The Rev. Donald Wildmon, a pastor who was one of the early leaders of Christian Nationalism in America, died Dec. 28 in Tupelo, Miss. He was 85.
Though never as well-known as TV preachers like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, Wildmon played a key role in the rise of the Religious Right and founded one of the nation’s first Christian Nationalist organizations.
Disturbed by what he considered to be salacious content on television, Wildmon, a United Methodist minister, launched the National Federation for Decency in 1977. But the rise of cable TV made that issue a non-starter, so Wildmon pivoted. He changed the name of the group to the American Family Association (AFA) in 1988 and enlarged its scope to embrace a familiar Christian Nationalist agenda: attacking LGBTQ+ people, blasting reproductive freedom, assailing public education, promoting the “Christian nation” myth and working to lure conservative pastors into partisan politics.
The AFA’s primary tool was boycotts, and it often called on its supporters to stay away from certain companies whose policies it disliked. Critics debated the effectiveness of the strategy — Disney and McDonald’s, for example, emerged from AFA boycotts unscathed — but the actions garnered the group media attention and donations.
Wildmon was an early adopter of strategies that later became Christian Nationalist staples. In 2001, the AFA kicked off a project to encourage public schools and government offices to post “In God We Trust” signs. (The AFA just happened to be selling “In God We Trust” posters at the time.) Other groups picked up the crusade, and now some states require that the motto be posted in public schools.
The AFA also heavily promoted the so-called “war on Christmas.” While the Fox News Channel hyped the claims, it was AFA (and later other Christian Nationalist organizations) that first highlighted the bogus claims that Christmas was under attack in America.
The group also proposed banning books with LGBTQ+ themes as early as the 1990s. Wildmon’s AFA filed a lawsuit against the publishing firm of Holt, Rinehart and Winston insisting that its popular series of readers called “Impressions” promoted witchcraft and humanism. The AFA lost the case, but the publishing firm was rattled and stopped publishing the books anyway.
Wildmon also spearheaded Christian Nationalist attacks on the transgender community. In 2016, the AFA announced a boycott of Target stores after the chain announced it would allow transgender customers to use the bathroom of their choice. The “bathroom wars” soon became a prominent issue for other Christian Nationalist groups. In 2012, the AFA led an unsuccessful campaign to pressure J.C. Penney to dump Ellen DeGeneres as a spokeswoman because she’s gay; that was the work of AFA affiliate One Million Moms.
AFA was skilled at manufacturing controversies. In 2009, the group threw a fit because the newly opened U.S. Capitol Visitors Center, a facility designed to help people understand the history and functions of the American government, didn’t contain enough references to Christianity. Wildmon was convinced that the United States was founded to be a Christian nation — the text of the Constitution notwithstanding — and frequently promoted the work of discredited pseudo-historian David Barton.
Wildmon never hesitated to employ lurid rhetoric. Speaking at a conference in Florida in 2007, he called America a “society that is crumbling before us, like ancient Rome did” and added that before long, people would be punished for “being Christian.”
In more recent times, the AFA asserted that God put Donald Trump in office and peddled absurd conspiracy theories about rigged voting machines after Trump lost in 2020. The organization urged churches to resist COVID-era restrictions on large gatherings. It ran stories sympathetic to the insurrectionists who were arrested after the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol.
Wildmon stepped away from the group as his health declined. The AFA, now run by Wildmon’s son Tim in Tupelo, has an annual budget of $31 million and owns a nationwide chain of nearly 200 radio stations that blast far-right propaganda through its American Family News. AFA is a prominent member of the Shadow Network of organizations working to undermine democracy and church-state separation.
Writing on AU’s “Wall of Separation” blog, Church & State Editor Rob Boston observed, “Death is the time when we take the measure of a person and do a kind of summing up. Wildmon’s legacy is one of fomenting hate and division, promoting conspiracy theories, pushing theocracy and spreading lies about America’s founding. Put simply, that’s not a life well lived.”