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"
He wants the Bible to shape American politics, American law, American government, American values, American culture. That's the fight that he's fighting.Jane Mayer
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"
This is a tremendously important voting bloc in the Republican Party, and Romney cannot get elected without them.Jane Mayer
"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."