The New Yorker's Jane Mayer went to Tupelo, MS and turned over a rock and out popped Bryan Fischer. This latter-day Gerald L.K. Smith is a 21st-century hate-meister who stands above all of the knuckle-dragging, drooling Dumbo/Teabagger cheerleaders with a microphone in lieu of a megaphone. If this is (air & balanced) pride in stultophobia, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
By Jane Mayer
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Tupelo, Mississippi, is best known as the birthplace of Elvis Presley, and his childhood home remains the town’s top attraction. Another local performer, however, has recently garnered national attention. For two hours every weekday, a broadcaster named Bryan Fischer hosts “Focal Point,” a popular Christian radio talk show. He is one of the country’s most vocal opponents of what he calls “the homosexual-rights movement.” As he puts it, “A rational culture that cares about its people will, in fact, discriminate against adultery, pedophilia, rape, bestiality, and, yes, homosexual behavior.” His goal is to make this view the official stance of the Republican Party.
In April, Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican Presidential nominee, hired an openly gay man, Richard Grenell, to serve as his campaign’s national-security spokesman. The next day, Fischer launched a public attack on Grenell, a Republican foreign-policy expert who had previously worked as the spokesman for John Bolton, President George W. Bush’s Ambassador to the United Nations. Fischer had no argument with Grenell’s political views, which are consistently hawkish. The problem was his sex life: gay men, Fischer said, have “random, frequent, and anonymous sexual encounters—that becomes a significant issue when we talk about appointing somebody to a post as sensitive as the spokesman for national security.” After other conservative pundits took up Fischer’s cause, Grenell resigned from the Romney campaign. The resulting controversy has helped make gay rights one of the defining social issues of the 2012 campaign.
The one-story concrete building where Fischer works is indistinguishable from neighboring offices occupied by dentists, except that its front entrance features a statue of a fetus enshrined in a heart and a shoulder-high stone tablet inscribed with the Ten Commandments. Inside, plaques bearing the words “In God We Trust” underscore that this is the national headquarters of the American Family Association, a nonprofit advocacy group. A “pro-family ministry” founded in 1977, it promotes Bible-based social conservatism and criticizes what it regards as sinful popular culture.
Like much of the religious right, the A.F.A. was losing traction until Barack Obama was elected President, in 2008. His victory galvanized the group. Its leaders saw Obama as a radical proponent of godless socialism. According to a former employee, staff members at the Tupelo office passed around an image of Obama’s face blended with that of Adolf Hitler, against a backdrop of a swastika. The former employee, who found the image disrespectful, recalls, “Things really took a turn. They were no longer civil about the opposition. The goal became to defeat Obama.” In 2009, the A.F.A. hired Fischer as its director of issue analysis and as the host of “Focal Point,” which is broadcast from a studio across the street.
The American Family Association’s radio network comprises two hundred stations in thirty-five states, and Fischer’s program reaches more than a million listeners a day. That’s a fraction of Rush Limbaugh’s audience, but as large as that of Rachel Maddow or Chris Matthews, on MSNBC. Until recently, Fischer’s rising popularity escaped notice in the mainstream media, in part because his show is broadcast primarily on stations in the Southeast and the Midwest, including small cities such as Tullahoma, Tennessee, and Piggott, Arkansas. But his program is part of a parallel media universe that provides news and commentary, on everything from science to American history, from a perspective that is far to the right of Fox News.
Fischer is a tall man with a wide mouth, a prominent nose, a tanned face, and carefully groomed hair that is as white as a cotton ball. He is proud to be at the far end of the American political spectrum. When I visited his office, I asked him if he could name anyone who had more conservative social beliefs. “Well, Thomas Jefferson,” he said. “He wanted to castrate homosexuals—I don’t want to do that.” (Jefferson’s position was actually a liberal reform: at the time, homosexuality was punishable by death.) Fischer does, however, want to change homosexuals. “We’re not animals in heat that have a biological compulsion to yield to every sexual impulse,” Fischer said. Gays, he said, can experience a “reorienting of their sexuality—it can be done. Like the saying goes, ‘I’ve never met an ex-black, but I’ve met a lot of ex-gays.’ If one person can do it, two people can do it.”
Fischer, who jokes that his “listening audience is more conservative than conservatives,” represents a powerful constituency. Rob Stein, the founder of the Democracy Alliance, a progressive fund-raising group, says that groups like the A.F.A. are part of “the largest, best-organized, most effective, and well-financed special-interest political infrastructure in America.” Julie Ingersoll, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of North Florida, says that the goal of Christian conservatives such as Fischer is to “shape every aspect of the culture in accordance with Biblical law, including politics.” Though it’s impossible to say how decisive a role this bloc will play in November, Ingersoll notes that, in the 2012 primaries, it “succeeded in pushing the Republican Party far to the right.” She adds, “The campaign that Romney’s had to run is very different from the one he ran four years ago. Who would have thought, for instance, that contraception would be an issue?” In February, Romney expressed opposition to a Senate amendment that would have permitted employers to deny insurance coverage for birth control on religious or moral grounds; after his statement was denounced by religious conservatives, he reversed himself.
Jonah Goldberg, the conservative columnist, has written that Fischer is an extremist with little influence and “doesn’t speak for any members of the Christian right I know.” Fischer’s successful campaign against Grenell, however, suggests that it is unwise to underestimate him. Patrick Mahoney, the director of the conservative Christian Defense Coalition, in Washington, D.C., told me, “Bryan is definitely ascending. His influence is growing because he says publicly, in an unfiltered way, what many evangelical leaders think privately. He’s fearless.”
Fischer’s attack against Grenell started on Friday, April 20th, with a post on Twitter. “Romney picks out & loud gay as a spokesman,” he tweeted, soon after learning of the hire. “If personnel is policy, his message to the pro-family community: drop dead.” The next Monday, Fischer opened his show—which is broadcast, he likes to say, on “the most feared radio network in America!”—by telling his listeners that he had “kicked up a dust storm in the Twitterverse.”
Although Grenell has long been in a committed relationship, and has been an advocate of gay marriage, Fischer told listeners that gay people “are not about commitment.” Citing unspecified “surveys,” Fischer said that homosexuals have “five hundred to as many as a thousand sexual partners over the course of a lifetime!” He went on, “I mean, the possibilities are virtually endless that this guy could wind up being compromised.”
Fischer said that Romney was “sticking his thumb in our eye” and “signalling to the homosexual lobby . . . ‘I’m with you, I’m not with the pro-family community.’ ” He warned, “He cannot win without an enthusiastic evangelical base.” Fischer then told listeners that he had called the Republican National Committee that morning, demanding to know whether the Party considered homosexual behavior “healthy or harmful.” “We need some clarification!” he said.
In another era, Fischer’s comments might not have registered widely. But the American Family Association takes full advantage of modern communications technology, providing Fischer with an online column, making available live video streams of “Focal Point,” maintaining a Web archive of his shows, and sending e-mail news alerts to more than two million people. In the evangelical community, Stein says, “Web fires are lit every day.” And when the outrage gets hot enough it attracts the attention of major news organizations. The morning after Fischer made his comments, a producer at CNN booked him for a live debate with R. Clarke Cooper, the executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a group that supports gay rights.
Fischer was clearly excited by the national attention. On his next show, he said, “They went to look for somebody to talk about Governor Romney’s homosexual hire, where did they come? They came to AFR talk network!”
He began a long disquisition about homosexuals, and suggested that they were more prone to domestic violence than straight people. He then denied, as he does routinely, that H.I.V. causes AIDS, calling it a “harmless passenger virus.” It’s a theory derived from Peter Duesberg, a professor of molecular and cell biology at Berkeley, who has been widely criticized. Duesberg has been a guest on Fischer’s program. (Fischer told me, “He has a seven-hundred-page book—I read that thing through from the beginning to the end of it, and was persuaded.”)
Fischer returned to a favorite theme: that homosexual behavior is “always, always, always a matter of choice.” He told his listeners that a scientific study had shown the concordance of homosexuality between identical twins to be only six per cent. “If one of them is gay and it’s genetically caused, the other one ought to be gay one hundred per cent of the time!” he said.
Fischer cites such evidence with ease; he has impressive recall for everything from Bible quotations to academic articles. Yet he draws his information almost exclusively from like-minded sources, and ignores contrary statistics. For instance, in 2003, psychologists at the University of London performed a meta-analysis of six studies involving the concordance rate of homosexuality between identical twins, and reported a range from thirty to sixty-five per cent—far greater than the average occurrence of homosexuality in the population at large. The evidence, they concluded, strongly suggested a “heritable component.”
Fischer has similarly cited a 2001 study by Robert Spitzer, the retired Columbia psychiatrist, suggesting that homosexuals could successfully undergo “reparative” therapy. But Fischer has not mentioned that the American Psychiatric Association publicly disavowed the study at the time. Spitzer himself recently renounced the paper, and apologized for making “unproven claims.” (Fischer dismissed this, saying, “He just caved to the gay lobby.”)
To make his case that Grenell posed a national-security risk, Fischer presented a prurient scenario: “What if he’s travelling for Mitt Romney on government business?. . . He’s overseas somewhere . . . he’s got top-secret information in his hotel room, and he just can’t help himself? He’s gotta have an anonymous tryst with some homosexual?” A caller pointed out that straight people also take sexual risks. (Indeed, the recent Secret Service scandal involved male agents consorting with female prostitutes in Colombia.) Fischer was unfazed, maintaining his view that Romney’s choice of Grenell was “a very disturbing appointment.”
By the end of the week, two prominent social conservatives had joined Fischer’s campaign. Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, suggested that Grenell’s homosexuality offered “strong evidence” that he “would lobby for foreign policy more in line with the current Administration than the last, Republican one.” Gary Bauer, another well-known Christian conservative, denounced the hire as “a slap at the base”—not, he insisted, because Grenell was gay but, rather, because he was “an outspoken advocate of redefining normal marriage.” Bauer warned, “There is no path to victory for a Republican Presidential candidate that does not involve massive turnout by pro-family voters.”
Columnists weighed in, too. Matthew J. Franck, of the Witherspoon Institute, a conservative think tank in Princeton, New Jersey, denounced Grenell on the Web site of National Review, calling him “a loose cannon,” whose devotion to gay marriage was “unhinged.”
Fischer began declaring on his show that if Romney wanted to win he’d “better start listening to me!” Rather than hurting Romney, Fischer claimed, he was his “best buddy,” and just “trying to show him the way.”
Nine days after Fischer’s on-air campaign began, Grenell resigned. He released a statement blaming the “hyper-partisan discussion of personal issues.” Later, he cited hostility from extremists on both the left and the right; both types, he said, could not accept the incongruity of an openly gay conservative. But when he spoke with me about Fischer there was no mistaking his anger. “I’ve never met him, and had actually never heard of him before he offered his critique,” Grenell, who was raised as an evangelical Christian, told me. He added, “I do know that Christ saved some of his harshest words for people who claimed to be followers and judged others’ hearts.”
Fischer received the news of Grenell’s resignation while he was hosting his show. “Wow!” he said. As he read aloud a breaking bulletin from the Washington Post, he began repeating one of his favorite slogans: “Ladies and gentlemen, there’s our winnable war!” As congratulatory calls started rolling in, Fischer said, “I was the first one on the conservative front to raise an issue about this. This is absolutely huge, ladies and gentlemen. . . . He resigned because of pressure that was put on the Romney campaign by the pro-family community.”
Though many evangelicals applauded Grenell’s departure, other observers saw it as a pandering move by the Romney campaign—one that implicitly aligned his candidacy with intolerance. Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial-page editor of the Times, wrote that Grenell “was hounded out of town by social conservatives.” Romney insisted that he had not forced Grenell out. “We wanted him to stay with our team,” he told Fox News. “We select people not based upon their ethnicity or sexual preference or gender but upon their capability.” He noted that top aides had asked Grenell to stay. Yet the campaign had Grenell’s resignation letter in hand for several days before it became public, and during that time Romney never attempted to speak to Grenell.
Inside the campaign, a Republican insider says, “they were so fixated on how to shut up Bryan Fischer that they missed the bigger picture.” The insider says that the campaign’s leaders, in the hope of placating “the wing nuts,” commanded Grenell to keep silent and stay out of the public eye “until it blows over.” But no one could tell Grenell how long that might take. In internal discussions, Grenell argued that the best defense was for him to do his job well. But, as the Times reported, the campaign muzzled him, preventing him from even speaking to reporters on a foreign-policy conference call that he had helped organize. According to another source, Grenell wanted to publicly criticize Obama for boasting about the successful raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, but was instructed to keep quiet.
The Times story was embarrassing, and after it appeared Romney’s spokesman, Eric Ferhnstrom, tried to distance the campaign from Fischer, and criticized the “voices of intolerance that expressed themselves during this debate.” He also referred to a confrontation that Romney had with Fischer last fall, in Washington, at a conference for social conservatives known as the Values Voter Summit. Fischer had been scheduled to speak directly after Romney. This was awkward, because Fischer has frequently ridiculed Mormonism, which he considers to be a “different religion” from Christianity. Before yielding the podium to Fischer, Romney said, “We should remember that decency and civility are values, too,” adding, “One of the speakers who will follow me today has crossed that line, I think. Poisonous language does not advance our cause.”
When I asked Fischer about Romney’s statement at the Values Voter Summit, he said that it was hardly a significant rebuke, noting, “Most of the people in the room didn’t even know who he was talking about.” The media took little note of the remark. At any rate, virtually no one, including Fischer, believed that Grenell had left against Romney’s wishes. As Fischer put it, “Romney realized that we were speaking for lots of voters, which is why he let Grenell fall on his sword.”
The spectacle raised the question of how far Romney is willing to go to placate extreme elements in the conservative movement. Andrew Sullivan, a columnist for the Daily Beast, told me, “That an individual who openly demonizes a whole segment of the population is still immune to any serious pushback in the Romney camp is a sign of Romney’s profound weakness within his party.” Sullivan, who is gay, maintains that “there is still time for Romney to ‘Sister Souljah’ elements of the far religious right.” But, he adds, “I think he understands that he cannot lose a single one of their votes and have a chance this fall.”
The A.F.A. is a tax-exempt charitable organization, and it is supposed to remain strictly nonpartisan. Yet Fischer has spread doubts about the authenticity of Obama’s American birth certificate and Christian faith, and has claimed that the President’s aim is to “destroy capitalism.” Obama, he has said, “despises the Constitution” and “nurtures a hatred for the white man.” Fischer recently accused the Administration’s Department of Homeland Security of buying so much ammunition that it was causing a shortage. His source on this, he said, was a law-enforcement officer. “Who are they going to turn that ammunition on?” he asked his listeners. “They’re going to turn it on us!”
Fischer thinks that Islam is a violent religion, and argues that Muslims should be stopped from immigrating and barred from serving in the U.S. military. He believes that the country was a Christian nation when the Bill of Rights was written, and therefore non-Christians “have no First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion.” He has said that Native Americans are “morally disqualified” from ruling America, and that African-American welfare recipients “rut like rabbits.”
In 2010, such inflammatory rhetoric led the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremism in America, to designate the American Family Association as a hate group. Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the center, says, “It’s astounding that a twenty-million-dollar-a-year organization that claims to represent Christ allows this man to speak for them.”
Yet, during this campaign season, nearly all the Republican Presidential candidates have been guests on Fischer’s show, including Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Tim Pawlenty. (Fischer has not invited Romney.) Many senators and congressmen have also been interviewed by Fischer, including South Carolina’s Jim DeMint, the rising voice of the Tea Party in the Senate, and Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, the Republican Party’s top-ranking member in the Senate. Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow at People for the American Way, a liberal group that monitors the religious right, says of these politicians, “Fischer has an audience they want, and they’re willing to associate themselves with him to reach it.”
The electoral math helps explain this calculation. More than a quarter of American voters identify themselves as evangelicals, and, according to the National Religious Broadcasters association, ninety-six per cent of them tune in to some form of Christian media each month. This constituency has, arguably, become the most reliable bloc in the Republican Party. Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition, who now heads the Faith and Freedom Coalition, reports that more than half of the voters in the current Republican primaries have identified themselves as evangelicals. Michael Lindsay, an expert on evangelical politics and the president of Gordon College, outside Boston, says, “No Republican has captured the White House without evangelical votes since Watergate. They’re the most organized constituency in the Republican Party.”
Some conservatives, such as Clarke Cooper, of the Log Cabin Republicans, argue that people who are intolerant of homosexuality are out of step with the times and can be ignored. “Really, what do they contribute?” he asks. Gary Bauer, however, says, “I think the 2012 election is going to be a dead heat, another late night, like 2000 and 2004. The important thing for Romney will be not to get ninety per cent of the base—it will be to get ninety-nine per cent.” Firm resistance to same-sex marriage and abortion, Bauer argues, is essential to winning over these voters: “If the cultural issues, like traditional marriage and the sanctity of life, go, the Republican Party is dead.”
Reed notes that, as a Mormon, Romney may have to prove to Christian conservatives that he shares their values. “I won’t say that his Mormonism isn’t an issue,” Reed says. Romney, he says, must not “take evangelical voters for granted. He made significant progress this spring, but he still has work to do.”
At the very least, Lindsay suggests, “Romney has to choose a running mate who could appeal to evangelicals.” In 2008, such a calculation convinced John McCain that he had to abandon his first choice of a running mate, Joe Lieberman, and go with Sarah Palin.
Fischer’s demands center on policy. He wants the next President to advocate criminalizing all abortions—even in the case of rape victims—and making contraception available only to married couples. He wants schools to be able to teach “intelligent design” alongside what he calls the “morally and intellectually bankrupt theory of evolution.” Indeed, he believes that America will never be safe with “a President who believes that man evolved from slime.” Though Fischer frames his arguments with charged language, his religious viewpoint is hardly unusual: a recent poll showed that sixty-six per cent of Republican voters in Mississippi don’t believe in evolution.
“If I made a list of the top five hundred places I would likely be at this point in my life, Tupelo, Mississippi, would not even be on it,” Fischer told me one afternoon, while unwinding after his show. A freshly popped bag of popcorn and a soda were on his desk, which was surrounded by photographs of his family and others of him posing with famous conservatives, including Dick Cheney, Oliver North, and Dan Quayle.
Though Fischer dresses like a typical churchgoer, in button-downs and shiny pastel ties, on his right hand he wears a token of an élite education: an oversized ring signalling his membership in the Theta Delta Chi fraternity at Stanford University. He graduated in 1973, with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.
Fischer described his entry into the political fight against gay marriage as almost reluctant. Invoking a speech from the movie “Hoosiers,” Fischer said that he could ignore “a guy that howls at the moon in the woods,” but could not ignore it when a guy “takes off his clothes and howls at the moon in your living room. The second guy you kind of have to deal with.” Homosexual activists, he said, “want to redefine the institution of marriage from the definition that God established at the beginning of time. We have to fight that.” He stressed that “it’s not us making this an issue—it’s the homosexual activists.”
Fischer’s political activism, however, began years before the advent of same-sex-marriage laws. In fact, his preoccupation with family dysfunction seems to have started with his own. Though Fischer loves to talk, he does not like to talk about his childhood, and spoke about it only grudgingly. He was born in Oklahoma City, in 1951, and his father, John, a descendant of German Mennonites, was a Conservative Baptist minister whose pacifism was so strict that he became a conscientious objector during the Second World War—a choice that makes Fischer uncomfortable. According to a 2003 profile in the Treasure Valley Christian News, of Boise, Idaho, Fischer “accepted Christ at the tender age of five, kneeling alongside his father.”
By the time Fischer reached the eighth grade, his father had left the ministry. Fischer told me that the family moved to Fresno, California, where his father, who loved books, went to work as a librarian at a Mennonite college; his father disliked the job, though, and moved on to become a public elementary-school teacher.
Fischer didn’t volunteer anything about his mother, but, when pressed, said, “My parents divorced when I was about twenty. It just rocked my world.” His mother, who worked as an interior decorator at a furniture store, was “chronically late,” and the bus driver on her route to work would always hold the bus for her. Eventually, he said, “my mom fell for the bus driver,” deserting him, his father, and his younger sister. “I don’t want to go into it,” Fischer said. “But I saw the devastating impact it had on other people in my immediate family.” Asked how his father fared, Fischer turned away, then said, “He looked like an Auschwitz survivor. It was akin to that ordeal.”
Dennis Mansfield, a Christian conservative who was friends with Fischer for twenty years, said that Fischer also “had a deep-rooted disappointment in his father, for not being strong enough.” Fischer denies this, saying that he always respected his father. Fischer and Mansfield are no longer friends.
Earlier this year, Fischer became enraged on the air while discussing Newt Gingrich’s multiple infidelities and divorces. A caller argued that Gingrich was now “right with God.” Fischer demanded to know: How many infidelities would be too many? Two? Three? Four? During a commercial break, Tim Wildmon, the president of the A.F.A., texted Fischer and warned him that he might be alienating listeners. Later on the show, Fischer said, “Some of you probably feel I was a little bit hard on Newt in the first hour. . . . Understand, my reaction is coming from a really, really deep place in my heart.” He told listeners that after his parents’ divorce he “had no home to go to at Thanksgiving, no home to go to at Christmas. . . . Other people in my family, they were so shattered by this . . . the despair, bleakness, the blackness of the home that was left behind.”
Fischer’s sister, Sharon, particularly has struggled, and since 1999 she has lived off welfare and Social Security disability payments. Her situation has not tempered his view that such programs violate both the Bible and the Constitution. As he told me, “The Scriptures say, ‘If a man will not work, don’t let him eat.’ ” Fischer has not seen his sister in about a decade.
In 1969, Fischer enrolled at Stanford. He recalled it as “nothing more than a reëducation camp,” sounding much like Rick Santorum, who has called universities “indoctrination centers for the left.” At Stanford, Fischer became furious with the professor in a freshman Western Civilization course, who, he asserts, “ridiculed Christianity” and “implied you have to be a hayseed from Ohio to believe in this stuff.” Fischer said, “His effort to destroy my faith just strengthened it.”
Finding fellowship with David Roper, a chaplain at Stanford, Fischer began teaching extracurricular Bible studies on campus and attending Roper’s evangelical church, the Peninsula Bible Church, in Palo Alto. Fischer describes its attraction in terms of manliness. “It was the first time I’d been around a real muscular Christianity,” he told me. “It had a kind of strength and virility to it that would appeal to men.”
Roper, for his part, finds this description odd, saying, “I think religion is for all genders.” He and Fischer are no longer close; he says that he finds Fischer’s “political discourse unduly harsh.”
After graduation, Fischer attended Dallas Theological Seminary, which at that time was a redoubt of conservative evangelism. He read the Old Testament in ancient Hebrew, and the New Testament in Greek. He came to disapprove of modern scholarship positing that the Torah had multiple authors. Fischer hewed instead to the fundamentalist notion that the first five books of the Bible were written entirely by Moses. The Bible, he believed, was the unerring word of God.
Terry Papé, a fellow-student at Stanford, also went on to the Dallas seminary. He recalls Fischer as “very intellectual,” but “more black-and-white than I am.”
In 1978, Roper left Palo Alto for Boise, where he led a growing evangelical enterprise, Cole Community Church. He recruited both Fischer and Papé to join him after they graduated from the seminary. Fischer directed Biblical studies at Cole for thirteen years. By now, he had a wife, Debbie, and two children. “Bryan was very popular when he came to Cole,” Papé recalled. “But, over time, those relationships were strained, because of his very strong personality. When it comes to his perspective, it’s very difficult to get him to budge. He loves a good argument, but he doesn’t like being persuaded he might be wrong.”
In 1993, Fischer was crushed when Roper retired and endorsed a different successor. Roper’s and Fischer’s wives had been close friends. “I didn’t know it was going to hurt him that much,” Roper told me. “I sincerely love Bryan Fischer.” But friction had grown between the two men—and between Fischer and the congregation—over various doctrinal issues. “The central issue was gender,” Fischer told me. The church, he said, had “adopted policies that would have allowed women to exercise authority over men.” He opposed this, citing the Apostle Paul.
Dennis Mansfield, Fischer’s former friend, has lived in Boise for decades, and was then a local leader of the Christian right. He says that Fischer and Debbie were so upset when Fischer was passed over that they took their shoes off in the church’s parking lot and clapped them together like erasers. Mansfield says, “They didn’t want a speck of the place to touch their feet as they put it behind them.”
By this time, Fischer had become convinced that Christians needed to fight directly for Bible-based policies in America. In the early nineties, he protested President Bill Clinton’s decision to allow gays to serve in the military, and later successfully pressured a family that owns Hallmark stores in Idaho not to carry gay-friendly greeting cards.
His growing political activism paralleled a larger shift among Christian conservatives, many of whom had previously refrained from secular engagement. One movement, Christian Reconstructionism, holds that true believers need to “reconstruct” America as a Christian nation in order to set the stage for the Second Coming. Matthew Sutton, the author of Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (2007), says, “Apocalyptic fears have helped push politics to the right.” Similar anxieties, he notes, helped animate anti-government movements in the nineteen-thirties and forties, and “could help define the 2012 campaign as well.” A recent survey by the Pew Research Center showed that a majority of white evangelicals believe that Jesus will return by 2050. Such ideas drive the foreign-policy views of evangelicals who believe that Jewish control of the Holy Lands must coincide with the Second Coming. Many offices at the A.F.A.’s headquarters are decorated with miniature Israeli flags. “Evangelical Christians now rival the American Jewish community in their support for Israel,” Ralph Reed says.
In 1993, Fischer got his own pulpit when he started a new church, the Community Church of the Valley, in Boise. Mansfield became an elder there. In church, Fischer preached that it might be preferable if Americans married upon becoming sexually mature. “I’m not saying go out and get your fifteen-year-old engaged,” he said. But he argued that “we have artificially delayed the age at which people are expected to marry,” and observed, “Mary, the mother of Christ, was probably a teen-ager when she was betrothed to Joseph.” In another sermon, he preached that women were equal to men in worth but “not equal in authority.”
“Somebody’s got to have the tie-breaking vote,” he explained to me. “According to God, that’s the husband and father.
Even for Idaho, a state dominated by Republicans, Fischer’s views were unusually conservative. But in 2001 Republican leaders appointed him the chaplain of the Idaho state senate, giving him a daily statewide platform. One woman, Jennifer Boyd, wrote an angry letter to the Idaho Statesman to protest the decision. She accused Fischer of having excommunicated her because he deemed her divorce “unacceptable, non-Biblical, and sinful.” (Fischer told me, “My memory is fuzzy on this, but I think it was her choice to leave the church.”)
Fischer’s new job bolstered his reputation as the state’s leading promoter of hard-right social policies. The media began seeking him out regularly for commentary. Jody May-Chang, a gay-rights activist and a writer in Boise, who repeatedly clashed with Fischer, recalls, “Journalists went to him like moths to a flame. Fischer wielded a lot of power in Idaho. And he did a lot of damage to the gay community”—by arguing, for example, that having gay parents created “sexual confusion in children.” May-Chang went on, “He caused a lot of pain and suffering. He has no compassion.”
Dennis Mansfield came to a similar conclusion in 2000, when he was running for Congress. Six days before the election, his teen-age son was arrested on drug charges. Mansfield says that, although he had helped found Community Church, Fischer told him that he was unfit to be an elder there, arguing that if he couldn’t run his own house properly he couldn’t run God’s house. “It was such a painful experience,” Mansfield says. His son died after a long battle with addiction. Fischer attended the funeral. While the boy was in decline, however, Fischer spoke in the state legislature against halfway houses that Mansfield had tried to set up, arguing that property owners nearby objected. “Jesus Christ came so we could all have our property saved?” Mansfield says. “How very sad.” He adds that he noticed a pattern over the years: Fischer would “develop a closeness to a friend and then, as soon as they had a disagreement, they’d be cut adrift.” Mansfield reassessed his view of politics, concluding that “faith-based conservatives are either purposefully, or inadvertently, looking punitively at other people” rather than “lifting each other up.”
In 2005, the congregation that Fischer founded kicked him out. “It was the gender issue again,” Fischer told me. “Because of my Scriptural convictions, I wasn’t able to budge. A female friend of the wife of an elder wanted a leadership role. I felt those roles should be reserved for men. . . . When I objected, they said, ‘You’re fired.’ It was very abrupt. I didn’t know what I was going to do next. It was very painful.”
He decided to become a full-time political activist, and started his own nonprofit advocacy group, the Idaho Values Alliance, whose certificate of incorporation listed him, his wife, and his daughter. He posted columns on the group’s Web site, including one in which he wrote that “it is actually a form of child abuse not to spank a child when that’s what he needs,” noting that he and Debbie had “discovered that five swats with a wooden cooking spoon on a bare bottom had a wonderfully salutary effect.” (Recently, Fischer advised a caller that, in some instances, a child as young as six months could be spanked.) In March, 2004, he led a protest against local officials who wanted to remove a statue of the Ten Commandments from a public park. A dozen of his followers were arrested, which had been part of the plan and resulted in significant media coverage. (Fischer, however, did not put himself in a position to be arrested.) In 2006, Fischer says, he helped draft an amendment to the Idaho state constitution banning same-sex marriage. It passed, and he describes this legislative achievement as “one of the more satisfying things on my C.V.”
The next year, Fischer formally affiliated himself with the American Family Association, and his group became its Idaho chapter. The A.F.A. had been founded by Don Wildmon, a Methodist minister and a radio host in Tupelo. In the eighties, the group had forced 7-Eleven stores to stop selling Penthouse and Playboy; later, it persuaded Abercrombie & Fitch, the Gap, and other companies to tone down their advertising campaigns. More recently, the group has attacked Disney and Home Depot for participating in gay-pride parades.
The A.F.A. is now a sprawling media empire. In addition to its two hundred radio stations, the group maintains two Internet television channels, publishes a monthly magazine, and runs an online Christian news service, OneNewsNow, which has three full-time correspondents and four stringers. Fred Jackson, its news director, says that the coverage “focusses on spiritual warfare.” Jackson, who believes that the A.P. has a liberal bias, requires his reporters to label all members of Hamas and Hezbollah “terrorists” and to replace the word “gay” in wire stories with “homosexual”—a policy that proved embarrassing when, in 2008, an A.P. profile of the Olympic sprinter Tyson Gay was published with multiple references to “Tyson Homosexual.”
The A.F.A. continues to widen its scope. A new division produces feature films, including the recent Christian hit “October Baby,” the ostensibly true story of an “abortion survivor” who grows up to confront her mother for trying to dispose of her. Fischer has promoted the movie heavily on his radio show. “October Baby” has grossed more than five million dollars so far, and has played to large audiences in areas with growing evangelical populations, like Florida, a key swing state. Julie Ingersoll, the University of North Florida professor, reports, “Showings were sold out at theatres near me.”
The “political action” subsidiary of the A.F.A., which can legally engage in partisan activity, has also been heavily involved in high-profile anti-gay-marriage initiatives in North Carolina and California, giving more than half a million dollars to the campaigns. And, last summer, the A.F.A. subsidiary spent six hundred thousand dollars to host a prayer rally in Texas, where Governor Rick Perry addressed some forty thousand Christian worshippers. The event was widely seen as the unofficial kickoff of his Presidential campaign. Recently, the A.F.A. subsidiary worked with wealthy evangelical businessmen in Silicon Valley to launch Champion the Vote, a program whose aim is to register five million new conservative Christian voters by this fall, and to mobilize tens of millions more in the coming years.
Advocacy groups like the A.F.A. survive largely on direct-mail contributions. During the Presidency of George W. Bush, evangelicals went from outsiders to insiders, and it was a mixed blessing for them: with Republican ascendancy in Washington came grassroots complacency, slowing fund-raising. In 2003, Wildmon and a dozen or so other top Christian conservatives met to devise ways to energize the faithful. They decided to create a new organization, the Arlington Group, whose sole focus was opposing same-sex marriage.
In 2004, Paul Weyrich, a leading figure of the Christian right, told the Times, “Things have not gone well in the past couple of years,” but added that opposition to gay marriage “appears to be turning things around.” Fund-raising picked up, and socially conservative voters were drawn to the polls. Bush, who had received sixty-eight per cent of the evangelical vote in 2000, got seventy-eight per cent in 2004.
In Idaho, Fischer attacked homosexuality with growing fervor. In 2007, he sponsored a summit where he hosted Scott Lively, the co-author of a widely criticized book, The Pink Swastika (1995), which argues that homosexuality was at the heart of Nazism. (In fact, the Nazi regime persecuted gays.) More recently, Lively has expressed support for anti-gay initiatives in Uganda. He has been a guest on Fischer’s radio show, and Fischer often promotes Lively’s theories. “Hitler himself was an active homosexual,” Fischer has said. “Hitler recruited around him homosexuals to make up his Storm Troopers. . . . Hitler discovered that he could not get straight soldiers to be savage and brutal and vicious enough.” On another occasion, Fischer declared that “homosexuality gave us Adolf Hitler, and homosexuals in the military gave us the Brown Shirts, the Nazi war machine, and six million dead Jews.”
In 2009, when Tea Party protests against Obama multiplied across the country, Fischer and the A.F.A. embraced the cause, planning and promoting events. Fischer says that he helped to organize the first Tea Party activities in Idaho, adding, “We helped kick-start the movement.” At the A.F.A., he explained, “We look at conservatism as a seamless garment. Conservatism is about limited government, it’s about family values, it’s about fiscal conservatism, it’s about strong national defense. You can’t separate those different areas.”
At first, many commentators categorized the Tea Party movement as libertarian. But several scholarly studies have confirmed that the political unrest was fuelled by a powerful fusion of religious and free-market fundamentalists. In a recent op-ed, Edward Conard, a former executive at Bain Capital who is one of Romney’s top fund-raisers, says that the alliance is, to some extent, a “marriage of convenience.” Most fiscal conservatives, he says, are social moderates, but, lacking enough votes on their own to enact a radical tax policy, they “endorse the pro-life agenda for no other reason than to bring their minority bloc of voters to power.”
Many evangelical leaders, meanwhile, have begun casting fiscal conservatism as a religious imperative. Ralph Reed says, “On a multitude of fronts, the economic wing of conservatism and the social-policy wing is now a false dichotomy.” David Barton, the author of best-selling Christianity-infused books on American history—and a favorite guest on both Fischer’s and Glenn Beck’s radio programs—argues that capital-gains taxes, collective bargaining, and minimum-wage laws are contrary to the Bible’s teachings.
On “Focal Point,” Fischer says that progressive income taxes and estate taxes violate the Eighth and Tenth Commandments, because the government “steals” and “covets” others’ wealth. The only government functions sanctioned by the Bible, he likes to say, are national defense and the administration of justice. Hospitals should not be legally required to treat the poor, even for emergencies, and the poor should turn to private charities for help. The government should also get out of the education business. And environmentalists, Fischer says, practice a false religion that values the earth over God and man.
Rachel Tabachnick, a former Southern Baptist who chronicles religious conservatism for the liberal Web site ProtectPluralism, characterizes such talk as “Ayn Rand’s free-market gospel refashioned by religious fundamentalists.” She says, “They glorify capitalism as holy. Over time, their followers really believe the Bible supports these Draconian free-market economic policies.”
Mitt Romney has played to this constituency by renouncing the kind of government-mandated health care that he established as governor of Massachusetts. More recently, he declared his support for a program that would enable parents to use public-education funds to send their children to parochial or private schools. (Fischer told me that this was a “step in the right direction,” though he wants Romney to extend his program to include homeschooling, and believes that government should “have no role in regulating the curriculum.”)
Romney has also distanced himself from earlier statements that accepted man-made global warming as a scientific fact. In 2002, Richard Cizik, a former vice-president of the National Association of Evangelicals, was ostracized by colleagues after he adopted the standard scientific opinion on global warming. He says, “Romney’s just saying to himself, ‘What do I have to do to placate these people?’ He’s not strong enough to say otherwise.”
David Brody, the chief political correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network and the author of a new book, The Teavangelicals (2012), told me, “Neither libertarians by themselves nor evangelicals by themselves can effect change in America, but when you put them together you have a pretty combustible force.” Whereas Brody is excited by this development, Rob Stein, at the progressive Democracy Alliance, expresses alarm: “The Christian right and the Tea Party brigades have a shared visceral antipathy toward Obama and the government.” He estimates that the Christian right’s network of organizations has an aggregate annual operating budget of more than a billion dollars, and the more élite libertarian organizations have about a hundred million. He says that in 2012 these combined forces may well spend more than the Republican Party on electoral activities.
On April 10th, Rick Santorum, Fischer’s favored candidate, dropped out of the Presidential race, and the mood at the American Family Network was glum. The broadcast studio had the silent chill of an operating room. Then Fischer bounded in and sat down at a horseshoe-shaped desk. Behind him was a large image of the three crosses on Calvary. A nearby monitor would allow him to watch himself as he waved his arms, like a preacher summoning his flock. On his desk sat an iPad, a Bible, a copy of the Constitution, and computer printouts documenting the day’s outrages, culled from the Internet, which he reads in his pajamas every day, well before dawn. Although he occasionally pulls an item from Talking Points Memo or another liberal outlet, Fischer usually gathers information from conservative publications like the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, or from Web sites like World Net Daily, which insists that Obama faked his Hawaiian birth certificate.
The obvious question that day was whether hard-core evangelical conservatives should get behind Romney. The topic of endorsement was a delicate subject, given the A.F.A.’s tax-exempt status. The group’s general counsel told me that it “favors issues, not candidates.” But Greg Colvin, a tax lawyer specializing in nonprofit organizations, told me, “All Fischer has to do to violate the law is indicate that a person should be favored or disfavored in the coming election”; if he oversteps, the tax exemption becomes a government subsidy for “a political message.” Marcus Owens, the former director of the tax-exempt-organizations division of the I.R.S., concurred, saying, “Calling Obama a socialist and making other negative comments, while exhorting listeners to vote for Romney, would be viewed as prohibited campaign interventions by the I.R.S.” The A.F.A.’s tax-exempt status, he notes, “effectively makes us all subsidizers of Fischer’s speech.”
In the nearby control room, Fischer’s producer, Jeff Reed, told me, “We have to be careful, because we’re not allowed to endorse.” He suddenly started laughing. “But everyone pushes the limits all the time.”
Fischer’s words were careful, but his message was clear: “I think a lot of evangelicals will wind up going to the polls and they will vote for Romney, because the alternative is just virtually unthinkable—that we would have four more years of a President who, I believe, despises this nation.” Many people, he suggested, would say, “With a clothespin on my nose, I’m going to punch the lever next to the ‘R.’ ” The next day, he declared outright, “Republican voters chose this man to be our candidate. . . . At the end of the day, we are all on the same team.”
Fischer warned his audience, though, that evangelicals needed to hold Romney’s “feet to the fire.” Last year, at the Values Voter Summit, Fischer laid out a partial list of demands. The next President, he said, must reject what he called “the mythical separation of church and state,” and must accept that Islam is “a religion of war and violence and death.” And, he warned, the next President must appoint judges who will overturn Roe v. Wade, eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, and define marriage “as the union of one man and one woman.”
On May 9th, Fischer got one of his wishes. That day, Obama announced that he personally supports the concept of same-sex marriage. In response, Romney declared that he is against it. He also expressed opposition to gay civil unions, a stance that puts Romney to the right of George W. Bush. Fischer was elated. “Ladies and gentlemen, Barack Obama just stuck a fork in himself,” he told his listeners. “He’s toast in November! It’s over!”
Though national polls show that public opinion slightly favors same-sex marriage, in the two vital swing states of Ohio and Virginia the issue appears poised to hurt Obama. Fischer, meanwhile, is convinced that people don’t tell pollsters the full truth about their opposition, “because nobody wants to sound like a bigot.”
Fischer was more ebullient than ever now that Romney was moving in his direction. He said, “Never forget, as last night and today has proved abundantly: we are fighting a winnable war!” Ω
[Jane Mayer has been a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine since 1995. Mayer is a graduate of Yale University, where she was a stringer for Time magazine. Mayer also has contributed to the New York Review of Books and American Prospect and co-authored two books—Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas (1994) (written with Jill Abramson), a study of the controversy-laden nomination and appointment of Clarence Thomas to the US Supreme Court, and Landslide: The Unmaking of the President, 1984–1988 (1989) (written with Doyle McManus), an account of Ronald Reagan's second term in the White House. Mayer's The Dark Side (2008) addressing the origins, legal justifications, and possible war crimes liability of the use of interrogation techniques to break down detainees' resistance and the subsequent deaths of detainees under such interrogation as applied by the CIA was a finalist for the National Book Awards. Mayer is the granddaughter of the late historian and biographer Allan Nevins.]
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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at sapper.blogspot.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.
Copyright © 2012 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves