TUPELO, Miss. — The most famous man in Tupelo spends hours each day scrolling through his Google Reader, printing out articles, and stacking them by topic on his dark wooden desk in preparation for his afternoon radio show.
And that’s how the stunning news reached Bryan Fischer one recent Friday morning: Mitt Romney had hired an openly, proudly gay man, Richard Grenell, as his foreign policy spokesman.
“I felt it was a signal from Romney to the homosexual lobby, that you’ve got a friend,” recalled Fischer, the whose formal title is Director of Issue Analysis for the American Family Association.
Fischer sounded the alarm on Twitter: “Romney picks out & loud gay as a spokesman. If personnel is policy, his message to the pro-family community: drop dead.”
Fischer isn’t a Twitter native — he uses it as a broadcast medium, and follows only 26 people — but the clarity and confidence of his views is made for the medium. And that tweet was the spark that set elements of the religious right into an attack on Grenell, one that — in Grenell’s reported view, if not the Romney campaign’s — ultimately led to the staffer’s high-profile resignation and Romney’s first high-profile general election stumble. The story “just snowballed from there.”
“We got Romney’s attention with Richard Grenell,” Fischer said in an interview in his Tupelo, Mississippi office. “We spooked him. Scared him straight.” Fischer sat back in his chair, a picture of Elvis Presley gyrating his hips on the wall behind him.
Grenell’s departure, Fischer told the audience of his show on the AFA’s talk radio network, “a huge win” for religious conservatives.
The complex campaign flap and the massive publicity around it was also a huge win for Fischer, who has emerged from more or less nowhere — a 29-year pastoral sojourn in Idaho — to become the most visible and defiant figure on the embattled religious right. The unapologetic culture warriors of the 1980s — Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and American Family Association Founder Don Wildmon, among others — have passed away or faded from the cultural landscape. A new generation of Republican politicians is more sensitive to the party’s libertarian strain, while a new generation of Evangelical leaders, led by the California megachurch pastor Rick Warren, has taken a step back from combative cultural politics.
But as other conservative leaders have sought to move with the times, Fischer has tacked in the opposite direction, toward strident and unapologetic attacks on homosexuality in particular. And as bluntly anti-gay rhetoric becomes associated with the fringe — with, in particular, the Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Churck and its notorious “God Hates Fags” signs — the 61-year old Fischer, may be the last out-and-proud anti-gay conservative still inside the Republican Party tent. Every Republican candidate except Romney visited Fischer’s show this year, and he regularly hosts Republican members of Congress. He has a key speaking slot at the Values Voter Summit every year, and the organization shrugged off Romney’s all-purpose denunciation of Fischer at last year’s summit as a speaker of “poisonous” language.
The Grenell issue was illustrative of Fischer’s new, leading role. Other voices on his side were notably more cautious, including even former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, who pointed out that gays were part of the Reagan and Bush administrations and stressed that “our concern is policy.” Other leaders only echoed what Fischer had started.
And with Grenell’s exit, Fischer scored his first real coup, and seems poised to benefit more from conservatives’ disillusionment with Romney than any of the evangelical leaders who have fallen into line with the Republican nominee.
“He’s fearless. He’s prophetic. He will stand on principle regardless of where the chips may fall,” said his friend and regular Focal Point guest Patrick Mahoney, the director of the Christian Defense Coalition. Mahoney said modern-day evangelical leaders “are much less prophetic and direct than Bryan.” Mahoney compared Fischer to the older generation of big-name Christian right leaders, like Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson, but with an important difference: “Bryan understands getting the message out.”
Getting Fischer’s message out is now a large-scale production at the AFA’s Tupelo headquarters. Fischer hosts a two-hour radio show broadcast to hundreds of stations five days a week on AFR talk, plus a regular column and blog at the American Family Association’s website, a Twitter account, and increasingly regular appearances on CNN. This has also, of course, made him a target, something he doesn’t seem to mind. Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart recently showed a clip of Fischer Skyping in to a CNN interview, quipping “In case you're wondering why he looks so blurry, it's because his opinions are being broadcast from 50 years ago.” He’s declined to appear with Stewart more than once, he said, and declined an invitation to “talk about the message of Easter” with Stephen Colbert because he doesn’t think Easter is funny.
The cable exposure stems from Fischer’s eagerness to connect biblical narratives to contemporary politics, and his intense interest in the current presidential campaign. Fischer endorsed Rick Perry and described him as “as close as we were going to get to the whole package,” but switched his endorsement to social conservative darling Rick Santorum after Perry dropped out.
Fischer talks about Barack Obama as a menace to American national security, whose policies Fischer claims to have been baffled by until a video of Obama supporting a left-wing, African American Harvard Law Professor, Derrick Bell, re-emerged this spring.
“Is he just inept? Is he just incompetent? Or is this all purposeful?” Fischer asked. These were rhetorical questions.
“The conclusion I’ve come to is that he’s doing this purposefully because he believes that the U.S. needs to be punished for being a racist nation,” Fischer explained. "He is out to punish the United States for being racist.”
When Fischer is in the process of saying things that are likely to stir outrage, his voice becomes even more measured, more thoughtful, as you’d expect from a man who wanted to become a Bible teacher, and who knows that the truth is on his side.
Of liberals and moderates who accuse him of bigotry, he says: “The truth is not bigoted. The truth is not hate speech. And criticism is not hate, it is not hatred. Because if it is, then the left hates me. They’re bigoted. They’re prejudiced. They’re biased.”
Fischer also stresses that he has nothing but Christian love for gays. He draws the line, for instance, at Westboro Baptist, and denounced the group a decade ago in Idaho. Fischer says Westboro picketed his church back then for being "too pro-gay."
But Fischer is perhaps the last blunt, outsider voice in the 20th century culture war tradition. And the most direct model for Fischer is Donald Wildmon, the radio host and United Methodist minister set up shop in Tupelo in 1977 under the banner of the National Federation for Decency. That group would become the American Family Association, and Wildmon is now its chairman emeritus; his son, Tim, took the reins in 2010.
Wildmon was, with Falwell and Robertson, a pioneer among the blunt and combative culture warriors. He directed his campaigns at the sexual revolution, forcing Sears, for instance, to withdraw its advertising from “Charlie’s Angels” and “Three’s Company,” and has remained an unapologetic champion of the Christian backlash against the gay right movement. When the Boy Scouts stood buy their ban on gay scoutmasters, he congratulated the group on its refusal "expose its young members to lonely sodomites.”
Fischer describes the elder Wildmon fondly as “the pitbull of the pro-family movement.”
Wildmon built a media empire out of a two low-slung brown buildings in a modest office park in Tupelo, a northeast Mississippi town of 35,000. The American Family Association now employs about 180 people and operates two radio networks: AFR Talk, and the larger music- and Bible-focused Inspiration network (or “inspo,” as the staff calls it), as well as putting out a magazine and other forms of outreach.
The grounds include a large room where engineers handle the machinery for the radio networks on plywood tables, and a chapel where the staff holds a daily morning devotional as well as a yearly phone-a-thon to raise money. A large replica of the Ten Commandments greets visitors before entering the main building.
Fischer, now by far the group’s best-known figure, occupies a small office in what the staff calls “leader’s corner,” near president Tim Wildmon. It’s enough space for a bookshelf, desk, and that photo of Elvis, who was born in Tupelo. Fischer isn’t a southerner, though. He was born in Oklahoma, the son of a minister. The family moved frequently, and Fischer spent his junior high and high school years in Fresno, California.
“My dad was the one who introduced me to a relationship with Christ,” Fischer said. “So I’ve always had a strong Christian faith.”
Fischer is over six feet tall, with intense blue eyes framed half the time by rectangular glasses and a shock of white hair. He favors button-downs with a slight sheen and dons a tie for his show, which viewers can watch on the Internet as well as listen to on the radio. On his left hand, he wears an ornate wedding ring, and the other hand bears his Stanford class ring (white gold, he noted). Fischer went to Stanford from 1969 to 1973 and was a in a fraternity; he recalls some frat brothers’ irritation at the popularity of the bible studies he led.
After Fischer finished at the Dallas Theological Seminary, the family moved to Boise, where Fischer led the Community Church of the Valley and ran the Idaho Values Alliance, an affiliate of AFA.
Fischer’s political awakening started in the early 1980s, he said, when he began listening to Don Wildmon and Focus on the Family’s James Dobson (the “lion king” to Wildmon’s “pit bull,” says Fischer) on the radio. Fischer decided “to penetrate the culture” and persuade Americans to return to traditional Biblical values, which he views upon the bedrock upon which our society is based. His target, like Wildmon’s, is the sexual revolution of the 1960s in particular, but Fischer’s particular focus has been the rising gay rights revolution. By the late 1990s, he had become the go-to spokesman for traditional values, objecting at one point to a quotation from lesbian tennis great Billie Jean King in Idaho's new Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial,” and serving a controversial turn as chaplain of the State Senate.
“I’m absolutely convinced that homosexual behavior should never be normalized by rational thinking members of society,” he told BuzzFeed. “Therefore I will resist efforts to normalize homosexuality until the day I die because I think it’s bad for the country.”
And what of the drumbeat volume of accusations from those to his left — including many Republicans — that he is a bigot and a homophobe?
“It doesn’t bother me because I know I’m right.”
“Eventually everybody in America is going to agree with me,” Fischer said gravely. “Either before it’s too late or after it’s too late. Because what we’re talking about is the truth.”
Fischer’s confidence has made him a compelling messenger. In 2009, Tim Wildmon invited him nearly 2,000 miles southeast to work at AFA headquaters, and he and his wife Debbie moved to Tupelo. The couple attends the Hope Church, a midsize evangelical congregation on a desolate highway on the way out of town, and have two grown children, Jana and J.D.
When the younger Wildmon took over the AFA from his ailing father in 2010, he immediately set out to boost its already-robust radio network — an effort that involved hiring rising star Fischer. AFA’s programming goes out to 200 stations across the country and pulls in between 800,000 and 1.2 million listeners a week, of whom Fischer’s show takes the majority, the group says. Buster Wilson, who hosts the show after Fischer’s, said he believed Fischer had inherited the elder Wildmon’s high-profile role in the conservative movement.
“Bryan will say things that a lot of people on the conservative side of things think but they won’t say,” Wilson said. “Or believe but they won’t speak of,” Wilson said.
And the younger Wildmon, reserved and laconic by contrast with his exuberant staffer, seems comfortable that Fischer, and not he, now wears the father’s controversialist mantle. Though Fischer’s official title with the organization is “Director of Issues Analysis,” Wildmon said that AFA hired him primarily to helm their primetime radio programming.
And Fischer’s penchant for controversy has been good for business.
“He says things that are understood and misunderstood that generate extraordinary attention from the media,” Wildmon said. “I know he’s the favorite of Right Wing Watch. I think he pays their bills.”
Fischer does, indeed, feature regularly on Right Wing Watch, a project of the venerable liberal group People for the American Way. Kyle Mantyla, the senior fellow at PFAW who runs the blog, described Fischer in an interview as the “id of the religious right.”
“He says what he wants and doesn't care about the consequences,” he said, adding that Right Wing Watch’s bloggers watch Fischer’s show every day and have written “hundreds” of posts about him.
Wildmon was careful to note that Fischer’s views, on his blog and on his radio show, do not always reflect those of AFA. He said there have been two instances in the past two years when he’s asked Fischer to take something off the site. One was a post asserting that Native Americans were “morally disqualified” from controlling territory in North America. Another was a column using the example of Magic Johnson’s health to question whether or not HIV really leads to AIDS.
Why can’t Fischer say that, but can say, for example, that Hitler was gay, or that God will cure AIDS if gays cease all sexual activity? Or that Bill Clinton is responsible for the rise in oral cancer?
“Most times his views are going to be be consistent with ours, but sometimes he’s going to stray and speak on topics that we wouldn’t get into,” Wildmon said. “I’m not distancing myself or our ministry from Bryan in the sense that he does work here, he’s on our payroll.”
Fischer said that every time something’s been taken off the blog, it’s been of his own volition.
“I made those decisions,” he said.
And Fischer is visibly in full control, and evidently unworried about controversy, as he settles down each afternoon to broadcast Focal Point. He sits at a central desk, surrounded by an iPad, a computer monitor, a clipboard, stacks of papers, and two copies of the Constitution. The studio also contains a monitor where he watches himself, and a large backdrop of the Constitution overlaid on American flag imagery.
The show runs from 1:00 to 3:00 in the afternoon, putting him in the same slot as Rush Limbaugh (“You know what the big difference between me and Rush Limbaugh is? Fifty million dollars a year,” Fischer jokes).
Fischer’s dissection of the day’s news is alternately folksy and professorial. He lacks the bluster of a Rush Limbaugh or a Glenn Beck, a quality that cushions his more extreme pronouncements. When a reporter visited him last Thursday, the first part of Thursday’s show focused largely on environmental issues. For example, melting sea ice, which “ain’t happenin’, folks.” Overpopulation is another myth perpetuated by the environmentalists, in Fischer’s view. “Get busy,” he told his listening audience before the commercial break. “Fill the earth. You know what to do.”
During one commercial break, Fischer accused the visiting BuzzFeed correspondent of thinking that his views on homosexuality were “archaic.” During another, he riffed on his admiration St. Athanasius of Alexandria, a third century Egyptian scholar exiled numerous times and then horribly martyred.
Fischer waited till a few minutes in to his show to mention the Grenell episode.
“I am for homosexuals,” he stressed. “I am anti-homosexuality.”
He continued: “I am not a homophobe. I am a homophile.”
As a true believer, his love the sinner, hate the sin position doesn’t ring false. But it doesn’t save him from being branded a bigot, something that other religious leaders like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council or Gary Bauer have learned.
“Tony Perkins doesn't say insane stuff like that because he knows that gets you branded as a lunatic and a bigot,” said Mantyla of Right Wing Watch.
And if the Grenell episode advanced the left’s perception of Fischer as a bigot, it did something more important, in Fischer’s view: It taught Mitt Romney a lesson. Fischer has been spoiling for a fight with Romney at least since last October, when Romney blasted Fischer’s “poisonous” speech — a line delivered with Romney’s characteristic ambiguity, and referring to Fischer’s speech about gays, Muslims, or Mormons, or any combination of the three.
But wasn’t the only Romney run-in at the summit, Fischer said. He was relaxing in the green room backstage, when, he said, he was unceremoniously booted from the room by Romney’s staff.
“Man, his team came in there, it was like Secret Service, I mean the guys with the buzz cuts,” Fischer said. “And they basically threw me out of there. They said, ‘We need to have everybody out of this hallway, we need everybody out of this green room. Nobody can be in there except for Governor Romney. So I was just kicked to the curb.’”
Because of that, Fischer has never interacted with Romney, but he said doesn’t hold a grudge, he says. “That’s just how he rolls.” (A Romney aide didn’t comment on the incident.)
More recently, Fischer was the unnamed subject of Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom’s criticism during an MSNBC appearance of “voices of intolerance” on the right.
“The question for Gov. Romney is this,” Fischer told BuzzFeed. “The Mormon Church teaches that homosexual acts are ‘sinful’ and ‘offensive to God.’ Is your church a ‘voice of intolerance?’”
Later on his show, after taking a call from a listener who wanted to debate whether or not Muslims and Christians worship the same god, Fischer returned to Romney, and considered the online magazine Salon’s recent contention that the Mississippi radio host is the Republican nominee’s “worst enemy.”
Fischer had a ready response: “I am the best friend he has in the world.”