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Donald Wildmon Dead at 85

American Family Association founder battled indecency with boycotts

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Donald Wildmon, a southern minister who rallied evangelicals to promote decency and reverse America’s moral decline by employing advertiser boycotts as a culture war weapon, died on Dec. 28 after a long battle with Lewy Body Dementia. He was 85.

Ordained a pastor in the United Methodist Church, Wildmon felt a stronger calling to activism after he and his family members saw obscenity, adultery, and torture on primetime network TV just before Christmas 1976.

He organized a “Turn the TV Off Week” in Mississippi in 1977, and in 1978 founded the National Federation for Decency, renamed the American Family Association in 1988.

Wildmon soon quit focusing on tuning out offensive content and instead worked to target the advertisers who supported the programs he found offensive, going after Sears, Procter & Gamble, Disney, Target, Kmart, and other major corporations. His 1989 autobiography was entitled “The Man the Networks Love to Hate.”

He went after Holiday Inn for showing porn movies in rooms and the National Endowment of the Arts for supporting artists such as Andres Serrano. Wildmon sent photos of Serrano’s work “Piss Christ” to members of Congress seeking cuts in funding for the NAE.

One of his biggest victories came in a battle against Playboy, Penthouse, and other sexually explicit magazines.

In 1984, he brought 350 pastors to Cincinnati for a Consultation on Pornography, Obscenity and Indecency, where he used snippets from hard-core porn films and large tables displaying porn magazines to shock the pastors into voting in favor of a nationwide boycott. By 1986, 7-Eleven announced it was going to stop selling adult magazines at its 4,500 corporate-owned stores.

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Other AFA boycotts proved less successful. The Disney boycott ran from 1997 to 2006 with little to show for it. Wildmon claimed the boycott “definitely got Disney’s attention.”

Other boycotts may have accidentally promoted the indecent works AFA condemned. Opposition to the 1988 film “The Last Temptation of Christ” probably increased interest and ticket sales. Writer Neil Gaiman thanked AFA for its help getting the word out about his 2022 Lucifer series, which exceeded 18 billion streaming minutes on Netflix.

In 2017, the National Religious Broadcasters honored Don Wildmon with the NRB Hall of Fame Award. He authored 22 books in his lifetime, and led over over 30 tours to the Holy Land and Western Europe.

Wildmon is survived by his wife Linda, their four children, six grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren.

In 2010, Wildmon passed the leadership of AFA to his son Tim. Two grandsons also work for AFA: Walker Wildmon, AFA’s vice president of operations and a board member of its political arm AFA Action, and Brother Wesley, vice president of outreach.

AFA has a $26 million annual budget and claims that nearly two million listen to its American Family Radio network of stations.

The 1972 emergence of HBO, a subscriber-based cable channel, helped change the economics of boycotts, which are less successful today than in the past, according to Wildmon’s grandson.

“Things have changed so much” since the 1980s, said Walker Wildmon in September. “Consumer behavior has changed since then and today, boycotts are not as effective. Consumers have more options and have allowed convenience and affordability to replace ‘diligence,’” he said.

Main photo: Don Wildmon / Photo courtesy of the American Family Association

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Steve Rabey

Steve Rabey is a veteran author and journalist who has published more than 50 books and 2,000 articles about religion, spirituality, and culture. He was an instructor at Fuller and Denver seminaries and the U.S. Air Force Academy. He and his wife Lois live in Colorado.