Methodist minister Donald Wildmon founded the American Family Association and its predecessor, the National Federation of Decency, as part an increase in conservative religious activism since the 1970s. One of the more cantankerous figures of the Christian Right, Wildmon diverges from other people in the movement in his emphasis on protesting what he sees as sinfulness in the media.
Donald Ellis Wildmon was born on 18 January 1938 in Ripley, Mississippi, where his father worked in the state health department and his mother taught school and Sunday school. Educated at Mississippi State University and Millsaps College, Wildmon attended divinity school at Emory University before returning to Mississippi as a Methodist minister. In the early 1970s he pastored churches in northern Mississippi; developed a telephone ministry; started a small religious press, Five Star Publishers; and wrote several short books of religious advice. With titles such as Living Thoughts and Practical Help for Daily Living, his books showed little of the anger that fueled his later activism.
In December 1976 Wildmon had what he has described as a life-changing experience: his family sat down to watch television and could not find anything without secularism, violence, or sex. He first organized a one-week boycott of television but quickly moved on to a more aggressive pose he has labeled a “confrontational ministry.” Wildmon criticized most churches for ignoring the media’s increasing power in daily life and launched a series of boycotts against corporations that sponsored what he sees as the most offensive television shows, movies, and magazines. His 1990 autobiography, Don Wildmon: The Man the Networks Love to Hate, described how he came to see television networks as “the unrecognized foe of the Christian faith and its values” because they portray as much sex as possible, mock or ignore Christian religion, and glorify a position he came to characterize as secular humanism.
Wildmon founded the National Federation of Decency as a successor of the Catholic League of Decency, which monitored the content of Hollywood movies from 1934 until the 1960s. In 1988 he renamed his organization the American Family Association. The organization publishes a newsletter that describes the content of offending television shows and encourages people to write to members of Congress, television stations, and corporations to demand changes. Wildmon has led frequent boycotts of corporations that make, advertise, and sell movies, television programs, or magazines that he deems offensive. Wildmon has often used aggressive language in his efforts, referring to television programmers as “home invaders,” the ABC television network as “the prostitute network,” and R. J. Reynolds as “the number one ‘Porno Pushing Advertiser.’” Wildmon gained some notoriety and had some success protesting The Last Temptation of Christ, a 1988 film many Christians condemned for failing to follow the Bible and for suggesting that Jesus was not the son of God but a sinner and tortured soul. Wildmon has consistently argued that the media has become such a powerful social force that it cannot be merely ignored. To react positively, American Family Association started American Family Radio, which combines Christian music with talk shows, but Wildmon has never backed away from fighting forms of media that violate his ideal of Christian family life.
In the 1990s Wildmon grew more interested in opposing the possibility of same-sex marriages. He was one of the leaders of the movement that led to the 2004 passage of an amendment to the Mississippi Constitution that banned the state legislature from the passing any laws recognizing same-sex marriage. Just prior to the US Supreme Court’s 2015 decision legalizing same-sex marriage across the United States, Wildmon appeared on American Family radio to express his hope that the Court would not do so.
In March 2010, following an extended hospital stay, Wildmon announced that he was stepping down as chair of the AFA. His son, Tim, succeeded him.
- Ted Ownby, in Politics and Religion in the White South, ed. Glenn Feldman (2005)
- Donald Wildmon with Randall Nulton, Don Wildmon: The Man the Networks Love to Hate (1989)