September 2007

Courageous crusader, single-minded servant, humble hero  

Sixty-nine years old and going strong, the Rev. Don Wildmon makes his way to the office about an hour before everyone else each morning. It’s another day in the life of the American Family Association, and “Bro. Don,” is ready to face it head-on.

For 30 years, Wildmon has been on the frontlines of America’s culture war. The battle is raging now more than ever, which is all the more reason for Wildmon to remain faithful to the call God placed on his life to form AFA in 1977. To celebrate the organization’s 30th anniversary, Don Wildmon goes behind the scenes of AFA and inside the rooms of his heart to reveal the man and the mission behind the ministry.

AFA Journal: What is the story of Don Wildmon prior to AFA?

DW: When I was nine years old, I felt the Lord calling me to be in ministry. When I was about 18, I decided that God was calling me to the pulpit ministry. I tried that for a year or two. I found it very difficult, being an imperfect person, to preach to people. I didn’t really understand God’s grace, so I left the parish ministry. I didn’t want to ever go back to it. So it was rather frustrating to feel like there was something you should be doing and not knowing what it is you’re supposed to be doing. I spent a couple of years in the Army. I finally decided one day that God had called me to preach, that I should go back into the ministry. The Lord and I debated it. I tried to get into seminary, but they wouldn’t let me in because they said I couldn’t pass the courses based on my bad college grades. I went through college just loafing, never really putting forth any big effort. So I went to a couple of influential people who came in on my behalf, and the seminary decided they would give me a test, and if I could pass that test then they would admit me. I’m assuming I passed the test because I went straight through seminary – finished the three-year course in two years and three summers and finished with about a 3.2 grade point average.

AFAJ: So what prompted you to begin AFA?

DW: With our four children, Lynda and I were watching TV one night during the Christmas season in 1976. There were only three networks at the time, and all three had objectionable material. I can’t even remember the programs. I remember one was violent. Another was a sexual scene, and the third one was profanity. I decided fighting this is what the Lord had called me to do, and I began at that point.

AFAJ: What was your first step?

DW: I had been in journalism nearly all of my life. I had studied media and came up with this concept of “Turn the Television Off Week,” which was just turning it off for a week. I knew it would grab the attention of the media because it had all the background for good media play. Here’s this small town preacher who thinks he’s going to do something affecting television. I played the game in order to get the publicity in order to get the word out. The media gave me a good bit of publicity for a while until it became evident that “Hey, he just may be able to pull this thing off or do something.” The media backed off and began the attack game, which has been going on ever since.

AFAJ: What was the first name of your organization?

DW: We named the organization National Federation for Decency. When we began, we were primarily dealing with television and pornography. Over the years, a lot of the left-wingers would make fun of our name. So I changed it in 1988 from the National Federation for Decency to American Family Association because our concerns had expanded, and it was very hard to demean the word family back then.

AFAJ: When you first started was this a full-time effort?

DW: This was a full-time effort from day one – 16, 17 hours a day, nearly 7 days a week. I had to do everything myself, but work has never bothered me. I traveled a good bit and ran the ministry out of our dining room with a desk and a phone and a small off-set press I bought with my own funds. I went two-and-a-half years before I had any help at all. But my wife Lynda was very supportive. She, in fact, went back to work teaching soon after I began the ministry. I was paid a salary of $1,800 a year the first year that AFA began.

AFAJ: Did you get support from your church?

DW: I was still a pastor when we first began, and they were supportive with “Turn the Television Off Week.” Soon after that, I made the decision to leave the parish ministry, and as far as my denomination, I can’t remember anything they did. I can remember a few times when they opposed what I was trying to do. In the early years, the most critical letters I received came from fellow pastors who were telling me, “God is love” in letters that had hate oozing off the page.

AFAJ: What is the church’s problem?

DW: It’s probably a combination of many factors. We’ve had at least one generation, maybe two now, to grow up on television. And they’ve seen millions of commercials, and they’ve heard the liberal/secular message since they were kids, and there’s a weakness in the church. The church has not really dealt with the basic fundamentals much. The church has isolated itself, and I’m not so sure it hasn’t forgotten its mission to be salt and light.

AFAJ: So what is AFA doing in response to this?

DW: We’re trying to inform people who want information. We’re trying to involve people who care and want to get involved. We’re trying to affect the culture around us. The church ought to be doing all of those things. Unfortunately, too often, the church’s success is measured by buildings, budgets and baptisms.

AFAJ: How has God blessed AFA?

DW: The older I get, the more evident it is that God has been behind this ministry. He’s brought good people who are willing to work hard. I remember one time when I was struggling financially. I had sat down that morning and figured up that I owed $5,000. I didn’t have $5,000. I didn’t know where $5,000 was coming from. That afternoon I got a call from a businessman. We talked, and he said, “Well, you’re doing good work, and I’m going to put you a check in the mail for $5,000.” A year later, I was again in debt $5,000. Didn’t know where the money was coming from, and I don’t waste money. I squeeze the penny. I got a call from another businessman. I didn’t even mention it [my debt]. He said, “Oh, by the way, my wife and I just put a check in the mail to you for $5,000.” There have been a few things like that. Has God directed this ministry? I think he has despite all my faults.

AFAJ: What Christian leaders have supported AFA over the years?

DW: We’ve had support from many Christian leaders who shared our concern: Larry Burkett, Marlin Maddoux, Bill Bright, Jerry Falwell, Adrian Rogers. All my old buddies are dying off, and I’m not getting any younger, myself.

AFAJ: What is your view of the pro-family movement?

DW: I think the Lord pulled us together. Most of the leaders in the late ’70s came up about the same time, but we didn’t know each other. We are a lot more unified now. For example, three years ago, I organized the Arlington Group, and there are about 50 national ministries represented in that group, and we come together about every two or three months. I think that’s been one good thing that’s come about.

AFAJ: Who are some of the people behind the ministry?

DW: In the early years, all the people who came to work for AFA were giving up their security because we were young. We are non-profit. We didn’t have deep pockets. My first employee was Larry Durham who was in charge of data processing and is still working here. We began publishing a monthly newsletter that turned into what is now the AFA Journal. Six years after the ministry was founded, Randall Murphree came to work for us as editor of the Journal. I consider that a God thing because he’s been around, and we now have a very excellent monthly publication. As for our supporters, we still don’t have major contributors. We have maybe one person who gives us about $250,000 a year. But other than that, our donations have come from $15, $20 and $25 gifts primarily. To be honest with you, I would prefer it to be that way.

AFAJ: How did American Family Radio become part of AFA?

DW: I came up with the idea of using radio after reading Broadcasting magazine for another reason. I came across this little item about how the FCC was going to allow you to send your signal by satellite, and that opened up a whole new world. So we began a strategy of building translators, small repeater stations. That was a God thing.

AFAJ: Where do you see AFA going in the immediate future?

DW: We’ll go on with radio. We’ll go on with the printed Journal. But a major push will be in the area of Internet because it goes straight to somebody’s home. We saw that the Internet was going to become the communication tool of the future. We now have a new communication center that hosts all of our Internet and news divisions.

AFAJ: Where do you see AFA at its 60th anniversary?

DW: Where we’re going to be 30 years from now, I don’t know, but I would expect the ministry – unless it loses its orientation – to be much larger and more effective. You’re called to be faithful, not successful. You go on with the hope that you haven’t lost the culture war, with the hope that you can still win it. Your responsibility is to fight the battle. The outcome is not in your hands.

AFAJ: What’s one thing at this 30-year mark that you’d like to tell supporters?

DW: Hang in there. There was a cross, so just hang in there. Expect suffering. That’s what Scripture talks about.

AFAJ: What has been the most difficult challenge over the years?

DW: The failure to convey to the church the situation that we’re in. In fact, I spent 15 years or longer trying to do that. Finally I said it’s not going to happen so I quit working with it. There’s nothing you can do. The church is there. It’s asleep. People in the church have jobs and families and school and everything else, and this doesn’t touch them directly right now. It will later. But I’m afraid that by the time they realize what’s happening it may be too late.

AFAJ: Do you ever feel like giving up?

DW: No. I’ve felt like quitting. In the early years, I argued with the Lord many times. Nearly about took what religion I had out of me. It did shape some of my views over the years, but that was the most difficult period I had to go through. People that I felt should simply be 100 percent behind Christian morality were the ones who wrote the most hateful mean-spirited letters to me about love.

AFAJ: So why do you press on?

DW: This is what the Lord called me to do. Look, when it’s all said and done, nobody here is going to say this or that about Don Wildmon. One of these days, I’ll see the Lord, and I can honestly say I did the best that I knew how. I think that’s the answer that He wants.


Who is THIS MAN?
“I’m Don. I am who I am. I am what you see,” said Don Wildmon, founder and chairman of AFA, father of four and grandfather of six.

Those closest to him might say he’s a kid at heart. He says he has the mind of a child.

Either way, he reasons, “Kids always have fun. You might as well have fun. After all, it takes fewer muscles to laugh than to frown.”

This is a side to Wildmon not many see outside the home and office. Why?

“Because it’s the only two places I go,” Wildmon said without cracking a smile. His dry sense of humor and quick wit are part of who he is, and it doesn’t matter to him what others think.

“It matters what I think of me, and it matters what God thinks of me,” he explained. “I’m not very good at verbalizing my Christian faith. I try to show what I believe in my actions.”

One belief Wildmon hopes to communicate to his grandchildren is a lesson he has learned time and time again during his 30 years of ministry: “Life is not always easy, and the goal in life is not happiness but holiness.” 

It’s not about having a holier-than-thou attitude, but rather a desire to do the best for the Lord.

“Life is not going to be on mountain tops all the time. You’re going to fail a whole lot more than you succeed, but you must not let failure be fatal,” he added.

While the world defines success in terms of big houses, fancy cars and loads of money, Wildmon finds assurance in knowing he belongs to God. “I’m God’s child and out of that flows everything else.”