In April, Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican Presidential nominee, hired an openly gay man, Richard Grenell, to serve as his campaign’s national-security spokesman. The next day, Fischer launched a public attack on Grenell, a Republican foreign-policy expert who had previously worked as the spokesman for John Bolton, President George W. Bush’s Ambassador to the United Nations. Fischer had no argument with Grenell’s political views, which are consistently hawkish. The problem was his sex life: gay men, Fischer said, have “random, frequent, and anonymous sexual encounters—that becomes a significant issue when we talk about appointing somebody to a post as sensitive as the spokesman for national security.” After other conservative pundits took up Fischer’s cause, Grenell resigned from the Romney campaign. The resulting controversy has helped make gay rights one of the defining social issues of the 2012 campaign.
The one-story concrete building where Fischer works is indistinguishable from neighboring offices occupied by dentists, except that its front entrance features a statue of a fetus enshrined in a heart and a shoulder-high stone tablet inscribed with the Ten Commandments. Inside, plaques bearing the words “In God We Trust” underscore that this is the national headquarters of the American Family Association, a nonprofit advocacy group. A “pro-family ministry” founded in 1977, it promotes Bible-based social conservatism and criticizes what it regards as sinful popular culture.
Like much of the religious right, the A.F.A. was losing traction until Barack Obama was elected President, in 2008. His victory galvanized the group. Its leaders saw Obama as a radical proponent of godless socialism. According to a former employee, staff members at the Tupelo office passed around an image of Obama’s face blended with that of Adolf Hitler, against a backdrop of a swastika. The former employee, who found the image disrespectful, recalls, “Things really took a turn. They were no longer civil about the opposition. The goal became to defeat Obama.” In 2009, the A.F.A. hired Fischer as its director of issue analysis and as the host of “Focal Point,” which is broadcast from a studio across the street.
The American Family Association’s radio network comprises two hundred stations in thirty-five states, and Fischer’s program reaches more than a million listeners a day. That’s a fraction of Rush Limbaugh’s audience, but as large as that of Rachel Maddow or Chris Matthews, on MSNBC. Until recently, Fischer’s rising popularity escaped notice in the mainstream media, in part because his show is broadcast primarily on stations in the Southeast and the Midwest, including small cities such as Tullahoma, Tennessee, and Piggott, Arkansas. But his program is part of a parallel media universe that provides news and commentary, on everything from science to American history, from a perspective that is far to the right of Fox News.