Inside the American Family Association

Today’s Times piece on the American Family Association frames AFA’s hosting of the Rick Perry prayer rally, The Response, as its assertion of itself as a player in presidential politics. But AFA founder Don Wildmon has long been a part of a group of religious right activists who hosted “policy briefings” to introduce GOP candidates to pastors; in 2008, the group zeroed in on Mike Huckabee, who was shunned by many GOP and conservative activists. Wildmon was one of the few religious right activists to offer an early endorsement of Huckabee in 2008, so his apparent blessing of Perry (although everyone involved insists Saturday’s event is apolitical!) isn’t necessarily useful for Perry in going the distance.

The Times’ handling of some of the AFA’s most incendiary rhetoric is puzzling. Here’s an organization whose most visible representative, radio host Bryan Fischer, spouts blatantly racist, anti-Muslim, and anti-gay rhetoric. But, hey, while some people call that hate speech, there’s always two sides of a story, right? Like “Adolph Hitler was a homosexual and that the Nazi Party was largely created by ‘homosexual thugs.’” That, in the Times piece, is a “disputed theory,” rather than a conspiracy theory made up by anti-gay zealots.

AFA’s Fischer regularly contends that Muslims and gays and others are America’s enemies on a collision course with besieged Christians. He tells the Times: “I don’t think we are exaggerating the dangers to the country, the culture, the American family.” Or, as  Wildmon’s fears are made clear: “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.’”

The most powerful person in Texas and a contender to be the most powerful person in the world is hosting a Christians-only prayer rally with an organization that believes Christians are at serious risk of becoming “second-class citizens.”

What’s important to remember, though, is that while religious right elites are lining up to endorse Perry’s prayer rally, and Wildmon was feted at last year’s Values Voters Summit, that doesn’t necessarily translate into grassroots support for Perry or the AFA. “Though liberal critics call it a hate group,” the piece notes, “the association and Mr. Wildmon are widely revered in conservative circles.”

But as I reported last year, former employees of the AFA paint a very different picture, describing Wildmon as “an autocratic micromanager incapable of socializing with or showing empathy for his own employees.” Within the AFA, one former employee told me, people may be “uncomfortable” with Fischer’s rhetoric, but “but they aren’t going to say much about it. They are afraid to say anything about it.” Wildmon’s own former secretary, who still considers herself a conservative Christian who believes in the cause, told me that she’d rather work for a secular organization because the “secular world is nicer.” (Read the whole thing here.)

Meanwhile, the Houston Chronicle reports, “Reliant Park officials have said they planned a ‘small arena configuration’ the would accommodate about 10,000 people.” That’s a fraction of the 70,000 person capacity of Reliant Park that Perry and friends first envisioned, and event organizers are now emphasizing how the event will be simulcast in churches across the country. Perry may end up praying not for America, but for a lot of megachurch JumboTrons.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email