A New York Times story this week highlighted a challenge facing journalists covering the activities of the religious right movement. How do you cover an extremist like the American Family Association's Bryan Fischer?
Fischer is a primary spokesperson for the American Family Association. His radio show is a continuously erupting volcano of bigotry, bile and bullying. He shows the utter lack of concern for the truth that characterizes the Obama-hating right wing. He defines irresponsible extremism in the public arena. Fischer does not deserve to be treated as a credible spokesperson. In a more reasonable world, he would simply be ignored.
Unfortunately, though, in the world we live in, Fischer and the American Family Association sometimes do real harm, in ways that merit news coverage.
One of the AFA's latest targets is an anti-bullying program that has been used by more than 2,500 schools. Mix It Up at Lunch Day is designed to break down barriers between groups of students by assigning seating for lunch one day. The idea is that schools can diminish bullying and the power of social cliques by encouraging students to talk with someone they might not normally speak to.
As the New York Times reported, the AFA this year launched a campaign against Mix It Up at Lunch Day by telling parents that the project is designed to "promote the homosexual lifestyle in public schools." Not true. Even Fischer admitted to the Times that the suggested activities for Mix It Up Day do not address LGBT issues. But, he said, the pro-equality positions of the program's sponsor, the Southern Poverty Law Center, somehow poison the program. Other religious right groups have opposed anti-bullying programs with similarly bogus claims.
The real news in the story is that some 200 schools have cancelled their participation in Mix It Up Day. Even if only a portion of those withdrawals were a result of the AFA campaign, it seems that some school officials are either taking the AFA at its word or just deciding it's not worth standing up to the group's bullying. That is bad news for students and schools.
The Times story quoted an SPLC spokesperson and school officials saying Fischer was lying about the program -- something that should be useful for parents and educators responding to the AFA's attempt to stir controversy over what should be a non-controversial event. The article also made it clear that what is really going on here is the American Family Association seeking to take revenge against the SPLC for designating the AFA as a hate group based on its long record of false and defamatory rhetoric.
And that's where something important was missing from the story. Fischer was quoted saying, "The reality is we are not a hate group. We are a truth group." Also reported was the AFA's ludicrous claim that the SPLC is a hate group for "oppressing Christian students."
So now we have two advocacy groups in effect calling each other haters and liars. Readers who don't already know these two groups should be given some way to evaluate those claims.
Even a cursory look at Bryan Fischer's hit parade -- exhaustively documented by People For the American Way's Right Wing Watch blog and in an in-depth report on Fischer -- makes it clear that his claims should not just be taken with a grain of salt, but rejected outright as the ravings of an unhinged zealot. Fischer claims that:
• The First Amendment was designed to protect only Christians. Islam is not protected by First Amendment guarantees of religious liberty. In fact, he has said, no mosques should be allowed to be built in the U.S. Muslims should be forcibly converted to Christianity or deported.
• President Obama nurtures hatred for the United States, and hatred for "the white man."
• Progressives are unpatriotic, un-American, enemies of God. They hate freedom of religion and free speech. They hate the Declaration of Independence. Satan himself is the source of liberals' dislike for Sarah Palin.
• Gay people are Nazis -- literally and figuratively. He blames gay people for the Nazi Party and the Holocaust. He says gay Americans are just like Nazis in their hostility to freedom of speech and religious liberty. He thinks gay people should not be allowed to hold public office -- that homosexual behavior should be illegal.
• Political and military leaders officials who disagree with him on allowing gay members of the armed forces to serve openly are "treasonous."
• African Americans "rut like rabbits."
• Native Americans deserved to be killed or forced off their lands because they were not Christian and some resisted conversion. They are still being punished by God because some "cling to the darkness of indigenous superstition instead of coming into the light of Christianity."
And there's much, much, more.
So, in one corner, we have the Southern Poverty Law Center, backed by decades of research on extremism in the U.S. and the well-earned respect of journalists and the law enforcement community. And in the other, a blowhard whose record of inaccurate and inflammatory rhetoric should shame every pandering politician who appears on his show. That's something readers should know.