If you follow political news you’ve almost certainly heard or read a quote from Bryan Fischer in the past few months, even if you didn’t realize it. You might recall a conservative activist complaining that the Congressional Medal of Honor was being “feminized,” or that President Obama “wants Indian tribes to be our new overlords.” That was Fischer, a 59-year-old spokesman at the American Family Association (AFA), a socially conservative advocacy organization, and the media’s new poster boy for right-wing extremism.
Fischer first gained notoriety after the shooting at Fort Hood by Maj. Nidal Hassan, when he argued that Muslims should be banned from serving in the U.S. military, drawing the attention of liberal watchdogs like People for the American Way. Further anti-Muslim statements established Fischer as a subject of ire for MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. But the real boom began in November 2010, with the medals comments. Fischer wrote in a blog post that the Medal of Honor was being feminized because it has recently only been awarded for saving the lives of comrades. He argued that it should instead be given out for killing enemies. The comment was picked up and scrutinized by numerous liberal blogs. Since then, Fischer has provided a steady stream of overwrought invective, which liberal-leaning outlets such as Talking Points Memo have gleefully recounted.
You might think that attention in the form of mockery is not what a public-policy organization would want. But when your business is waging a culture war, there is no such thing as bad publicity for ideological or rhetorical extremism. Being criticized by liberals in the media raises the profile of a socially conservative organization, and burnishes its credibility among the base. Just ask Sarah Palin, or her fans. Fischer’s critics also benefit from the twofer of his being both entertaining and threatening. “[Fischer] is filling a role in the media right now of Christians who say ridiculous and outlandish things,” says Tim King, a spokesman for the mostly left-leaning Sojourners, which calls itself “a Christian social-justice organization.”
Fischer did not always enjoy such celebrity. For 25 years he was a practicing pastor for an evangelical church in Idaho. In 2005, he helped form the Idaho Values Alliance to advocate for socially conservative positions such as Idaho’s anti–gay marriage ballot initiative. Fischer has hosted AFA’s two-hour talk show every weekday on their in-house radio network since 2009. Fischer’s program, “Focal Point,” reaches about two million listeners and has featured guest appearances from a number of prominent Republicans such as Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, and Mike Huckabee and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who on Wednesday told Fischer he would be in favor of reinstating Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
Getting attention from a perch so far off the mainstream media radar screen requires ingenuity. And Fischer is able to shock even jaded journalists and pundits. But does he really believe his most widely circulated statements? Yes and no. A Dec. 21 blog post earned Jon Stewart’s mockery on The Daily Show when Fischer asserted, “President Obama wants to give the entire land mass of the United States of America back to the Indians. He wants Indian tribes to be our new overlords.” All Obama had done is express approval for the nonbinding U.N. Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples which contains one passage affirming land rights. Does Fischer honestly believe that Obama is going to turn your home over to a Native American tribe? Not really, but by pretending he does—which he defends as “taking Obama at his word,”—he gets to make a ludicrous claim. “Either Obama meant what he said or he’s a bald-faced liar,” says Fischer. “I don’t think Obama meant what he said.”
What, you may wonder, do Indian territories and womanly war medals have to do with the American family? AFA started out with a focus on “the family values troika: abortion, same-sex marriage, and pornography,” says D. Michael Lindsay, a sociology professor at Rice University. In the 1980s, at the height of AFA’s influence, it pioneered the use of targeted boycotts to change the behavior of corporations whom they felt were fostering permissive sexual attitudes in the culture. They still do that—right now, for example, they are boycotting Home Depot for donating to gay-pride parades—but they issue statements and reach out to their grassroots members on other political issues as well. “There’s been an effort by Christian conservatives to broaden their agenda,” notes John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron and senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. “The issues they’ve historically pushed are not central to the agenda as they were a few years ago.”
But Fischer can provide a biblical rationale for stances that would seem wholly unconnected to religion. Regarding the Medal of Honor, Fischer explains, “What you see in Scripture is that soldiers are honored for vanquishing the enemy in pursuit of a military objective. We have yet to do that in Iraq and Afghanistan: not one Medal of Honor for killing the enemy in pursuit of a military objective.” Likewise, when Fischer declared in response to the death of a hiker attacked by a grizzly bear, “If it’s a choice between grizzlies and humans, the grizzlies have to go,” he was, in his view, expressing God’s will. “If you go back to the civil code of ancient Israel, what you see enunciated there is a clear principle that a land that is operating under the blessing of God does not have to fear from savage beasts,” says Fischer. “Only humans are made in the image of God, animals are not.”
Not that Fischer neglects AFA’s traditional issues; he frequently inveighs against homosexuality, in particular. For example on Dec. 17 he wrote on his blog, “Gay activists are absurdly trying to argue that homosexual pedophilia is not homosexuality at all. ... For the sake of our children, we should screen out homosexuals who want to immigrate to the United States.” This statement and others like it have not attracted the same attention as Fischer’s other work. Perhaps that’s because animosity toward homosexuality is common on the far right. “Some of the recent statements about Muslims and so forth have gotten a lot of attention because they aren’t what you’d typically expect a Christian organization to focus on,” says Green. “Like all Christian political groups [AFA] has leaders who are entrepreneurial. In the past [Christian conservatives] have sometimes been controversial on purpose, to get attention from the rest of us and to raise money for their organizations. It’s not that they are insincere, but there are organizational motives.” So if Fischer shocks or horrifies coastal media elites by expressing views that they consider bigoted or simply baffling, he is just doing his job.