End of an era for American Family Association

By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – When he awoke in a Jackson hospital room in October, the Rev. Don Wildmon began to make up his mind.
Wednesday morning, the 72-year-old officially resigned as head man at the Christian organization he’s overseen for more than 30 years.
“As soon as I came to my senses, I decided to pass the torch,” said Wildmon, founder of the American Family Association.
The AFA announced Wednesday that Wildmon no longer would oversee the 10-member board that shapes policy for the organization he founded in 1977.
Wildmon’s decision comes in the midst of his recovery from St. Louis encephalitis, a mosquito-borne illness that hospitalized him in August. He spent weeks in a semi-conscious state before finally regaining his strength and returning home to his wife, Lynda, in November.
Wildmon, a Dumas native and father of four, started the non-profit watchdog out of his living room while serving a charge as a United Methodist minister in Southaven.
He first named it the National Federation for Decency, and he focused primarily on combating the spread of pornography. Over time, the AFA has grown to take on issues like abortion, homosexuality and a galaxy of concerns it views as antithetical to the Christian gospel.
Today, the organization operates on an annual budget of $20 million and employs 175 people. Through the Internet and its 192 national radio affiliates, the AFA delivers its message of conservative, Christian values to millions of devotees.
In 2002 Wildmon handed over the AFA’s day-to-day operations to his son, Tim, but he stayed on to serve as a guiding voice for the numerous ministries.
Since regaining consciousness, Wildmon, the grandfather of six, has endured months of cognitive and muscular rehabilitation, and he gets around today with the aid of a walker, but that hasn’t kept him away from the West Tupelo office.
“We know that he’ll continue to be a guiding presence here, just in a less official capacity,” said Tim, who now serves as president.

Bulldog tenacity
Wildmon is adamant that health problems, not weariness, have pushed him toward the sidelines, but he’s also aware of a trend among several of his colleagues, a kind of changing of the guard among the old soldiers of the Christian Right.
“I talked with James last week,” said Wildmon, referring to Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, an organization that has fought alongside the AFA against secularization, homosexuality and what it considers the disintegration of the American family.
A longtime friend of Wildmon’s, Dobson stepped down as president in 2003 and last year resigned as board chairman.
Wildmon also mentioned evangelists Dr. James Kennedy and the Rev. Jerry Falwell, both of whom died in the last decade, as friends who have passed on in the midst of the proverbial culture wars.
But younger leaders say Wildmon’s clarion call will continue to sound, even in the twilight of his career.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said he was first introduced to Wildmon’s work while serving as a police officer in Louisiana. During his six years at the FRC, he has looked to Wildmon as a mentor.
“He was the real binding force of the Arlington Group, which brought leaders together over the issue of traditional marriage,” said Perkins.
“He’ll continue to be a tremendous ally, giving voice to those who stand for conservative, biblical principles.”
Tim Wildmon said the AFA board will meet Tuesday night and elect a new chairman.
The Rev. Bert Harper will lead that board’s executive committee. The pastor at West Jackson Street Baptist Church served alongside Wildmon for more than 20 years, and he’ll miss his old friend’s “bulldog” tenacity in fighting the creeping secularization of society.
As for the culture he fought so vigorously to safeguard, Wildmon said, “I’d sure love to see us return to Godly, biblical principles, but I’m not sure I’ll see it in my lifetime.”
He’s confident that “good men,” like his son and Perkins of the FRC, will carry on his work.
“God called me to be faithful, but that didn’t always mean successful,” said Wildmon. “I tried not to seek success as the world defined it.”

Contact Galen Holley at (662)678-1510 or galen.holley@djournal.com.