Cities without landmarks
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
Yesterday afternoon, I was invited to appear on Focal Point, the radio program hosted by Bryan Fischer. A staunch proponent of “muscular Christianity,” former preacher and unremitting social conservative, Fischer has seen his influence grow in recent months, as journalists, pundits and assorted media hacks look to him as a Jerry Falwell/Pat Robertson-esque figure. Fischer and I first met over a year ago in Houston, at Texas Governor and utterly failed presidential candidate Rick Perry’s football stadium-sized PrayerFest; I interviewed him for a Mother Jones article, he asked if I’d like to come on the broadcast. Of course I eagerly agreed. Since then, we’ve remained in touch, and met up yesterday after his radio program for another candid chat.
So, we met last summer, and at that time, your stature was already rising — but now I feel like you’ve almost become sort of a go-to quote for political media who want to gauge the opinions of social conservatives. How do you perceive the way that you’re viewed now? Do you feel like there’s been an uptick in your notoriety? That you’re being looked to as a representative of an element of the conservative base?
Well you know, I have absolutely no control over who listens to my program, who pays any attention to me, who reacts to what I say. That’s completely out of my control.
So I really don’t even think about that kind of stuff very much. You’ll go crazy, because then you start trying to say things to engineer a response — to keep your profile elevated — and all of the sudden you’re completely off of your mission. Whatever attention or reaction I’ve gotten, I think, is just because I really believe in what I’m saying. And I don’t have any apologies for it. I don’t back down in when I say it. I believe I can defend and support and back up what I say, and if that elicits a reaction, I mean, that’s out of my control. All I can control is what I say and the way I say it.
When did all this attention begin? Has it been within the past year?
Well you know, some of that happened before… I don’t know how to put this exactly. This will probably come out in a way that I don’t intend. Early, when I was here at AFA, it was like I was a kind of novelty act for some of these left-wing people. Like Alan Colmes would bring me on, because I think he thought I was a lunatic. I think the Richard Grenell thing made a pretty big difference.
That was in the spring, right?
That was in the spring, that was back in March. And that was an interesting deal, because all I did was send out a tweet! That whole thing happened because of a tweet! 140 characters!
And again, I didn’t anticipate that the tweet would get any attention or reaction. But it seemed to raise my profile a little bit. I did an interview with CBS about that; right away I was on CNN. I don’t know, that seemed to kind of elevate my profile. You know it’s interesting, I was asking these guys from Australia TV about why they wanted to do a shot of me in my car. I have a 1965 Pontiac Le Mans muscle car, that’s what I drive. I ride a scooter to work most of time.
But the car, if I drive a car, it’s a ‘65 Le Mans. So they wanted to get some footage of me driving this car. And I said, “How did you even know that I had that car?” Well, there was a profile that the New Yorker magazine did on me, Jane Mayer did, which I thought was just ten pages of character assassination. I thought it was just a wretched piece of journalism.
Why did you agree to it?
Because she convinced me that she would be fair and evenhanded.
She has a pretty sterling reputation…
Not with me. [laughter] The thing — anyway, I don’t want to get off my hat. So that New Yorker profile, I’ve had a number of people refer to that. Apparently the New Yorker has some kind of circulation that people pay attention to it. A lot of people weren’t aware of me before that New Yorker piece.
That’s a big deal, being profiled by the New Yorker.
So I’ve gotten some notoriety from that.
What is your postscript on the Rick Perry campaign at this point? Was what you were anticipating last summer at the time of the Prayer Fest — was that borne out? What was the lasting impact of the Rick Perry campaign on the Republican Party? How do you summarize what happened with that?
Frequently, in watching the Romney campaign unfold, I frequently just say — man, I wish Perry had done better. [rueful laughter]
I really think he was the candidate America needs right now. So I was disappointed that he didn’t do better. Part of it, I think, was that Gov. Perry was dealing with some health issues with his back. For those debates you’ve got to stand for two hours. I think he was taking medication to control the pain.
He was wearing special shoes, right?
Yeah. So that’s just one of those quirks of medical fate, which might’ve interfered with how sharp he was. Because I’ve seen him frequently since then, being interviewed, and he’s very fluid and articulate and has got no problem. He just had one or two bad nights. It’s kind of like Todd Akin — you make one boo-boo, and given the way American politics work, sometimes it’s one strike and you’re out. And that’s unfortunate in Rick Perry’s case.
And what about the lasting impact that his failed campaign had on the Republican Party? Because he was seen as being the great hope of social conservatives.
Well I frankly think the thing that’ll hurt Rick Perry more, in thinking about 2016, was his endorsement of David Dewherst in that Senate race — in the primary.
Against Ted Cruz.
Because Cruz was the Tea Party guy. I understand what Gov. Perry did what he did, but …
– and he also endorsed Newt Gingrich! What’d you make of that?
Oh, I don’t know if I’ve got an opinion about that.
Come on Bryan. I know you have an opinion about Rick Perry endorsing Newt Gingrich.
Oh yeah, I was very clear at the very beginning about my reservations with Newt Gingrich. I even had him on my program and told him to his face that I didn’t think he belonged in the White House. I mean, I wasn’t quite that blunt, but –
But that’s what you felt.
Yeah, and I told him as much. I said look — I just think given the conditions of marriages and the American family right now, we need an [inaudible] in the White House.
A war monger, you said…?
[laugher] A ROLE MODEL!
I told Gingrich, I said, “I just think with the troubled personal past that you have, I’m just not sure you’re what we need in the White House.” So I never was a — I loved his brain and all that. He’s an idea factory. I think he oughta have a role in somebody’s administration as the — they oughta have a “Secretary of Ideas.”
Are you proposing the establishment of a new government agency?!?
A new cabinet post!
You’re a Big Government fan now?
With Newt Gingrich as the Secretary of Ideas. So — I think as far as Rick Perry in 2016, he might’ve done more damage by endorsing Dewherst over Cruz, because Cruz was the Tea Party guy and Cruz won that thing. I can understand why Perry endorsed him. He’s the lieutenant governor, and you have loyalty issues and all that. So I don’t fault him for it, but it might’ve hurt him.
There are kind of competing narratives as to what role the social conservative contingent plays in larger GOP coalition. You’ll often hear on the left an alarmism about the prowess of social conservatives — that if we allow them to get power they’re going to subjugate gays and women and everything else. And yet you have social conservatives themselves bemoaning how they’re marginalized — that elites look down on them, that they’re only given lip service, that they’re not valued enough, and that the GOP subverts the will of its true base. So how do you reconcile those divergent narratives, and what do you conclude about them?
Well, you look at the Republican Party platform, and I think you see the influence of the Evangelical base. But I think the base is right that they are marginalized by the Ruling Class Republicans. Though, I don’t see any point in complaining about that. The way you respond is to recruit more people, and get more engaged, and win more elections, and take control of the party, and then you’ll have Big Tent Republicans being the ones complaining. That’s where we would like to get to, where they’re complaining that they’re the ones who are left out.
And what about the treatment of Todd Akin by the Republican elites? Even Paul Ryan condemned him, and I know you’ve expressed support for Ryan on Twitter quite a bit recently, saying that it’s really the “Ryan-Romney” ticket…
Well, the way Todd Akin was treated by his own party was just inexcusable — I mean, that borders on criminal, what his own party did to him. The way they were so willing to push him off the platform and under the train. Then today the Family Research Council poll, I think you’re aware of that –
Yeah, I heard you mention that earlier.
Where Akin is up 45-42. And Reince Priebus last night was saying, ‘We’re not gonna give that guy a penny!’ Those were his words — not a dime, not a dollar — it was a penny! ‘We’re not gonna give him a penny, even if he’s tied!” So it looks like these Ruling Class Republicans, they’re willing to forfeit that seat because they’re in some kind of a snit that somebody stood up to their tyranny.
Did you know Todd Akin at all prior to the infamous incident?
I’ve had him on my program a couple of times, but I’ve never met him, other than having him on my program as a guest. In fact, I had him on the day after he won the primary.
Were you aware that he held those views as to abortion?
Oh yeah — that he was pro-life? Oh yeah.
Well, not just “pro life” — there are gradations of pro life, and he’s thought to be far to one extreme.
You mean because of the exception for rape issue?
Well, yeah. But if you’re pro-life, then you would not support making exceptions in the case of rape. Because in our system of values, we do not punish innocent children for the sins of their father. You’re handing a death sentence out to a child because of a sin or a crime committed by that child’s father. There is no world in which that makes any kind of moral or rational sense from a justice standpoint.
So you don’t believe it’s coherent for someone to affirm that they’re pro life, but carve an exception for rape and incest — that they couldn’t rightly be considered pro life?
Well, I understand why they do it, I’m just saying that’s not a consistent pro life position. If you’re going to be consistently pro life, and you believe that’s a baby in the womb — if you believe that’s a human being in the womb — then there are no circumstances under which that life can be snuffed out.
See, I would agree with that in terms of the consistency of the pro life view — I’m not pro life myself — but I think what you just articulated is correct logically.
I can understand why people do accept the exceptions, because it can be politically expedient, and sometimes there may be legislation that you can move forward if you allow for those exceptions that you would not otherwise be able to get through. So I can understand that. Because if the goal is to protect the lives of innocent babies, and this legislation will protect 99 percent of them, and if we insist on the last 1 percent we don’t protect any babies — well let’s go for protecting the 99 percent. I mean, I understand that.
Switching gears, I have to tell you — when I first appeared on your program last August –
Right after the Prayer Fest thing.
Yeah. I got an email from somebody from the Right Wing Watch group.
And they were kind of astounded that I was on your show, because they said, “He doesn’t ever have people of a secular kind of mindset on his show!” So was I — they indicated that I was your first non-Christian guest. Is that true?
Well, probably. I don’t know, I don’t keep track of that stuff. You might have been the first non-conservative guest I’ve had on the program. I did have Fred Karger on — the Gay that ran for the GOP nomination. I had him on for a segment, and that was a very pleasant conversation. He sent me a thank you card after the interview and all that. … You know, I had talked to Jane Mayer when were were doing the interview, I actually talked about the possibility of her coming on on kind of an occasional basis to provide a point-counterpoint.
OK, so last question. You said on air earlier today that you don’t believe Romney is a Christian. Why is it, then, that we haven’t heard more about the significance of this? Because it’s the first time in American history that anything like this has happened. So… react to what I just said, please.
Well I guess more important you think the spiritual health of a Nation is, the more significance there is to that decision. I think it’s absolutely crucial. I think its’ absolutely central. So for the first time we are — for the first time in our history, we are going to have a polytheist as president if Mitt Romney wins. It’ll be the first time we’ve ever had somebody who has not at least subscribed to an orthodox Christian worldview.
From a Christian standpoint, from the standpoint of the New Testament, Mitt Romney worships a different God. So yeah — if you’re concerned about the spiritual health of our Nation, that’s pretty enormously significant.
You know, I think — see, this whole issue is… anytime you talk about religion and politics, sparks fly and tempers are short and emotions are high. So I think people found it difficult to talk about. But I just look at it from a simple objective standpoint: You lay Mormon beliefs and teachings alongside Christian orthodoxy, and clearly we’re talking about two different religions. I believe we ought to be able to acknowledge that, we ought to be able to admit that, we ought to be able to talk openly about what those differences are. And then people are going to make up their own minds about how important those differences are. There’s no reason why we should shy away from that conversation.
And it’s come up, what Evangelicals should do now. What I’ve always said is, Evangelicals do not need to make an issue out of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism, because the left-wing media is going to do that for us.
But aside from whatever the left-wing media might do, how can you in good conscience vote for Mitt Romney, given what you just said?
I’ll put it this way. What we are faced with is a choice between the lesser of two evils. And Christians should choose less evil.
And you believe Mitt Romney represents less evil than Obama.
Yeah, I — there is absolutely no possible way in this age or the next that I could vote for Barack Obama.
You could vote for a Third Party. You could vote for the Constitution Party.
That’s throwing your vote away.
Who’s the Constitution Party nominee — former Congressman Virgil Goode.
Yeah, that’s fine. But a vote for a Third Party is essentially a vote for Barack Obama. From a pragmatic standpoint, a vote for a Third Party is a vote for Barack Obama. I understand people doing it. I have no complaint with people who in good-conscience say, “I can’t vote for either one of these guys.”
It just seems like the “lesser of two evils” calculus would make sense under most circumstances. But this issue with Romney is really unprecedented in American history. Do you want someone leading the country who you consider avowedly non-Christian?
Well. Ha ha! The answer is no, but what are my choices? Life isn’t a perfect thing, and sometimes you have to choose between two alternatives, neither of which is perfect. You just do the best job you can to make the pick that is at least variance with your values.
And on top of that, Paul Ryan was a devotee of Ayn Rand! The famous atheist!
Yeah, but he’s not a classic libertarian. He believes in the sanctity of life, he believes in the sanctity of marriage.
He might believe in those things, but he was also a devotee of Ayn Rand, who was a famous atheist.
Right, right. But he’s not an atheist. He’s devotee of her political philosophy, but not her spiritual philosophy.
Does the Rand devotion trouble you at all though?
No. Because I know his values. And I know that sanctity of life and marriage — that’s in his DNA. Those aren’t talking points. He’s not reading off some script. He really believes that. And all the energy in the campaign is because of Paul Ryan. Pragmatically, as I’ve said, it’s really the Ryan-Romney ticket, because the grassroots is enthused about Paul Ryan. They know that he shares their values both religiously and morally and politically. And so that gets them revved up. I think if Mitt Romney wins this thing, he’ll have Paul Ryan to thank.
Michael Tracey is a writer based in New York. His work has appeared in The Nation, Mother Jones, Reason, The American Conservative, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @mtraceyMore Michael Tracey.
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