Intelligence Report

The Story Behind the American Family Association's Bryan Fischer

Gay-basher Bryan Fischer is famous for his bigotry. What’s less known is how ‘mainstream’ Idahoans jump-started his career.

For a week or two this August, the spotlight of national media attention cast a harsh light on a prayer rally in Houston entitled “The Response: A Call to Prayer for a Nation in Crisis.” Although it was billed as a non-political event held only to ask God for unity and righteousness, The Response drew a roster of hard-line religious rightists best known for their gay-bashing rhetoric.

Some of those who were scheduled to speak merely caused the eyes of the critics to roll, like the “prophetess” who earlier in the year blamed the mass die-off of blackbirds in Arkansas on the acceptance of homosexuality. The heavy criticism centered on the American Family Association (AFA), a group that aggressively promotes “decency” in the media with a $20 million-a-year budget and a network of some 200 American Family Radio stations, and that paid for the event.

The AFA, after all, had come under fire many times since its founding in 1977 by the Rev. Donald Wildmon, who has repeatedly suggested that obscene content on television and in the movies is largely due to the media being controlled by Jews. On one occasion, the AFA demanded that an openly gay Arizona congressman be barred from speaking at the Republican National Convention and suggested that he be arrested under a state law criminalizing sodomy. A former network entertainment executive once called the AFA’s boycotts “the first step toward a police state.”

But the criticism this summer of the AFA, fueled in part by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2010 listing of the organization as a hate group, really came down to the remarkable utterances of one man: Bryan Fischer, the loquacious, baby-faced “director of issue analysis” who joined the Tupelo, Miss.-based group in 2009 and has become its best known, and most eyebrow-raising, spokesman.

Fischer, 60, graduated from Stanford University with a philosophy degree, but that hasn’t stopped him from claiming that “[h]omosexuality gave us Adolph Hitler, and homosexuals in the military gave us the Brown Shirts, the Nazi war machine and six million dead Jews” — a complete falsehood, as any historian knows.

Bryan Fischer
PHOTO CREDIT AP PHOTO/TROY MABEN

Nor has it prevented him from suggesting that gay sex should be penalized in the same way heroin use is, or asserting that gay men and lesbians should be forced into controversial “reparative therapy,” which improbably claims to “cure” people of their homosexuality. Since joining the AFA, Fischer has said, against all the evidence, that “homosexuals, as a group, are the single greatest perpetrators of hate crimes on the planet, outside the Muslim religion.” He has claimed that non-Christian religions “have no First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion,” which would have been a surprise to the authors of the Bill of Rights. He said that the “sexual immorality of Native Americans” was part of what made them “morally disqualified from sovereign control of American soil.” He even suggested the best way to deal with promiscuity would be to kill the promiscuous.

Fischer did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Not content with insulting the LGBT community, the sexually active, Muslims and virtually all other non-Christians, Fischer has even crossed the Rubicon of race, saying that President Obama “nurtures this hatred for the United States of America and, I believe, nurtures a hatred for the white man.” In case that wasn’t enough, he recently added that welfare had “destroyed the African American family” and was incentivizing black “people who rut like rabbits.”

These facts are well known. But what may be most remarkable of all about Fischer, aside from the fact that an organization that has more than 2 million people on its E-mail list hired him, are some of the details of how he spent almost 30 years as an increasingly radical pastor in Idaho. Despite being passed over as senior pastor of one church and abruptly leaving another, Fischer eventually came to be treated as the state’s leading voice of the Christian Right, wrote regular guest columns in the state’s largest newspaper and was named chaplain of the Idaho State Senate.

The Early Years
Bryan Fischer was born on April 8, 1951, in a small town in Colorado, and moved in his early teens to California. Later, while attending Stanford, he landed an internship at Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, where he was befriended by senior pastor David Roper, a man who would influence him strongly. Three years after graduating in 1973, he married Deborah Marie Rogers, who is still his wife.

Roper had attended Dallas Theological Seminary, the top ideological powerhouse of the most conservative wing of the evangelical movement. Fischer followed in his mentor’s footsteps, graduating from the seminary in 1980.

While Fischer was in Dallas, Roper left California to become pastor of the Cole Community Church in Boise, Idaho, where he would remain for the following 17 years. Roper told the Intelligence Report that, later in 1980, he invited Fischer to join him in Idaho to help start the Cole Center for Biblical Studies. The center would become known regionally for the prominent locals who it graduated.

At the time, however, Fischer had markedly different theological views than he does today, said Dennis Mansfield, who started the Idaho Family Forum and was then the state’s leading Christian Right spokesman: “Bryan brought me in to debate about his opposition to Christians being involved in government; he was a fierce opponent of it then. My opinion was that we should be involved in everything, and his was theological isolationism. I remember three debates where I crossed swords with him and found him to be one of the most intelligent men I’d ever known. But I won the debates, and … he did not like being beaten by the likes of me.”

As time passed, Fischer increasingly embraced the strain of “dominionist” theology that suggests that Christians should seek to control government as well as spiritual matters. Simultaneously, a church insider said, Fischer developed a group of his own personal followers and was ultimately asked to leave the church.

Roper denied that, saying Fischer left because he had “decided he wanted to do more in the political realm.” But Mansfield, who remains friends with Fischer after many years, said that Fischer was passed over when Roper decided to leave Cole Community Church. “Roper announced he was leaving and that he would select a successor,” Mansfield said in an interview. “A church of three to four thousand people is a significant Pacific Northwest church to be leader of. Ultimately, when the decision was announced, Roper chose a different pastor to head it up. Bryan was dumbstruck and he told me he was resigning from his position.

“I would imagine he felt so dishonored that the order of things didn’t follow his ideas,” Mansfield said. “He and his wife were distraught they weren’t chosen. He departed Cole Community [in 1993] and never looked back.”

Mansfield said that very few people came forward to support Fischer then and that the two became close as a result. At a lunch held to discuss Fischer’s future, Mansfield said he detected “a real brokenness and humility in Bryan, and openness to new opportunities. He came up with the idea of a community church, one that would have a different angle… . That became Community Church of the Valley.”

As he consolidated his new Boise church, Fischer began to gain real prominence in the state. He was first quoted in The Idaho Statesman, the state’s largest newspaper, in 1999. It was the beginning of his rise to national stature.

“I used to be the go-to religious-right person for media in Boise because of IFF [the Idaho Family Forum],” said Mansfield, whose theological views have since softened considerably. “Then I ran for Congress and lost to [now-Gov.] Butch Otter in 2000 and, of course, became invisible. There was a gap without a spokesman for the religious right, so Bryan stood up to be that person.”

Onward and Upward
Bryan Fischer was on his way to local celebrity. But that ascent was only really cemented in 2001, when the state’s Republican then-majority leader, present-day U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, appointed him as the Idaho State Senate chaplain.

Even though the position was essentially honorary, paying $16.86 an hour to deliver prayers to the Idaho Senate, it gave Fischer easy access to the Republican leadership in a state that has long been completely dominated by the GOP. Word of the appointment of Fischer was not universally welcomed.

“The choice of one of Idaho’s most polarizing religious leaders has sent shock waves through the state’s churches and has some powerful senators reeling,” The Idaho Statesman reported in a Jan. 13, 2001, news story. It said that the Senate’s assistant majority leader and majority caucus chairman had no idea that Fischer had been hired until he delivered the opening Senate session prayer that year.

Betsy Russell, president of the Idaho Press Club and long-time Boise bureau chief for The (Spokane, Wash.) Spokesman-Review, said the post mattered. “One of the reasons he was able to achieve a platform is because he was given one by the state of Idaho quite officially: He was chaplain of the Senate. He held an official position… . I guess you could say he was a state-endorsed clergyman.”

In the immediate aftermath of Fischer’s appointment, a woman named Jennifer Boyd wrote a letter to The Idaho Statesman. Boyd said she was a former member of Fischer’s Community Church of the Valley and recounted how she was excommunicated. “Fischer removed me from his congregation after my divorce,” she wrote, “which he deemed unacceptable, non-biblical and sinful.” She angrily accused Fischer of speaking “out of both sides of his mouth. … [H]e said one thing while he did another. … [H]e judges people … based on limited knowledge.”

Despite the controversy, The Idaho Statesman began to quote Fischer regularly. Between 1999 and 2009, when Fischer would leave the state, the newspaper quoted him in nearly 100 news stories and printed 16 of his guest editorials — huge numbers in the relatively small Boise media market.

“Obviously, Fischer relies on polarizing messages that catch the attention of reporters, but it felt like he was able to control the narrative around issues of reproductive, queer and immigrant rights,” said Amy Herzfeld, executive director of the Boise-based Idaho Human Rights Education Center, a nonprofit group. “I do think that many Idaho news outlets helped Fischer earn national accolades.”

Like Jennifer Boyd, Mansfield recalled being disillusioned with his friend’s ministry. In 2000, his son was arrested for possession of a marijuana pipe. The story made the local papers because Mansfield was then running for Congress.

“We went to Bryan and asked what to do, and he was at a loss,” Mansfield said. “He didn’t have a practical solution. I thought, ‘This isn’t helping anybody!’ We went looking for another church that had solutions.” Mansfield said that families already had begun leaving the congregation “in battalions.” For him, the church had become a “professorial, debate-society culture” that did not offer solutions.

Fischer did not react well to his departure, Mansfield said. “With Bryan, it was as if I had betrayed him. I was just another person who left his church.”

Another Church Conflict
In the following years, Fischer developed a reputation for asserting men’s “authority” over women — a position that made some in his congregation uncomfortable, along with many in the larger community. On Aug. 21, 2005, for instance, Fischer said in a sermon that while Scripture says that men and women are “equal in essence and existence and worth,” they are “NOT equal in authority.”

That fall, the Dalai Lama was scheduled to visit Idaho as part of events surrounding the fourth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. In the run-up to the visit, Fischer disparaged Buddhism in remarks to his congregation, calling it a “godless myth” and a “terrible deception” that came “from the father of lies.”

But that didn’t stop him from joining an interfaith discussion with the Dalai Lama, along with 100 other representatives of a variety of faiths and denominations in the region. There, he questioned the Dalai Lama about the nature of evil, telling a reporter afterward that the Dalai Lama’s view of it was “simplistic.”

Things were coming to a head at the Community Church of the Valley. Mansfield, who had helped get the church started, said that church elders “had a meeting about a conflict with Bryan over who had the final say in the church.” Fischer insisted that he did, but Mansfield said it was actually the board.

Exactly what that conflict was remains something of a mystery. Four days after the Dalai Lama’s visit, Fischer gave his last sermon at the church he had founded 12 years earlier. The following Sunday, a former ally, elder Robert Weisel, gave an emotional sermon about the prior week, saying how “sick last Sunday” had made him and speaking of the “ruin of friends.” He mentioned how another elder had been “vilified” and apologized to his fellow elders as a group. He said without explanation that the congregation had defeated the enemy of the Gospel.

Fischer departed the church. The next summer, it changed its name to Christian Life Fellowship, but many members left for other congregations in the aftermath of what looked to the larger community like a major split.

Fischer rebounded quickly. In late 2005, he incorporated the Idaho Values Alliance (IVA) as a nonprofit controlled by Fischer, his wife and their daughter. In 2007, the IVA became the state affiliate of the American Family Association.

Off the Deep End
Fischer was now a public figure who was well known for his fondness for “hot rhetoric,” as the Idaho Press Club’s Russell put it. But he crossed another line in May 2008, when a fundamentalist conference called “Shake the Nation” was held in Idaho. One of the invited speakers was Scott Lively, whose book The Pink Swastika falsely claims that gay men largely orchestrated the Holocaust.

After getting some criticism, Fischer responded with a press release saying the book was “well researched” and “documents the well-known historical fact that the Nazi Party was birthed in a gay bar, that Adolph Hitler’s inner circle included many homosexuals, and that many if not most of the Brown Shirts, his notorious ‘Storm Troopers,’ were also homosexuals.” None of this, of course, was true.

But that didn’t seem to bother Fischer. And it clearly didn’t bother the AFA, which hired Fischer the next year as its director of issue analysis and moved him to Tupelo, Miss. Since that time, he has been a prolific blogger and the host of a daily two-hour AFA radio program, “Focal Point.” In recent months, the AFA has added a disclaimer to Fischer’s blog postings, but he remains its top spokesman.

And what a spokesman he is.

This summer, he said that despite the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision to the contrary, there is “no reason” why gay sex should not be recriminalized in all 50 states. Earlier, he summed up his view of “homosexual activists.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, they are Nazis,” he said in July on his AFA radio show. “Do not be under any illusions about what homosexual activists will do with your freedoms and your religion if they have the opportunity. They’ll do the same thing to you that the Nazis did to their opponents in Nazi Germany.”

That seems highly unlikely, to say the least. But it did underline the attitude of the AFA, whose officials did not seem to have read any of Fischer’s comments when they signed on to an ad accusing their many critics of “character assassination.”

Jody May-Chang is an independent journalist specializing in LGBT and social justice issues. Jill Kuraitis is a journalist who specializes in human rights and the Rocky Mountain West. Both are based in Idaho.