarital affairs with one another.
Bullock added that Wildmon “chastised” people for taking anti-depressants, and that “a lot of people who had problems felt like they were second-class,” including Bullock, who said that he suffered from depression while working at the AFA. Employees were fearful of speaking out, according to Bullock. “We were puppies in the corner who learned to keep out mouths shut.”
Inside the One News Now Newsroom
The AFA’s radio and news division, in particular, said Martin, had become a place where authority could not be questioned, and where the “news” was nothing more than a mouthpiece for conservative “sources” whose views were portrayed as fact. (The Values Voter Summit award citation to Wildmon described One News Now as a “respected online news service.”)
And those views were extreme, even by Martin’s standards of conservative evangelicalism. He said that the director of the news service, Fred Jackson, had a “hateful, hateful attitude” that “carried over” into stories. Martin described editorial meetings in which “liberals were accused of hating their kids,” while Chad Groening, who covers immigration, described gay people as “degenerates” and “reprobates.”
In the newsroom, said Martin, “I saw the tone of stories develop in a way I thought was disturbing.”
“They get people as news sources to say what they want to say but can’t say,” he added.
After Obama got elected, said Martin, “this went up to a whole new level, we have to vilify this man.”
Questioning Authority=“Attitude Problems”
In 2008, Jackson sent Martin an email with the subject line “attitude problems,” citing scripture he said governed “a worker’s attitude toward their [sic] superiors.” The verses he cited included Ephesians 6:5-8 (“Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, singleness of your heart, as unto Christ”) and Colossians 3:22-25 (“Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God.”) He closed the email with a “final warning” that “any further breaches in this area will be turned over to Brother Don.”
Among the topics about which Martin had raised concerns was the newsroom’s approach to immigration. Martin said that Groening has, for example, called undocumented immigrants “stupid,” “scumbag lawbreakers,” and “freeloaders.” Groening believed that illegal immigration would “destroy” the country, and that “we have the best way of life, and if our borders aren’t secured, this country would be destroyed.”
Martin also noted that Groening had referred to Muslims as “raghead scumbag terrorists” and referred to Allah as “Satan.”
According to him, Groening received a subscription to American Renaissance magazine at the office. American Renaissance is published by white nationalist Jared Taylor, and, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the magazine and Web site “regularly feature proponents of eugenics and blatant anti-black racists.” Taylor’s New Century Foundation, which runs the magazine, “also sponsors American Renaissance conferences every other year where racist ‘intellectuals’ rub shoulders with Klansmen, neo-Nazis and other white supremacists.”
AFA did not respond to requests to interview Jackson and Groening.
A 2005 profile of Taylor in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described Taylor’s beliefs that: “black people are genetically predisposed to lower IQs than whites, [and] are sexually promiscuous because of hyperactive sex drives.” The profile went on to note that, “Race-relations expert Jared Taylor keeps company with a collection of racists, racial ‘separatists’, and far-right extremists.”
In a 2004 article for One News Now, reprinted on the American Renaissance Web site, Groening relied entirely on the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) for a story claiming that FAIR, which he characterized as an “immigration reform organization,” had revealed purported “voter fraud” in Wisconsin that proved that “non-citizens of the United States could decide the 2004 presidential election.”
FAIR, which has been designated a hate group by The Southern Poverty Law Center, is one of a network of groups founded by Michigan activist John Tanton; the SPLC describes the organized anti-immigrant movement as “almost entirely the handiwork” of Tanton. His network of groups was behind the passage of Arizona’s harsh anti-immigrant law, SB 1070, and other initiatives.
The SPLC chronicled Tanton’s ties to the nativist movement in a 2009 report based on his own papers, finding that:
[T]he papers in the Bentley Library show that Tanton has for decades been at the heart of the white nationalist scene. He has corresponded with Holocaust deniers, former Klan lawyers and the leading white nationalist thinkers of the era. He introduced key FAIR leaders to the president of the Pioneer Fund, a white supremacist group set up to encourage “race betterment” at a 1997 meeting at a private club. He wrote a major funder to encourage her to read the work of a radical anti-Semitic professor—to “give you a new understanding of the Jewish outlook on life”—and suggested that the entire FAIR board discuss the professor’s theories on the Jews. He practically worshipped a principal architect of the Immigration Act of 1924 (instituting a national origin quota system and barring Asian immigration), a rabid anti-Semite whose pro-Nazi American Coalition of Patriotic Societies was indicted for sedition in 1942.
The report also detailed Tanton’s admiration for Taylor, noting how he “promoted Taylor’s efforts repeatedly” and encouraged FAIR employees to receive American Renaissance mailings.
Leonard Zeskind, author of Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream, detailed the Tanton network, including its ties with white supremacist organizations and militias, in a 2005 article in The American Prospect.* Zeskind reported that Tanton wrote in 1986, “To govern is to populate… Will the present majority peaceably hand over its political power to a group that is simply more fertile?… As Whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night? Or will there be an explosion?”
Groening continues to cite Tanton groups as authoritative, tellingly describing NumbersUSA as an “immigration reduction advocacy organization” in an August 2010 piece and citing FAIR in a story claiming that “illegal aliens” would “trump veterans at US medical offices.”
Groening also praised a Mississippi immigration raid, citing the Mississippi Federation for Immigration Reform and Enforcement (MFIRE); listed on FAIR’s Web site as a “local group,” one promoting an Arizona-style immigration law in Mississippi. According to a 2010 report by the SPLC, “FIRE took the lead last year in coordinating the activities of the often fractious nativist extremist movement,” including launching “The Patriot Coalition, an anti-government outfit battling ‘globalism,’ ‘socialism,’ and the ‘loss of National Identity and Culture.’”
The head of MFIRE, Dr. Rodney Hunt, is also treasurer of the Mississippi Tea Party. MFIRE’s tagline is “To Promote and Preserve National Sovereignty.” In a recent press release, Hunt said, “We can’t continue to allow the Mexican drug lords, human traffickers, and terrorists organizations to enter our country at will or for illegal aliens to continue to take jobs badly needed in our state and across the nation.”
Promoting white nativist views may put AFA at odds with its own allies in the religious right. In the early 2000s, Wildmon was instrumental in putting together the Arlington Group, a coalition of religious right leaders formed to fight gay marriage that also aimed to bring more African-American pastors into the fold. The AFA is also a member of the Freedom Federation, a coalition of religious right groups which described its first summit as “multiracial, multiethnic, and multigenerational faith-based and policy organizations and leaders committed to plan, strategize, and mobilize to advance shared core values to preserve freedom and promote justice.”
Many of the prominent members of the Freedom Federation, including the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and Liberty Counsel, have expressed support for immigration reform.
Blessed by Americanized Christianity?
Zeskind told RD, “even though the FAIR staff would tell you they are not white nationalists, their concerns are the defense of country, the character of our country, and protection against the future when white people become the minority in a nation of minorities… That’s what the anti-immigrant movement is about.”
Martin remarked that Groening’s attitude toward immigration “goes to the heart of why a lot of the tea partiers and other Christian activists (not all of them) feel the way they do and are so upset. I believe they are afraid that their ‘comfortable’ lifestyle will be interrupted. They have bought into this idea of Americanized Christianity, that tells them God has blessed them, and evidence of that is their stuff and comfort.”
This point of view is reflected in AFA’s programming. In 2005, after Antonio Villaraigosa was elected mayor of Los Angeles, Jackson said on the radio, “we don’t want to have two nations within our borders that can’t communicate with one another… natural hostility will develop.”
The following year, in an exchange between Jackson and Don Wildmon on the radio, Wildmon claimed the immigration issue was a conspiracy between “mainstream media” and “undocumented immigrants” to “weaken the red states.” Jackson added, “Because we know the vast majority of mainstream journalists are liberal in their theology and in their politics, they see these people as helping to vote Democrat in the coming elections.”
From Boise to Tupelo
Even before Fischer started with the AFA, Groening was hailing his anti-immigration work in Idaho, where progressives had endured years of Fischer’s vitriolic activism as head of the Idaho Values Alliance, the AFA affiliate run by Fischer, his wife, and daughter.
Leo Morales, an Immigrant Rights Organizer with the Idaho Community Action Network, said Fischer “has a very strong immigrant restrictionist perspective,” and “was involved in opposing efforts around creating in-state tuition opportunities for undocumented students. He was also involved in pushing for legislation that would deny public benefits to undocumented immigrants.”
According to Jody May-Chang, an independent journalist and LGBT rights advocate in Boise, while executive director of the Idaho Values Alliance, Fischer hosted anti-gay activist Scott Lively, former head of AFA’s California affiliate, as part of a “Shake the Nation” conference, in 2008. In his new book, C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy, Jeff Sharlet describes Lively as a “catalyst” for the draconian Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda, which calls for the death penalty for homosexuals. During a 2009 visit to Uganda, Lively likened gay people to Nazis and suggested they had instigated the Rwandan genocide. In early 2009, One News Now promoted Lively’s book, Redeeming the Rainbow: A Christian Response to the Gay Agenda, as a “textbook on family values.” On his radio show this year, Fischer claimed that criminalization of homosexuality was mandated by biblical law.
The Lively visit to Boise sparked a “visceral response” from the community, said May-Chang, including a letter from the Interfaith Alliance of Idaho, calling on a local church hosting the conference speakers to reconsider. Rusty Thomas, also a Shake the Nation conference speaker who works with the radical anti-choice group Operation Save America, referred to the Interfaith Alliance in an online report as “the synagogue of Satan and heresy.” In the report, Thomas claimed his group was “storming the gates of hell in Idaho,” where they “went to the local death camp” (Planned Parenthood), and described the “sodomites” who protested outside the church where the conference was held. Thomas added that they “challenged the Church, and particularly men, to connect their testosterone with Biblical Christianity.”
In an online column, Fischer defended Lively’s preposterous and debunked “history” of a Nazi-gay link, claiming “the masculine homosexual movement in Germany created the Brown Shirts, and the Brown Shirts in turn created the Nazi Party.” In a column earlier this year opposing the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Fischer recycled that 2008 column, adding, “Even today in America, it is chic in some homosexual circles for individuals to wear replicas of Nazi Germany uniforms, complete with iron crosses, storm trooper outfits, military boots, and even swastikas.”
Speaking of Fischer, May-Chang added, “I would venture to say that he would’ve joined Scott Lively in Uganda if he could’ve.” Calling him “an embarrassment to fair-minded Idahoans,” May-Chang said that his writings while in Idaho made clear that he favored criminalization of homosexuality. She maintains a dossier of Fischer’s radical homophobia on her Web site.
All three former AFA employees who spoke with RD said they were happier no longer working there. Martin has started a blog, where he hopes to spark conversation among Christians about how their message is being “presented, perceived, and received.”
“I’d much rather be working in the secular world than for a ministry,” said Swindle. “The secular world is nicer.”
*The word “first” has been removed from this sentence to avoid any confusion. While this was the first time Zeskind detailed the Tanton network it was first researched by the Southern Poverty Law Center several years prior. —ed.