In April, Mitt Romney hired Richard Grenell, an openly gay man, to serve as his campaign's national security spokesman. Within hours, Grenell was being attacked by a Christian radio talk show host named Bryan Fischer, whose Focal Point call-in show reaches more than 1 million listeners a day.
Nine days after Fischer began his on-air attack, Grenell resigned. He had been the only openly gay member of Romney's campaign staff.
The Christian right and Fischer saw Grenell's resignation as a "tremendous victory," says New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer.
"[Bryan Fischer] feels he and what he calls the 'pro-family' movement managed to hound Romney into pushing an openly gay member of his campaign out because of the fact that he was gay," says Mayer. "So they feel that they've really triumphed on this one."
Grenell said he resigned in part because of the focus on his personal life from both the "far right and the far left." And Romney said he was disappointed Grenell resigned.
Mayer's profile of Fischer, which appears in the current edition of The New Yorker, details how the Christian radio host from Tupelo, Miss., is pushing far-right and anti-gay policy decisions on the Romney campaign and the Republican Party.
"He wants to shape the policy of the Republican Party because he hopes to change America," says Mayer. "He's evangelizing to make America more in line with his biblical views. On his own, he probably defines such far out views that there's a tendency to dismiss him. But what makes Bryan Fischer worth paying some attention to is that he's part of a larger group — a bloc of voters, the evangelical white voters — who have become a very well-organized and very significant part of the Republican Party at this point."
An 'Alternative Universe'
Mayer first became aware of Fischer while in Mississippi covering the Rick Santorum presidential campaign. She tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that many of Santorum's supporters were "viciously anti-Obama ... not just politically opposed but really worked up about it." She wondered where they were getting their information.
"A number of them said that they loved this talk show host, Bryan Fischer," she says. "That was the first time I had heard of him. So I started tuning into him myself. ... And it was fascinating. And what you begin to realize is that out in the country, there is a completely alternative universe and a completely alternative media universe. And there are even alternative facts that they put out. It is so far to the right, even of Fox, that is just a completely different reality."
Mayer says that Fischer often has like-minded experts on his show who are looked at as outliers within the academic community. One of his favorite guests, Berkeley molecular and cell biology professor Peter Duesberg, has questioned whether HIV causes AIDS. (Fischer has also denied that AIDS is caused by a virus.)
"[Duesberg] is considered almost a pariah within the scientific community because of his views at this point," says Mayer. "But [he is] the person Fischer can turn to and he has an alternative set of facts. He's kind of the last person saying AIDS is caused by other things, by drug use from what they claim is the 'homosexual lifestyle.' "
Other experts come on Fischer's show to debate the theory of evolution.
"In that particular case, it's not a minority view among Republican voters in Mississippi," says Mayer. "Sixty-six percent of the Republican voters in Mississippi don't believe in Darwin's theory of evolution. They believe that the human race was created as is told in Genesis. So Fischer also subscribes to that view and promulgates it and finds experts who agree with that and puts them on the air."
A "Winnable War"
Fischer tells his Focal Point listeners that they're fighting a "winnable war."
"That's definitely his motto, and his war is to implement biblical law as American law," says Mayer. "He wants the Bible to shape American politics, American law, American government, American values, American culture. That's the fight that he's fighting."
The show is carried and distributed by the American Family Association's radio network, which extends to 200 stations across 35 states. It was founded by Donald Wildmon in 1977 and received national attention in the 1980s and 1990s for boycotting advertisers and stores that sold or supported things the AFA deemed "racy." That included successfully pushing 7-Eleven stores to stop selling Playboy and Penthouse. The AFA later attacked Disney and Home Depot for having employment policies that were gay friendly.
In recent years, Mayer says, the AFA has broadened its reach beyond television shows and advertising campaigns.
"They've really broadened so now they have their own news operation and a production studio where they make movies that are Christian-themed movies for popular consumption," she says.
The AFA is a nonprofit organization, which means it must remain strictly nonpartisan because of its nonprofit status. But Fischer's show is very political, says Mayer.
"He is a very outspoken political voice every single day," she says. "And the way he defines the line legally is that if he doesn't come out and directly endorse a candidate in the 2012 presidential case, then as far as he's concerned he's not breaking the law. So he basically goes out and trashes Obama every day, and he's somewhat critical of Romney — he really liked Santorum, he really liked Rick Perry — but he is a commentator on politics every single day, with very strong opinions. But he stops one inch short of making an actual endorsement."
On Fischer's support of Romney
"[Fischer's] history — if you take a look at it, he's an angry voice. He is only backing Romney, with — as he describes it — a 'clothespin on his nose.' He represents the farthest edge of the evangelical Christian right and they are not comfortable with Romney, but they have a marriage of convenience and they're going to back him and push Romney as far to the right as they can."
On what happened in the offices of the American Family Association, where Fischer works, after President Obama was elected
"Everything you need to know about how they see Obama was what happened at where Bryan Fischer works with the American Family Association shortly after the election in 2008. The group, which calls itself a Christian ministry, passed around a picture of Obama's face, which they had blended with that of Adolf Hitler. And they sort of posted it on the wall and all laughed at it. It showed Obama with a little Hitler mustache and swastikas behind him. They have attacked Obama relentlessly since his election in 2008. They regard him as the avatar of godless socialism."
On why the Southern Poverty Law Center designated the American Family Association as a "hate group"
"They describe a group as a hate group when the language moves towards inciting violence. And Fischer has said things that really are kind of right there on the edge. He's talked about how under Obama, the 'Homeland Security Administration,' he claims, is stockpiling ammunition, which he says the Obama administration is going to, as he puts it, 'use on us' — meaning Americans against Obama. He has described the Constitution as only protecting the religious freedom of Christians and has said that other groups, since they were not there when the Bill of Rights was written, are not covered by the Constitution's freedom of expression. He's talked about African-American welfare recipients, who he's described as 'rutting like rabbits.' And he has said that Native Americans do not deserve to run America because he thinks they're not Christian enough. He attacks a number of different groups, and in particular he goes after homosexuals in a relentless way and describes their sexuality as 'rampant' and 'out of control' and 'may be posing threats in terms of pederasty.' So he stirs a lot of fear."
On how the Romney campaign views Fischer
"They don't love him. They view him to some extent as a pest, but the reason they have to pay attention to him is because of the listenership that he's got and the voter bloc that he's a part of. They are playing with fire when they play with somebody like Bryan Fischer because he's so radical. But the Romney campaign needs to get evangelicals to the polls in November. In the Republican primaries so far this year, according to Ralph Reed, over half of the voters in the Republican primaries so far this year have been self-described as 'white, evangelical Christians.' This is a tremendously important voting bloc in the Republican Party, and Romney cannot get elected without them."
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The Christian radio talk show host Bryan Fischer and his attempts to move the Republican Party further to the right is the subject of the article "Bully Pulpit" in the current edition of The New Yorker. It was written by my guest, Jane Mayer, a staff writer for the magazine.
Fischer made national news when he attacked the Romney campaign for hiring a foreign policy spokesperson who is openly gay, Richard Grenell. After other conservative pundits took up the cause, Grenell resigned, telling the Washington Post he'd struggled in the face of a hyper-partisan discussion of personal issues.
Fischer's radio program, "Focal Point," is broadcast on the American Family Association's radio network. Fischer is the group's director of issue analysis for government and public policy. Mayer describes the American Family Association as promoting Bible-based social conservatism and criticizing what it regards as sinful popular culture.
Let's start with an excerpt of Fischer speaking on his show, "Focal Point," shortly after Richard Grenell became a spokesperson in the Romney campaign.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO PROGRAM, "FOCAL POINT")
BRYAN FISCHER: Now, Richard Grenell is an out, loud and proud homosexual, and he is now the face of the Romney campaign on national security and foreign policy. Homosexuals are about short-lived relationships and frequent, anonymous sexual encounters. This is very common in the homosexual community. Now, whether Grenell indulges in that or not, I don't know. He's in this long-standing relationship.
There are some homosexuals that will admit - I mean this is not - this is not coming from the right wing, this is homosexuals themselves, admit in surveys, that they have had 500 to as many as 1,000 sexual partners over the course of a lifetime. You know, and there's constant - the stories about raiding gay bathhouses and gays having sex in public parks and in public restrooms.
I mean, this is endemic in the homosexual community, these random, frequent and anonymous sexual encounters. And that becomes a significant issue when we're talking about appointing somebody to a post as sensitive as a spokesman for national security and foreign policy.
GROSS: That's Bryan Fischer on his radio show. Jane Mayer, what were the reverberations of those comments?
JANE MAYER: Well, nine days after he started campaigning on the air against Richard Grenell, Grenell resigned his position as the only openly gay member of Romney's campaign staff.
GROSS: And how has that been interpreted by Republicans and by people on the Christian right in terms of the impact of the Christian right on the Republican Party and the Romney campaign?
MAYER: Well, I think that they think it's a tremendous victory. They managed to, at least in the case of Bryan Fischer, he feels he - he and what he calls the pro-family movement - managed to hound Romney into pushing an openly gay member of his campaign out because of the fact that he was gay. So they feel that they've triumphed, really, on this one.
GROSS: And after Grenell resigned from the Romney campaign, Bryan Fischer didn't offer his congratulations to Romney. He said this about Romney...
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO PROGRAM, "FOCAL POINT")
FISCHER: If Mitt Romney can be pushed around, intimidated, coerced, co-opted by a conservative radio talk show host in middle America, then how is he going to stand up to the Chinese? How is he going to stand up to Putin? How is he going to stand up to North Korea if he can be pushed around like a yokel like me? I mean I don't think Romney's realizing kind of the doubts that this begins to raise about his leadership.
GROSS: So I just found that very interesting, that after Grenell leaves, in large part because of this campaign against him that Bryan Fischer helped start, that then Bryan Fischer continues to criticize Romney, this time for caving in to Bryan Fischer.
MAYER: No, it is true. And it was - I think what you have to understand is what was going on that prompted Fischer to lash out yet again at Romney, which was - after Grenell resigned, Romney's spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom came out and criticized what he called voices of intolerance. It was a very thinly veiled reference to Bryan Fischer.
And so Fischer had been criticized for making Romney doing what he did. And so then Fischer's lashing back at Romney. I mean, I think what you have to - that, you know, standing back, looking at this whole thing - to me, anyway, as a political reporter - what was fascinating is to see there is an ongoing conversation between this evangelical talk radio host who most people in the country had never heard of before down in Mississippi, who's basically in a daily conversation with the Romney campaign about their personnel policy and their stance towards homosexuals and homosexual marriage and all this.
And you've got this sort of rat-a-tat thing going back and forth between the two of them. And Fischer, I mean, his history, if you take a look at it, is - I mean he's an angry voice. And he is only backing Romney with, as he describes it, with a clothespin on his nose.
I mean he represents the - sort of the farthest edge of the evangelical Christian right, and they are not comfortable with Romney. But they have a marriage of convenience, and they're going to back him and push Romney - Fischer talks about holding his feet to the fire. They're going to try to push him as far to the right as they can.
And so they've got this kind of ongoing dynamic down there.
GROSS: Because Romney is seen as a better choice than Obama. Obama is seen as, like, worst-case scenario for them.
MAYER: Obama, I mean, is - I mean, I think everything you need to know about how they see Obama was what happened at - where Bryan Fischer works with the American Family Association, shortly after the election in 2008, the group that calls itself a Christian ministry passed around a picture of Obama's face, which they had blended with that of Adolf Hitler.
And they sort of posted it on the wall, and they passed it around and all laughed at it. And it showed Obama with, you know, a little Hitler moustache and swastikas behind him. But they have attacked Obama relentlessly since his election in 2008. And they regard him as sort of the avatar of godless socialism, so an assault on everything they think they believe in.
GROSS: So this whole story about Grenell, it kind of came and went. It was a big story, and there's other big stories that have replaced it. Why did you want to write about Bryan Fischer?
MAYER: Well, I was down in Mississippi actually covering the Santorum campaign and interviewing lots of supporters of Santorum. And what caught my eye was their opinions were so viciously anti-Obama, not just that they were politically opposed, but they were really worked up about it. And I was wondering, well, where are they getting their information from.
So I started asking people what they tuned into or read, and basically a number of them said, oh, they loved this talk show host, Bryan Fischer. So that was the first time I'd heard of him, when I was down in Mississippi. And so I started tuning into him myself. You can get his show online. They downstream it, and - at the American Family Association website.
And so I started listening in, and it was fascinating. And what you begin to realize is out in the country, if you're from the East Coast, where I live, that there is a completely alternative universe and a completely alternative media universe. And there are even alternative sets of facts that they put out. And it is just a - it's so far to the right even of Fox that is just a completely different reality.
And so I became interested in, you know, who's pushing this and why.
GROSS: When you say there's an alternative set of facts that they offer, what do you mean?
MAYER: In the case of Bryan Fischer, he often has on experts that are unfamiliar to people, say, in most of the kind of mainstream conversation or who are looked at as outliers by a lot of academics. But for instance, he would have - on the subject of AIDS, Fischer is particularly preoccupied with homosexuality, and he denies that AIDS is caused by a virus.
And in order to make that argument, which is, you know, contradicted by basically almost all of science, he relies on one expert that he puts on the show, a man named Peter Duesberg, who is a professor at Berkeley, but he's considered sort of almost a pariah in the scientific community because of his views at this point.
But there is one person that he can turn to, and he has an alternative set of facts. And he's kind of the last person saying AIDS is caused by other things. He describes it as caused by drug use from what they claim is the homosexual lifestyle. And they say that AIDS is just a harmless passenger virus. So things like that.
They also have a very different, an alternative set of facts on the subject of evolution, and in that particular case it's not a minority view among Republican voters in Mississippi. Sixty-six percent of the Republican voters in Mississippi don't believe in Darwin's theory of evolution. They believe that the human race was created as is told in Genesis. And so Fischer (unintelligible) to that view and he promulgates it and finds experts who agree with that and puts them on the air.
GROSS: His views are very rooted in his interpretation of the Bible, and you can actually hear that in a promo, in an ad for his radio program. So let's hear that ad for his radio program, "Focal Point."
(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Where can you find muscular Christianity these days? Where can you find a radio host that works out with a Bible in one hand and a Constitution in the other? "Focal Point" with Bryan Fischer is fearlessly running to the frontlines of the battle against the separation of truth and state. So if you're tired of a weak-kneed, lukewarm message, then "Focal Point" is the show for you.
FISCHER: Join me each weekday from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. Central for some muscular Christianity, and remember, we are fighting a winnable war.
GROSS: So he's talking about muscular Christianity and fighting a winnable war. Do you know what the war is that he's referring to?
MAYER: Well, that's definitely his motto, and his war is to implement biblical law as American law, basically. He wants the Bible to shape American politics, American law, American government, American values, American culture. That's the fight that he's fighting.
GROSS: Now, a lot of people don't know his radio show. It's carried by a network run by the American Family Association. Would you describe that network and where it's heard?
MAYER: Sure. The American Family Association, which is a charitable ministry, basically, is based in Tupelo, Mississippi. And it has about 200 radio stations in 35 states. Many of the stations they have are mostly in the South and the Midwest and the Southwest.
So it reaches - Bryan Fischer reaches about one million listeners a day, and the American Family Association has an overall sort of readership of about two million on its subscriber list.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jane Mayer, and her article in the current edition of The New Yorker is called "Bully Pulpit: An Evangelist Talk Show Host's Campaign to Control the Republican Party." Jane, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jane Mayer, who writes for The New Yorker. Her new article is called "Bully Pulpit: An Evangelist Talk Show Host's Campaign to Control the Republican Party." And the talk show host that she writes about is Bryan Fischer, who does a show called "Focal Point" that's broadcast on the radio network of the American Family Association.
And he is the talk show host who started the campaign against Richard Grenell, who was the foreign policy spokesperson chosen by the Romney campaign, but Grenell is gay, and Bryan Fischer attacked the Romney campaign for having an openly gay spokesperson. Grenell ended up resigning as a result of that campaign.
The American Family Association is a group that may be familiar to a lot of people from the late '80s and early '90s because of some of the campaigns it waged then. Do you want to describe some of those campaigns that really put it on the map?
MAYER: Yeah, I actually - almost the first story I ever wrote for the Wall Street Journal, where I covered broadcasting, was about Don Wildman, who founded the American Family Association. And so I was writing about it in, I think, 1981.
The American Family Association was founded in 1977 by Don Wildman, who was a preacher and a radio host down in Tupelo, Mississippi. And his cause was trying to push back against what he saw as kind of sinful popular culture. And at that point when he was getting going, the three network television stations really were what dominated the air, and he didn't like the kind of racy stuff that was going on in TV entertainment, basically.
So what he would do to push back was organize boycotts of advertisers, and he'd get his listenership to stop buying whatever product it was, to try to get the advertisers to push back against the networks.
And Don Wildman, the founder, was successful. What really put him on the map was he was successful at getting Playboy and Penthouse out of the 7-Eleven stores. And he had some success with pushing back against the networks also. I mean, he was a tiny, foreign, little voice, but he had a lot of listeners, and so when they put them together, they had some clout.
GROSS: Didn't he also push back against the National Endowment for the Arts when it funded gay-themed art, sexually explicit art, and transgressive art?
MAYER: Oh, definitely. It developed from, you know, just originally going after the networks to kind of a larger crusade against kind of modern transgressive, as you say, culture. They really wanted to sort of police the culture and keep it old-fashioned and in line with kind of biblical values and were - particularly on the subject of - anything sexual or any religious, they were on it.
GROSS: So Don Wildman, the founder of the American Family Association, is now the chairman emeritus. His son Tim is the president. Has the emphasis of the American Family Association changed?
MAYER: Well, I think it's broadened. It's become, in recent years, kind of a full-service operation where they are not just going after television shows or even advertising campaigns - they've gone after the Gap and Abercrombie occasionally for having ads that they thought were too racy.
They've really broadened so that now they have their own news operation. They've got a production studio where they make movies that are sort of Christian-themed movies for popular consumption. And they actually had a big hit recently, one called "October Baby," that was out in regular movie houses, and it made something like $5 million.
It was the story of - it was supposed to be a true story of a girl who claimed that she was aborted by her mother and lived to tell the tale and then grew up and confronted her mother for trying to dispose of her. And - so anyway, that's something that Bryan Fischer promoted. So they've branched out, basically.
And they've also gotten a lot in terms of their message into economics, along with just the straight religious line.
GROSS: And Bryan Fischer not only hosts the radio program "Focal Point" for the American Family Association, he's the director of issue analysis for the group.
MAYER: Right. Bryan Fischer was brought in 2009 to be at the headquarters and start this talk show. And the show is - even though - it's interesting to me because the American Family Association is what's categorized as a 501(c)(3) group, which means that it has to be strictly nonpartisan because it's a nonprofit group, and when you give a donation to it, you get a tax deduction.
So in exchange for that special tax status, it's supposed to not engage in partisan politics in any way. But Fischer's show is just extremely political. He is a very outspoken political voice every single day. And the way he defines the line legally is that if he doesn't come out and directly endorse a candidate in the 2012 presidential race, then as far as he's concerned he's not breaking the law.
So he basically goes out and he trashes Obama every day, and he's somewhat critical of Romney. He really liked Santorum, he really liked Rick Perry. He is a commentator on politics every single day with very strong opinions. But he stops one inch short of making an out-and-out endorsement.
GROSS: So, for example, he'll say many Christians - I'm paraphrasing here - many Christians will end up voting for Romney over Obama because he's the lesser of two evils.
MAYER: Right, and he will say - most evangelicals understand that it's throwing a vote away to not vote for Romney, even if you have to do it with a clothespin on your nose. And so his message is completely crystal clear. He is telling his listeners what he thinks they should do, but he's doing it with one sort of tiny little word change here and there in order to stop short of doing an out-and-out endorsement and that way kind of playing footsie with the law.
GROSS: The Southern Poverty Law Center has put the American Family Association on its list of hate groups. Why?
MAYER: Largely because of Fischer's pronouncements, I think. He has - what the Southern Poverty Law Center says is that - they describe a group as a hate group when the language moves towards inciting violence. And Fischer has said things that really are kind of right there on the edge.
I mean he's talked about how under Obama the Homeland Security Administration, he claims, is stockpiling ammunition, which he says that the Obama administration is going to, as he puts it, use on us, meaning, you know, Americans who oppose Obama, I guess.
He has described the Constitution as only protecting the religious freedom of Christians and said that other groups, since they were not there when the Bill of Rights was written, are not covered by the Constitution's right to freedom of expression.
He's talked about African-American welfare recipients, who he's described as rutting like rabbits. And he has said that Native Americans do not deserve to run America because he thinks that they're not Christian enough.
So he attacks a number of different groups, and in particular he goes after homosexuals on an absolutely kind of - in a relentless way and describes their sexuality as, you know, kind of rampant and out of control and may be posing threats to - in terms of pederasty and other things like that. So he stirs a lot of fear.
GROSS: Jane Mayer will be back in the second half of the show. His article, "Bully Pulpit," about Bryan Fischer, is in the current edition of the New Yorker. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Jane Mayer, a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. We're talking about her article in the current edition, about the right wing Christian radio talk show host Bryan Fischer and how he's trying to move the Republican Party further to the right. He's best known for having led the charge against the Romney campaign in April for hiring an openly gay man, Richard Grenell, as its foreign policy spokesperson. Grenell resigned less than two weeks after taking the job because of what he described as the hyper-partisan discussion of personal issues.
Fischer's program "Focal Point" is broadcast on the American Family Association's network. Jane Mayer's article is called "Bully Pulpit."
So the subtitle of your article is "An Evangelist Talk-Show Host's Campaign to Control the Republican Party." In what sense would you say Fischer is trying to control the Republican Party?
MAYER: Well, he wants to help shape the policy of the Republican Party in hopes that he can change America. I mean he's very politically engaged here and he's evangelizing, basically, to make America more in line with his own biblical views. So on his own I think he defines such far out views that there's a tendency to want to kind of dismiss him, I think. But what makes Bryan Fischer worth paying some attention to is he's part of a larger group - a bloc of voters, the evangelical white voters - who have become a very well-organized and very significant part of the Republican Party at this point.
GROSS: You spoke to a lot of people in the right and also, like, religion scholars about how much power - how much influence Bryan Fischer actually has, and you got a range of opinions. Give us a sense of that range.
MAYER: Well, there were certainly some people, Jonah Goldberg is a Republican columnist who said, you know, Bryan Fischer doesn't speak for anybody on the religious right that I know of. And - because his views, you know, they do seem so vitriolic. But there were others, such as Patrick Mahoney, who is a Christian right leader, who see Fischer as, in some ways, saying, unfiltered, what many evangelical leaders think. That was the quote from Mahoney. And they see him as a powerful voice because he's so fearless. He will really say what he thinks and speak out loud. And he's got this tremendous podium now, with this radio station, radio show, and - on 200 stations a day. He's got a listenership that is about the size of that of Rachel Maddow's on MSNBC. And he speaks to a lot of voters who are organized, who can get out to the polls and make a big difference in the turnout.
GROSS: And in terms of his influence, most of the Republican hopefuls during the Republican primary campaign were guests on his show. Not Romney. Romney, you say, was not invited.
MAYER: Well, this is one of the things that so interested me. I mean at first I was listening to Fischer and thinking well, you know, he seems like somebody way out there on the fringe. But what was fascinating was it turned out that almost every Republican presidential candidate of any size had been a guest on his show - whether there was Michele Bachmann or Herman Cain or Tim Pawlenty or Rick Santorum, they were all checking in with him and going on his show, as was Mitch McConnell, who is the top Republican Senator in the U.S. Senate. And these were very important people in Republican politics in this country were guests of Bryan Fischer's. And it raised the question of, you know, were they, did they share his views? Or, more likely, what people were telling me, was they want his listeners to vote for them and they need those listeners.
And so, for instance, when I interviewed Gary Bauer, who has been a Christian conservative leader for many years, and I talked to him about the evangelical vote. And he explained that these votes are absolutely necessary for any Republican candidate for the presidency to get. And he said especially now with the country so split, politically, that it's almost kind of a 50-50 divide.
As Bauer explained it, what the Republican presidential candidates need is not just 90 percent of the evangelical vote, they need 99 percent and they really need to motivate them to get to the polls. And so they've got to reach those listeners - the people who follow somebody like Bryan Fischer. So they'll go on his show and it naturally, you know, puts them in rubbing shoulders with him.
GROSS: Do you know if Bryan Fischer has spoken publicly about his views on Mormons, about the Church of the Latter-day Saints, about his opinions about Romney as a leader, you know, because Romney is Mormon?
MAYER: Yes, he has. And it's been interesting. He has basically described Mormonism as polytheism, and said that if elected Romney would be the first polytheist president that America has had. Fischer spoke in a more kind of critically pronounced way about this when - before Romney got the Republican nomination. It seems to me that he's been peddling back a little bit, as have critics all across the kind of Republican Party. You're trying to pull together and get behind the nominee.
GROSS: Let's talk about the history of Bryan Fischer's political influence. He hasn't always been a radio host. In 2001, Republican leaders appointed him the chaplain of the Idaho State Senate. What kind of influence did that give him politically?
MAYER: Well, it gave him a statewide platform in Idaho and it made him kind of the spokesman for social conservatism in the state, so the media would go to him for quotes on things. I mean his background, to go back one step, is he was trained as a - he went to theological seminary in Dallas, at a very conservative seminary, and before that he went to Stanford as an undergraduate. And he's extremely bright. He's bright. He's articulate. He's smart. He's funny. Quick. And he's just a natural spokesman for his cause. And so he went from having his own pulpit in Idaho, where actually, he was very controversial, to then being appointed to being the chaplain for the Senate in Idaho and that gave him a statewide platform.
GROSS: You say in 2005, the congregation that he founded kicked him out. What happened?
MAYER: When I started digging into his background, what I found was there was kind of a pattern of blowups. And in 2005 was when he had his own church and they kicked him out for the same reason that he had been separated from an earlier church that he was at, which was he has this unyielding view that women cannot have any kind of authority over men. And they can't be placed - the church wanted to allow a woman to have some kind of position of authority in the church. She was a friend of the wife of one of the elders in the church, and he absolutely refused...
GROSS: Was he already an elder?
MAYER: Fischer was the preacher and the elders were running the church and the wife of one of the elders had a friend, a female friend, who she wanted to have teach or do something in the church. Fischer's position has been - then in 2005, and also this came up for him in 1993 - that no woman could have any position of authority over men in a church. And not teaching Sunday school, not teaching anything, certainly not preaching. And so he went to the wall and said no; this woman cannot have a position of authority in this church. And even though it was already a very conservative evangelical church, they said to him hit the road, basically, this is too extreme for us.
So he was fired. And he described it to me as a painful experience but he is, he has this completely black and white view of the Bible. And the way he reads it, he puts it - I asked him about his views about gender and he said, you know, somebody has to make the deciding vote. If there is a split of opinion between men and women and as he puts it, God gives that authority to men and that's that. So anyway, so he had to leave his own church and it was something that pushed him further and further into becoming a full-time political activist.
GROSS: And then he started his own nonprofit advocacy group called the Idaho Values Alliance. What was the importance of that group?
MAYER: Well, he became a spokesman in the state for religious conservatism and mostly also led a crusade against the idea of homosexual marriage. Homosexual marriage was already illegal in Idaho but Fischer helped draft a constitutional amendment to make it part of the Idaho Constitution that same-sex people cannot marry.
GROSS: So in 2007, he started working with the American Family Association. What was his role initially?
MAYER: Well, he had been running his own little organization called the Idaho Values Alliance, which was really basically himself, his wife and his daughter. And he was struggling somewhat, financially. So when he linked up with the American Family Association, which is a much larger national organization, he started getting some regular income and he could work with the American Family Association and all the, they had, you know, a subscriber list of two million people and some kind of institutional heft behind them so it augmented his voice.
GROSS: My guest is Jane Mayer. Her article about the right wing Christian radio talk show host Bryan Fischer is in the current edition of The New Yorker. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Jane Mayer. She's a staff writer for The New Yorker. We're talking about her article in the current edition, about the right wing Christian radio talk show host Bryan Fischer. And her new article in the current edition is called "Bully Pulpit: An Evangelist Talk-Show Host's Campaign to Control the Republican Party." And it's about Bryan Fischer.
So now that Bryan Fischer has a radio show on the American Family Association's network, and now that he's shown his influence because when he criticized the Romney campaign for hiring a gay foreign policy spokesperson, Richard Grenell, Richard Grenell ended up resigning. So he flexed his muscles. The Romney campaign responded or at least Richard Grenell did. Do you have a sense of how much Romney is listening to Bryan Fischer in particular or two that far end of the Christian right?
MAYER: Well, I spoke with a number of people inside the Romney campaign about Fischer. And to put it mildly, they don't love him. You know, they view him, to some extent, as a pest. But the reason they have to pay attention to him is because of the listenership that he's got and the voter bloc that he's part of. And they are playing with fire when they play with somebody like Bryan Fischer, because he's so radical that the Romney campaign needs to get evangelicals to the polls in November.
And in the Republican primaries so far this year, according to Ralph Reed, who is a long-time Christian right activist, I talked to him, and he said that over half of the voters in the Republican primaries, so far, this year have been self-described white evangelical Christians. This is a tremendously important voting bloc in the Republican Party. And Romney cannot get elected without them. So he is going to have to try to woo them as best he can and he has, you know, listened to them obviously on the subject of Grenell and he has taken a stance on the subject of gay marriage that is very much what people like Bryan Fischer wants. He's opposed gay marriage. He's also opposed civil unions, which makes Romney to the right of George Bush on this issue. And again, it's something that matters a lot to these voters and he so he's certainly delivering on some of the things they want. But they want quite a bit more.
GROSS: What else?
MAYER: Well, what Fischer would really like is to among other things, pare back the size of the United States government, so that it plays almost no role in education at all. He just wants anybody with children to be given a little bit of money that would've been the money that would've gone to covering public education and for parents to be able to educate their kids any way they want, including home schooling, where he thinks there should be no government control or standards on curriculums. So basically if parents want to teach their kids that evolution is wrong and that Genesis is right, he thinks that they should be able to do that. And he also would like to see the government get out of the health care business. He thinks that hospitals should not have to treat poor people at all, even in emergencies. He thinks that government should just do national defense and administer justice. And other than that, he thinks that there's really no role for it.
GROSS: And you describe how he applies the Bible to taxes. How does he?
MAYER: It's so interesting. Fischer and other such evangelical leaders have a, sort of, a economic program where they say that the Bible says that progressive taxes are wrong, state taxes are wrong, collective bargaining is wrong, capital gains taxes, they say, are non-biblical. Pretty much anything that you would identify as kind of progressive economic policy they say is anti-biblical.
And they, in many ways, have kind of put a religious imperative behind what would be kind of a free market - radical free market fundamentalism. And - that the religious fundamentalism and the economic fundamentalism have come together.
GROSS: So in terms of how Fischer applies the Bible to taxes, you describe him as saying that progressive income taxes and estate taxes violate the eighth and tenth commandments, because the government steals and covets others' wealth.
MAYER: Right. He is basing his views on what he says that the Ten Commandments say and using the Ten Commandments to oppose progressive fiscal and economic policy. So, yeah, it's really interesting, because what it's done is it's created a kind of an economic program for evangelical Christians.
GROSS: Now contraception became an issue in the Republican primary, and you describe Bryan Fischer the talk show host with the American Family Association as wanting to make contraception available only to married couples.
MAYER: Right. I mean, and I think that if you step back again and take a look at where we are in this election - one of the people I interviewed, a professor named Julie Ingersoll was saying who would have ever thought that contraception would be a subject of political controversy in 2012?
And she was saying, you know, if you look back and what Romney was talking about just four years ago when he ran the first time for the presidency, he was far to the left of where he is now, but the whole Republican Party is moving rightward, partly because of the kinds of people who follow and support Bryan Fischer.
GROSS: Has Bryan Fischer been directly in touch with you about your article? Because he's certainly spoken about you on his show.
MAYER: I haven't heard from him directly since the piece came out. We talked all the way up until it closed and went through sort of - practically ever fact in it. So I understand - I haven't heard his show recently, but I understand he's been unhappy with the piece.
And I'm sorry because he was actually a very enjoyable person. You know, very - he's a very warm person and as I said, very quick, very smart. His views are, you know, on the extreme side, but he's fun to talk to.
GROSS: You know, I first heard of Bryan Fischer when he campaigned to have Grenell ousted from the Romney campaign, because Grenell was gay. But I didn't remember Fischer's name. So when I saw your article I thought, well, Bryan Fischer, never heard of him. And that's the reaction I had to two of your previous articles recently.
You had an article on Art Pope and I thought never heard of him. And you described him as leading this new project aimed at engineering a takeover of state legislatures with the expectation that it will have a ripple effect on national politics. Then you wrote about somebody named Larry McCarthy and I thought, yeah, I never heard of him.
And you describe his as a veteran media consultant known for doing the racially charged Willie Horton ad which helped sink Dukakis in 1988. And he now helps direct the pro-Romney group Restore Our Future. Is there a method behind this, that you're intentionally looking for people to write about that a lot of people haven't heard of but these people are actually very, very powerful now?
MAYER: I mean, I'm very interested in human beings and who's really moving American politics behind the scenes. I think we spend, as reporters, an awful lot of time just describing the front men, the candidates, and they are obviously very important and what they say is important. But frequently, there are all kinds of dynamics beneath the surface that are really moving American politics.
And that was why I wanted to look at Fischer. I was trying to figure out why voters vote the way they do and where they're getting their information from. And there are just these kind of roiling dynamics out there in American politics and I've been trying to get beneath the surface and figure out what's making the voters move the way they are.
GROSS: Jane Mayer, thank you so much for talking with us.
MAYER: Great to be with you, Terry.
GROSS: Jane Mayer is a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine. Her article "Bully Pulpit" about the right-wing Christian radio talk show host Bryan Fischer is in the current edition of the New Yorker. Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews Patti Smith's new album. This is FRESH AIR.
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