THE OTHER SLANT: Evangelical Radio Host Bryan Fischer says The New Yorker Got His Story Wrong
Bryan Fischer, the host of Focal Point, a Christian radio show that boasts a million-plus daily listeners, wasn’t pleased with Jane Mayer’s June 18th New Yorker profile of him titled “Bully Pulpit.”
The conservative evangelical first attracted national attention when he called out Governor Mitt Romney for hiring Richard Grenell, an openly gay man, as the campaign’s national security spokesman. Two weeks of Fischer’s and his fellow Republicans’ attacks on Romney’s shaky allegiance to conservative family values resulted in Grenell’s resignation.
Since then, Fischer has become the mainstream media’s go-to person for the far right’s spin on current events. From his offices in Tupelo, Mississippi, Fischer, whose avuncular manner belies his stern right wing political persona, defended his life and work, argued that “the profound psychological differences between men and women” make men better suited to leadership and explained how “the homosexual agenda” threatens our First Amendment freedoms. He also told us what he really thinks of Romney.
The Slant: So after reading Jane Mayer’s article “Bully Pulpit” in The New Yorker, we wondered, are you a bully?
Fischer: Jane was determined to use every element in that story to paint me as a bully. I just went through the article and jotted down about 15 things that were either distortions or outright falsehoods, or just plain wrong. Jane knew they were falsehoods because of the information that I had given her and yet she published them anyway. I push people around. I reject people who disagree with me. She just discarded anything that didn’t fit that template.
The Slant: Wow, like what?
Fischer: At one point in the story, Mayer claims that I was “uncomfortable” with my father’s conscientious objection to the Second World War. Although he was a pacifist and a World War II objector, he served as a medic, so he put his life on the line in order to provide medical care to wounded soldiers. I was 100 percent proud of my dad for standing up for his convictions, and for serving as a medic, which put him in harm’s way, in the service of his country. She created the impression that I felt that he was weak and in doing so she damaged my father’s reputation. That’s probably the thing that bothered me the most.
The Slant: Did she characterize your views on what went down with Richard Grenell accurately?
Fischer: No, she said my main problem with him was not his politics, but his sex life. My primary objection to Grenell was not his sexual preference, but the fact that he was a crusader for same-sex marriage, which is political.
The Slant: What about the way she represented your overall views on homosexuality? Was that stuff right?
Fischer: Yes, homosexuality is not a conservative value. And the homosexual agenda represents the clearest and most present danger to First Amendment freedoms. Every freedom that is enshrined in the First Amendment is endangered by the homosexual agenda.
The Slant: How do you figure?
Fischer: Recently some Christian students got kicked out of a counseling program they were in because they referred homosexual clients to other counselors. The homosexuals did not want to overcome their unwanted same-sex attractions. They wanted to continue in the homosexual lifestyle and they wanted somebody to help them with their psychological problems. But these Christian counselors wanted to help them leave the homosexual lifestyle. Since that wasn’t the kind of help these homosexuals were seeking, they thought it would be better for them to be counseled by somebody that sees their lifestyle the same way that they do. They thought it would be irresponsible of them professionally to try to give homosexuals help when they had reservations about the nature of their lifestyles. So the counseling program said, “No, you’re not allowed to do that. You can’t refer these people. If you’re not willing to accept the normalcy of homosexual behavior then you can’t be in our counseling program.” So, obviously that tramples on their freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of association, and it tramples on their career possibilities.
The Slant: Interesting….Yesterday, the president of Exodus International, an organization that attempts to rid gay people of their same-sex desires through prayer and psychotherapy, Alan Chambers, told The New York Times that he no longer believes that “reparative therapy” works and may actually be harmful. What’s your take on that?
Fischer: My primary concern is with behavior, not impulse. No one is compelled to yield to sexual impulses, whether the impulse leads to adultery, sexual immorality, pedophilia, or homosexuality. You can ask Tiger Woods what happens when you yield to every sexual urge that comes along. Celibacy is certainly an attainable and noble goal for those who may still experience same-sex attractions. As far as public policy is concerned, we do not believe homosexual behavior should be condoned, normalized, legitimized, subsidized, endorsed, or given special protections in law by government at any level. Since the health risks of homosexual conduct are very similar to the health risks involved in intravenous drug abuse, I believe our public policies for both behaviors should be very similar.
The Slant: As strong women, we were confused about your whole spin on women not being best suited to leadership roles. What’s up with that? Did Mayer get that wrong?
Fischer: No, she didn’t. I believe that there are profound psychological differences between men and women. I think anybody who denies that is a fool. And these God-designed differences are a part of our very make-up, our very nature. So then the question becomes: If God has designed men and women to be profoundly different, not one superior to the other, not one better than the other, just different and complementary, are those differences designed by God to equip them for different roles in life, and my point is, yes. God has designed men to be leaders in their homes, to be leaders in the church and to be leaders in society. Even Jesus, when he chose his apostles, all 12 of them were males, so if it’s sexist to put males in leadership, then Jesus is the worst sexist in history, and I’ll be glad to stand next to him.
The Slant: So you probably didn’t support, say, Sarah Palin as a running mate for John McCain back in 08’?
Fischer: In the Old Testament in the Book of Judges there was a time when the men of Israel were such wusses, such wimps, that God could not find a male who had the testosterone to provide the kind of leadership that the nation needed, so he turned to Deborah, a woman. She was a very effective judge. She exercised political power, leadership and was very effective in that role. If you’ve got a vacuum of masculine leadership, then God’s perfectly content to move a woman, who will do what men will not, into that position. Sarah Palin was that type of person. Speaking of women, I was also very disturbed by how she painted my relationship with my sister.
The Slant: We wondered about that. In the article, Mayer writes: “Fisher’s sister, Sharon, particularly has struggled, and since 1999 she has lived off welfare and Social Security disability payments. Her situation has not tempered his view that such programs violate both the Bible and the Constitution. As he told me, ‘The Scriptures say, If a man will not work, don’t let him eat.’ Fischer has not seen his sister in about a decade.” Did she misquote you?
Fischer: No, but she created the impression that out of coldness and a lack of compassion I cut my sister completely off because she’s on welfare. That is absolutely, flatly untrue. In fact, my sister and I talked about her moving up to Boise with us at one point. But she couldn’t risk leaving the social service network she had in California. Her income limitations have kept her from coming to visit us, but she has a standing invitation. If she ever needed, we’d open our home and provide shelter as long as necessary. Mayer deliberately created the impression that I had completely cut off contact with my sister because she was using welfare services. But the truth is we have regular and consistent contact.
The Slant: Back to Romney. So what do you really think of him?
Fischer: I honestly do not see any core moral principles in Governor Romney. I just don’t see that he’s guided by any core set of moral principles on virtually anything. I refer to him as Governor Windsock, based on James Carville calling him a “serial windsock.” He just seems to be virtually a pure politician with no core. He just looks to see which way the wind is blowing and tries to get out in front of that. He reminds me of a French politician, who said, “There go my people, I must follow them for I am their leader.” That seems to be the only guiding political principle that Governor Romney has. I think he will betray socially conservative principles if he’s in the Oval Office. I’m just being realistic about it. I think that’s what’s going to happen. But, I think most conservatives will vote for Governor Romney because the alternative is just unthinkable. I see conservatives going to the polls in November primarily to vote against Barack Obama rather than for Governor Romney.
The Slant: What about that bit in the story where you told a radio caller that it’s okay to spank babies as young as six months old?
Fischer: I don’t believe that children should be spanked until they are old enough to understand the word “No” and to engage in willful disobedience. We first swatted our daughter on the hand when she was 18 months old because she wouldn’t stop pulling electrical cords out of sockets. When spanking is appropriate is when a child is old enough to be mobile and old enough to harm himself. It’s appropriate at that point to use some kind of corporal discipline to protect a child from himself. I explained this to Jane.
The Slant: Any thoughts on those passages about your ex-friend Dennis Mansfield? At one point, Mayer mentions that you told Mansfield, who’s son at the time had just been arrested on drug changes, that he was unfit to be an elder at the church because he couldn’t run his own home properly.
Fischer: That’s absolutely flatly not true. I did not ask him to step down as an elder. He was not serving as an elder when his son got in trouble with the law. He created the impression that I rejected him, that I cut him off. I was one of the first people to call him when his son was arrested to see what I could do to help, to pray for him. After he lost the election, I asked him to head up the men’s ministry of our church. So rather than rejecting him, telling him he wasn’t qualified to serve in ministry, I invited him to be in a leadership role at our church in the wake of his loss in that race. He painted a completely erroneous picture of my relationship with him. I told this to Jane.
The Slant: What about your position on halfway houses? According to Mayer, you rallied against Mansfield’s efforts to establish halfway houses for guys like his son who’d been in trouble with the law, but were trying to get their lives back together. He said you didn’t support his efforts because it would bring property values down. True?
Fischer: No, I supported the halfway houses. He was starting them for fellas that had just been released from the state penitentiary. I just did not think they belonged in residential neighborhoods. Dennis’s organization would buy a home in the middle of a family neighborhood and then all of a sudden these families with young children would have convicted felons living right next door to them with no advance notice, no understanding about who they were and why they were there. Naturally, it created a tremendous concern about the safety of their neighborhoods.
Dennis created the impression that for some reason I objected to their placement because of property values. That had nothing to do with it at all. I was just concerned about the impact on families and young children of having these halfway houses right in the middle of their neighborhoods. When I went to the legislature to testify, I did not testify against these halfway houses. I said that this is a great idea, but they should not be placed in residential neighborhoods. I thought it would be better for them to be placed in zones for light industrial. So I actually offered a solution to the legislature so that the halfway houses could continue to be established without generating a legitimate concern and fear on the part of families.
The Slant: According to the piece, you helped organize a protest to prevent the removal of a statue of the Ten Commandments in a state park in Idaho. Mayer said, however, that you didn’t put yourself in the position of being arrested like your fellow protestors.
Fischer: Not true. She created the impression that I was a coward, that when it came time for people to be arrested I headed for the tall grass and left these poor helpless victims to be arrested. The reality was that we talked as a group about whether we had people who were willing to be arrested, to stand and protect the public display of the word of God. There were 50 or so of us that signed up who were willing to be arrested. I was one of those people. Now there were two of us that were leading what we called the “Keep the Commandments Coalition.” The day the city came to remove the monument, we knew that was going to be a very emotionally charged day. We had 300 or 400 people out there, so we knew that of the two of us leading, only one of us could be arrested.
The other one was going to be needed to provide leadership to make sure that everything stayed calm and cool and to get instructions on how the hundreds of protesters were to respond and behave with the police. It was clear for a number of reasons that my partner was the logical choice to be subject to arrest, but I was willing to do it. I was the one who negotiated the terms of the arrest with the police. Somebody had to make sure the process stayed peaceful and calm and I did that. This did not make it into the article, but I wasn’t duckin’ or hidin’. I wasn’t runnin’ for the tall grass. I was right there when the whole thing went down, but she created the impression that I was a coward.
The Slant: We read that you took umbrage with Mayer’s use of the mighty exclamation point. Will you elaborate?
Fischer: She added exclamation points to a lot of my quotes, a juvenile practice, which is below accepted journalistic standards. It’s sophomoric. I used to write columns for the Idaho Statesman and occasionally I would put an exclamation point after one of my own statements, because I wanted to emphasize it. The Idaho Statesmen would not let me do it because the rule is you only use exclamation points for commands or for genuine exclamation, like “Wow!” She was in complete violation of journalistic standards throwing these exclamation points at the end of my statements, trying to paint me as this bully. I counted up six. The University of Pennsylvania, which is not a member of the vast right wing conspiracy by the way, has a blog called the “Language Log.” They got wind of the fact that I had complained about her profligate use of exclamation points, so they looked at the New Yorker piece. They counted twelve exclamation points, the vast majority of which were used incorrectly. You know what that means? The standards in journalism at the Idaho Statesman are higher than the standards at The New Yorker.
The Slant: We loved the photograph that ran with Mayer’s article, the one of you in the red 1965 Pontiac LeMans. Nice wheels! You look like one tough dude.
Fischer: The photographer did not want to take any pictures of me smiling. It’s my bad that I went along with that because when I take pictures I smile. He said “No, no, no, no, no, I want a serious picture here.” At the time, I didn’t realize that there was a reason for that. They wanted a picture of me looking as stern as possible. My normal picture is with a big smile on my face. I’m a happy guy, but that would not have fit the template that I’m a bully. So even the photography was slanted.
The Slant: Any final thoughts?
Fischer: The way Jane slanted her piece makes her the real bully.