By MARILYN TINNIN
Tim and Alison Wildmon—
On the Front Lines of America’s Culture War
One thing is certain. Love it or hate it—nobody can accuse the American Family Association (AFA) of being cowardly or timid. For forty years the conservative organization headquartered in Tupelo has been an outspoken voice in the highly charged culture war between two opposite worldviews playing out in every cherished institution in America.
The power of AFA’s influence is undeniable. The Barna Group ranked AFA as the seventh most effective group in rallying the Christian evangelical vote during the 2016 elections. AFA President Tim Wildmon is proud of that fact.
“I’m proud we are getting more Christians engaged in politics, in government. That’s the best way to influence our culture. Not everyone has to run for office, but everyone needs to be educated on the issues and the candidates. I know some Christians hold the opinion that all politics are dirty business and Christians should not get involved. Where is that attitude is going to take us?”
There is often a lot of scorn and ridicule aimed at AFA from those who do not share their opinions, but as Tim’s father once pointed out to him, “You’re called to be faithful, not successful.”
The very mild mannered and slow talking Tim doesn’t lie awake at night fretting about the accusations and labels hurled his way. He knows that the hostility comes with the territory, and he is comfortable in his own skin and secure in his faith. He is also as committed as his father was to the ministry begun at their dining room table in 1977.
The Stand That Became the Movement
Tim was in middle school when his mom, dad, and younger siblings were watching television one evening during the Christmas holidays. There were only three networks at the time, and as his dad flipped from one channel to the next he found violence, sex and profanity—a lot of it—not exactly family-friendly subject matter.
Don Wildmon was pastoring the First Methodist Church of Southaven at the time. He instituted “Turn the Television Off” week in his own church asking his congregation to let that action speak loud and clear to advertisers concerning their objection to the content of many prime time shows. Of course, the local media picked up the story with a little mild derision toward a very country preacher thinking he would be able to influence station programming.
Much to the surprise of the media, the protest picked up a lot of momentum. There were other families who found a great deal of offensive material in prime time. So began the grass roots National Federation for Decency (NFD). That name seemed to invite great ridicule from the sector who saw Don Wildmon’s cause as the silly crusade of an unsophisticated backwoods Mississippian whose accent was quite “Mississippi.”
But that didn’t keep the three national networks from inviting him to their talk shows. Although he was a complete anomaly to the New York City media elites, the NFD was picking up supporters everywhere across Middle America, later known as “the fly-over zone.”
Second and Third Generations
In the early 1980s, while Tim Wildmon was studying journalism and serving as the sports editor for the Mississippi State campus newspaper, his dad’s organization was gaining traction with a wide swath of conservative Christians across the country. From its first endeavor to get the networks to clean up their programming, AFA began to speak out in matters of legislation and regulation if the issue affected the American family.
Although Tim was close to his dad and shared his values, his original plan did not include working at AFA. He and his high-school sweetheart, Alison Hardin, married while they were in school at State.
Tim’s ambition was to become a sports editor for a big newspaper somewhere. But then, ”Dad offered me a job in 1986 to come to work with him” shares Tim. Family was a big draw for him and for Alison. Maybe they would give it a try.
AFA was still in its infancy. There were only 14 people on staff at the time.
Tim’s salary was $18,000 that first year. It doesn’t sound like much now and it didn’t sound like a whole lot more at the time! Tim and Alison, who was a Child Development major, were eager to start their family, and they were committed to the idea that Alison be a stay-at-home mom. To Alison’s credit, says Tim, they made it work. He laughs that they ate hot dogs every way possible. But it was exciting to be part of AFA and to feel like the work they were doing mattered. It was making a difference.
Tim began by writing three-minute scripts for a short syndicated radio program his dad did on radio stations across the country. Although Don was likely thinking ahead to passing the torch, he did not slow down one iota for more than twenty years. At age 70, he was going strong and still putting in a full day at the office.
A serious bout with encephalitis in 2009 did take the wind out of his sails. Although Reverend Don still spends a few hours of every day in his office in the large complex that is now home to both AFA and American Family Radio, Tim is President and is the one who has taken up the gauntlet. And clearly, the Culture War AFA began to fight forty years ago has only intensified.
Does Tim Wildmon have battle fatigue? Not really. “Nobody likes to be criticized, but I learned a long time ago if you’re going to worry about criticism from groups who don’t agree with you, you probably need to find another job.”
Alison Wildmon laughs about her husband’s laid back personality. Although he has not waffled even once when AFA has taken a strong stand on a controversy involving social issues that conflict with his strong Biblical worldview, he is anything but a hard-nosed bully. She calls him “the sweetest, kindest, most easygoing person I’ve ever met. He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.”
Although Tim and Alison’s three offspring—Wriley, Wesley, and Walker—work at AFA, Alison’s calling has always been the home front. She handles most everything there from bill paying to babysitting their grandchildren to mowing and edging the lawn—a self-appointed task she calls her “therapy.” She takes great pride in a lawn that looks like a golf course.
If opposites attract, their relationship is a testimony! Alison calls herself the “Type A.” She is the disciplinarian, the one who is intense and determined. Gregarious and likable to the core, she adds that she has never let the verbal assaults from the left-leaning critics upset her too much.
Describing herself as “thick-skinned,” she adds, “The only thing that bothers me sometimes is when a report is inaccurate.” Most of the hurtful comments come when a reporter deliberately leaves out something or presents a biased view as if it were a straight news story.
The “R” word (racist) that gets thrown around quite a bit disturbs her the most because it is so far from the Wildmon heart and soul. One of her youngest son’s childhood friends is African American. He practically grew up at the Wildmon home, and he continues to be a part of their lives. She claims the now 6-foot 4-inch Reggie as one of hers, and he claims her as his second mom. Incidentally, the Wildmon children all attended public school through their entire educational experience.
Tim and Alison do practice what they preach—family. They prioritize family time and judging by how much their adult children still value certain family traditions begun in their own childhoods, Tim and Alison must have done something right.
“Years ago when the children were little, we decided that Christmas was going to be something we did for somebody else. We started Christmas caroling at the hospital on Christmas Eve.” That tradition continues to this day and has expanded to the Sanctuary Hospice House as well.
The annual activity now includes grandchildren, and friends J.J. and Melanie Jasper and their six children. The entire Wildmon crew plans their Christmas Eve around this much-anticipated event and ends the night at the candlelight service at Hope Church in Tupelo.
Summer vacations are another tradition the Wildmons treasure and with the ever-growing population of new babies, it takes a lot of planning and strategizing to make it happen. The trip likely involves a beach and the destination in recent years is near or far depending on whether or not there is a pregnancy to work around!
AFA’s Philosophy on Activism
The AFA has found itself frequently roiled in controversy throughout its forty years. Tim, like his dad before him, deeply believes Christians have a responsibility to speak out when there is blatant disregard and rebellion against precepts that God’s word specifically declares. Tim says, “We don’t go looking for fights, but they come every day because we take stands, and if you take stands, somebody is going to oppose you.”
He explains the cultural conflict today as the battle between two worldviews, Secular Humanism and Christian. “If you don’t believe in God, then you are unhinged from any kind of accountability for your actions,” he says. There is a viciousness to the rage that exists toward any belief that teaches the moral authority of the Living God. If Truth exists, then relativism can’t thrive.
Scripture does not teach that Believers are supposed to be silent in the public arena. Instead, part of the gospel admonition to be salt and light in the world is to influence the culture, to shine light into the darkness, and to give seasoning to the cultural environment. Such is what AFA exists to do.
One of the most controversial actions AFA has taken in recent days involved the boycott of Target stores over their policy of transgender dressing rooms and bathrooms. When American Family Radio (AFR) urged its listeners to demonstrate their disapproval by refusing to shop at Target and to sign a petition expressing their disapproval, the effect of AFA’s influence was felt from the stock price to the retail profit to the CEO’s salary. The petition, at last count, had garnered more than 1.5 million signatures.
Speaking to the criticism that Christians should not boycott, Tim explained his view this way. “All a boycott is is selective buying. If you got food poisoning at a restaurant, you likely would not go back there to eat. Then you would be boycotting that restaurant.”
He added that AFR takes no pleasure in boycotting anyone, but unfortunately for corporate America, the purse speaks loudly in a language that is universally understood.
Since its inception, AFA has addressed the issues as they have come up. One of the early platforms was the American Family Journal, a monthly magazine containing news, features, columns, and interviews. It is also a quick guide to prime time programming, movie reviews, and books.
Randall Murphree has been the editor of the journal for 34 years, a position he still finds rewarding every single day. The journal takes its fair share of criticism from opposing viewpoints, but Randall says, “Confidence in our motives and our methods keep me strong in the face of the assault of those who would try to silence us. Nothing can beat knowing that grassroots Americans and committed Christians share the worldview that we do.”
The Hope and the Future
AFA and AFR occupy two rambling buildings across the street from each other. Over 100 employees carry on the ministry today. To walk up and down the long halls and peek into the workplace is to notice diversity of race, gender, and age. American Family has made a concerted effort in its outreach to keep their finger on the pulse of the issues, the methods, and the message that affect every segment of American culture today. Contemporary Americans are greatly impacted by the power of media today. Its influence on ideas, religion, politics, and what passes for entertainment is enormous. AFA is committed to continuing to take its voice into that public sector through their extensive network of communication media.
The creative minds at AFA and AFR stay busy calling out the deception and lies and disinformation coming from the Secular Humanist forces.
Capturing the hearts and minds of the next generation is on Tim’s mind all the time. “We’ve got to turn back to the God of our Fathers. Christians have got to understand how important it is for us to stand up for our faith today in all ways. We’ve got to share our faith with others, we’ve got to hope and pray for a third Great Awakening, and we’ve got to stem the tide of evil in our country. Look at world history. Self-government is almost unheard of. We can’t lose this great gift we’ve called America.”
He compares America at this point in our history to a family business whose founders gave their lives to create it and put their blood, sweat, and tears into building something great. Successive generations got to enjoy the fruits of their parents’ and grandparents’ sacrifices and investments. But eventually there grew up a generation who did not know all that was involved in creating and sustaining this amazing family business. They lack the same investment and understanding the early generations had, and consequently, they let it fail for lack of attention to the most important elements in sustaining that business.
The outcome, however, is not in Tim’s hands or in the hands of his children who, God willing will carry on the ministry their grandfather began. As Don Wildmon said in an interview a few years ago when he was asked about the future and AFA’s continued battle in the Culture War, “Your responsibility is to fight the battle. The outcome is not in your hands.”