Down and Out: Don Wildmon Retires from the American Family Association

"... For many, Wildmon will be most remembered for his unending stream of hateful rhetoric aimed at gays and lesbians; his relentless campaigns both against popular television programs that he deemed un-family friendly including 'Three’s Company,' 'Mash,' and 'Dallas,' and his focus on pornography, or whatever he perceived as such .."

Posted by meg | blog.buzzflash.com | 03/10/2010

From his dining room table in 1977, the decidedly anti-gay Rev. Donald Wildmon built a multi-million dollar ministry and media powerhouse. Now, although he has retired, AFA’s beat goes on.

By Bill Berkowitz

You wouldn’t recognize him if you ran into him on the street; you couldn’t pick him out of a lineup; you’ve probably never seen him on television. Nevertheless, over the past thirty+-years, he has been one of the Religious Right’s most effective campaigners against whatever he perceived to be indecency on television and in the movies. He was feared by corporate leaders and, along the way, he became one of the country’s predominant and persistent scolds.

Now, after thirty-three years at the helm, the Rev. Donald Wildmon, an ordained United Methodist minister who founded the National Federation for Decency in 1977 to fight indecency on television (it changed its name to the American Family Association (AFA) in 1988) and American Family Radio, has called it quits as chairman of the organization.

Last year, Wildmon was hospitalized for several months with the St. Louis encephalitis -- contracted after being bitten by a mosquito last summer -- and he also underwent surgery for cancer on his left eye.

Over the decades, the AFA has grown from virtually a one-man shop, to an organization with a $20 million annual budget and 175 employees. The ministry also manages and owns 180 radio stations and publishes a monthly magazine with a circulation of 170,000, and it claims an internet presence of 2.5 million supporters, according to a report in OneNewsNow, a daily news service sponsored by the AFA.

According to Wildmon’s son Tim – who is currently president of the Tupelo, Mississippi-based AFA and is expected to take over the ministry – his father will continue to work with the organization. "He's going to come in and give advice and encouragement and do some things that he can do, but as I joke around, not have to answer for it," Tim Wildmon told OneNewsNow, a news service affiliated with the AFA. "He's going to be helping us out, but he's not going to be responsible for day-to-day decision-making here at American Family Association any longer, and that's that way he wants it. He's going out on his own decision."

When the history of the Religious Right is written, the AFA should get its just desserts for the role it has played and continues to play in culture-shaping. Although Wildmon was never as media savvy as the Rev. Jerry Falwell before and after Falwell ran the Moral Majority, and hasn’t had the high-powered political connections developed by Pat Robertson during the heyday of his Christian Coalition, or Dr. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, nevertheless, he was a man to be reckoned with.

According to a request for White House visitor records -- for nine individuals closely associated with the Religious Right -- made by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), Wildmon “made three visits to the White House between July 2001 and March 2003, including one visit to President Bush”.

While Don Wildmon may not have been on the A-list, he also wasn’t been sullied by scandal like some of his contemporaries: Unlike the Rev. Ted Haggard, he was never involved in a scandal involving sex and drugs; unlike the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart, he wasn’t reduced to tears on television as he begged forgiveness for his predilection for prostitutes; and unlike the Rev. Jim Bakker, Wildmon has never been accused of swindling his supporters.

The founder's son, who has been with the organization for 24 years, added that he’s “got quite a job ahead of me of leading this ministry, AFA and AFR, but God has blessed me with a wonderful board of directors and a lot of good people here on our leadership team...so I'm looking forward to continuing the work and the mission of the ministry."

According to the AFA’s recent fundraising pitch – signed by Tim Wildmon and posted at its website -- the organization had a number of “accomplishments” in February alone:

•“We exposed excessive waste of taxpayer dollars by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has spent over $2.1 million on air travel over the last two years, treating the Air Force jets on which she flies as if they were her own personal air taxi service. Worse, $101,000 of that total was for food and alcohol consumed by her, her staff, her family members and other invited passengers while in flight.”

* "AFA is strongly opposing President Obama's proposal lifting the ban prohibiting open homosexuals from serving in the U.S. military.”
* "AFA suspended the boycott of PepsiCo after monitoring revealed it has stopped donating large amounts of money to gay activist groups.”
* "Issued strategic ‘AFA Action Alerts’ on a variety of issues in numerous states – gambling in Alabama, education in Texas, pornography in Kansas, cross-dressing in Indiana, and others.”
* "We have encouraged friends in Texas, Kansas, and Idaho to contact their congressional delegates regarding missionaries from their states being held in a Haiti prison.”
* “AFA kept you informed on President Obama's continued attempts to pass unpopular and economically devastating healthcare legislation.”

In addition to creating and building a powerful organization, Wildmon will be remembered for founding America Family Radio in 1991, a Christian-oriented broadcasting network which has more than 175 radio stations broadcasting in more than 40 states. AFA operations also include the news service, OneNewsNow.com, political action groups OneMillionDads.com and OneMillionMoms.com and the publication, The AFA Journal.

For many, however, Wildmon will be most remembered for his unending stream of hateful rhetoric aimed at gays and lesbians; his relentless campaigns both against popular television programs that he deemed un-family friendly including “Three’s Company,” “Mash,” and “Dallas”, and, his focus on pornography, or whatever he perceived as such; his organizing of the near-permanent boycott against gay-friendly corporations – PepsiCo, Ford, McDonald’s – that actually occasionally succeeded in forcing them to change their policies; his attacks on Disneyland/Walt Disney World for allowing LGBT community groups to host "gay days"; and a barrel-full of ridiculous statements.

How well the AFA does in the future without Donald Wildmon at the helm remains to be seen. The fact that he is leaving a highly functional religious and media enterprise is probably his most enduring legacy.

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