Died: Donald Wildmon, Champion of Christian Boycotts

Donald Wildmon, a Methodist minister who seized on the idea that boycotts would be the best way to make America more moral, freeing television airwaves of suggestions of sex and anti-Christian bias, died on December 28. He was 85 and suffered from Lewy body disease, a type of dementia.

Wildmon organized and mobilized Christians across the country, convincing them that they should exert their combined economic power to influence what was on TV.

Through a succession of organizations he founded in Tupelo, Mississippi—the National Federation for Decency, the Coalition for Better Television, Christian Leaders for Responsible Television, and ultimately the American Family Association—he taught the Religious Right to embrace boycotts as a political tool. Before him, boycotts were primarily associated with the civil rights movement. Many conservatives considered them anti-capitalist, coercive, and un-American. Wildmon changed that.

“What we are up against is not dirty words and dirty pictures,” he said. “It is a philosophy of life which seeks to remove the influence of Christians and Christianity from our society.”

Wildmon also refined and developed boycotting strategies, learning to go after advertisers, rather than TV networks, for maximal effect.

He and his organizations objected to the depictions of sexual situations and suggestions of immorality on All in the Family; Almost Grown; Amen; Benson; Charlie’s Angels; Cheers; The Dukes of Hazzard; Dynasty; The Facts of Life; Family Ties; Full House; and The Golden Girls (going alphabetically); as well as Knight Rider; Knots Landing; L. A. Law; Magnum, P. I.; Matlock; Murder, She Wrote; Saturday Night Live; Three’s Company; Three’s a Crowd; Who’s the Boss?; Wiseguy; The Wonder Years; and many other TV programs.

So they applied pressure to major American corporations from General Motors to General Mills, Pepsi to Clorox, pushing the companies to cancel ads and curtail their financial relationships with ABC, CBS, and NBC.

Wildmon was not always successful. That didn’t bother him.

“I was raised to know that it was not a disgrace to fight and get whipped,” he said.

He was successful enough, on the other hand, that TV executives and civil libertarians called him everything from a religious dingbat and rabble-rouser to a would-be Christofascist censor taking “the first step toward a police state” by organizing “the greatest frontal assault on intellectual freedom this country has ever faced.”

On news of his death Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves praised Wildmon’s “impressive legacy of Christian ministry,” saying it will “live on for many years to come.”

Southern Baptist megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress said, “Don Wildmon was a true pioneer in encouraging pastors like myself and thousands of others to speak out on the great moral issues of the day.”

Wildmon was born on a farm in Dumas, Mississippi, on January 18, 1938. His father Ellis raised cotton on 100 acres. But the family ran into financial trouble, forcing Wildmon’s father to take a job with the state government and his mother, Bernice, to go to work as a school teacher. The family lost the farm and moved to Ripley, Mississippi, when Wildmon was a child.

Raised in a Methodist church, Wildmon felt his first call to ministry at age nine, but as he later recalled to CT, it was kind of vague. He just knew that “the Lord had something special for me to do.”

In high school and college, Wildmon found himself drawn more to journalism. At 16, he started working part-time as a local sports reporter, writing for a newspaper and broadcasting on the radio. He joined the army after college, serving a stint he later described as “miserable,” and then returned to the idea of ministry.

He was ordained in the Methodist Church in 1964 and enrolled in the Candler School of Theology at Emory University the following year. He was initially rejected from Emory because of a weak academic record but, as he later recounted, figured out how to lobby his way in.

“I found out who had influence,” he told CT in 1991.

After graduating with a master’s in divinity, Wildmon was assigned to a church in Tupelo, Mississippi. But the work left him unsatisfied. He started writing on the side, turning out more than a dozen devotional books and starting a syndicated religious column that was published in papers across the South. Most of his columns were on the practical and psychological benefits of religion, often ending with a twist that revealed the person he was writing about was famous.

He still felt bored and constrained, however, like he was “going ’round and ’round and getting nowhere.” He told a friend he had “lost the feeling God had something ‘special’ for me to do.”

Wildmon’s life changed direction in December 1976 when, as he would recount many times, he tried to watch television with his wife and four kids.

“On one channel there was sex,” he recalled. “On another there was profanity, and on the third a guy was preparing to work someone over with a hammer.”

He turned off the TV—and wondered if he could rally others to do the same. Wildmon launched “Turn Off the TV Week” in April 1977, urging his congregation not to watch anything for seven days.

The event received national attention, and Wildmon, who was 39 years old, decided to leave the ministry, take $5,000 he had saved, and start the National Federation for Decency.

“I remember lying in bed thinking, ‘Is this what the Lord wants me to do?’” he said.

It wasn’t clear that short-term boycotts of television shows would have the impact Wildmon wanted to have, though. It was also hard to prove that people were really not watching. So the next year, instead of asking people to not watch TV, Wildmon tried a different approach. He asked people to watch and keep track of every depiction and reference to sex they saw.

He and his supporters viewed 225 combined hours of prime-time television over a 15-week period and, according to their tally, saw something sexual or sexually suggestive more than three times an hour. The vast majority of the references, according to Wildmon, were sex outside of marriage.

Wildmon and his supporters also identified the sponsors of these shows. Instead of complaining to the networks about the programing, Wildmon picked an advertiser to target.

“I regret that it’s come to this,” he told reporters at the time, “but people have a responsibility to support good programming and not support programming they think is prurient. We think that, economically, the sponsors can be held accountable.”

That same year, Tupelo was in turmoil because of a boycott organized by a Black civil rights group called the Union League. Silent marchers, protesting white police violence, had an impact on the local economy. Stores in Tupelo saw sales drop between 10 and 20 percent.

The tactic was criticized for being too aggressive and coercive, but Union League leaders pointed out it was actually working.

“The Black boycott of white-owned stores has not only had an economic effect,” one said, “it’s causing an emotional breakdown in the white community.”

Wildmon adopted the same strategy. As he later explained to CT, he realized he didn’t need to change people’s minds. He needed to change the incentives that were driving their behavior.

“They may be converted to my way of thinking; they may not,” he said. “The bottom line is: Are you going to keep putting things on TV?

The first target was Sears and Roebuck, which was advertising on All in the Family, Charlie’s Angels, and Three’s Company. Wildmon only had about 1,400 people on his mailing list at the time, but he arranged a few strategic pickets at stores around the country and the company’s headquarters in Chicago. A short while later, the company announced it was going to cut back on its investment in TV ads, and Wildmon was able to declare victory.

Wildmon’s activism had an impact even on companies he didn’t target. In the 1980–1981 TV season, Procter & Gamble withdrew ads from 50 different shows. The company, which was spending about $500 million in television advertising at the time, credited Wildmon.

“We think the coalition is expressing very important and broadly held views about gratuitous sex, violence, and profanity,” the CEO said. “I can assure you that we are listening very carefully to what they say.”

Wildmon saw another big success when he moved beyond television to target convenience stores that were selling Playboy, Penthouse, and other pornographic magazines. In 1986, 7-Eleven announced it was going to stop selling pornography at its 4,500 corporate-owned stores. 7-Eleven recommended franchise owners drop the magazines as well.

“It is a good example of what can happen when the Christian community stands together with selective buying,” Wildmon said. “It took us approximately two years, but our voice was heard.”

Wildmon led subsequent protests against Holiday Inn for showing pornographic movies; the National Endowment of the Arts for supporting art many thought obscene; theaters that showed the film Showgirls; and Kmart, which owned Waldenbooks, which sold novels with “erotic” stories about child sexual abuse.

Despite some notable victories, not all conservative Christians agreed with the strategy of boycotts, however. Jerry Falwell Sr., founder of the Moral Majority, initially signed on to work with Wildmon and to contribute $2 million to promote one boycott but later changed his mind. He had questions about whether the approach was too coercive.

TV executives pushed the argument that boycotts are anti-democratic and that Wildmon and people like him were threatening censorship (even though neither Wildmon nor any of his organizations suggested the government should ever be involved in suppressing speech). One called boycotts “a sneak attack on the foundation of democracy.” A poll, commissioned by the networks, showed that 55 percent of those who identified with the Moral Majority did not want to force their opinions on others, and Falwell backed away from that approach.

Other Christians questioned the church’s role in this kind of political activity.

Alan Johnson, a New Testament professor at Wheaton College, told CT that his church participated in the boycott of 7-Eleven, but he thought that was wrong.

“It is inappropriate for the church to become involved in the use of coercive force,” said Johnson, who died in 2018. “When [the church] gets into the business of coercion, it detracts and can even undermine its main mission … which is the proclamation of Christ’s gospel.”

Wildmon, for his part, easily dismissed arguments that he was trying to advance a police state. People could decide what they wanted to buy, he said, and that didn’t undermine democracy or free markets.

He did sometimes think, though, that his political activity might have had a negative effect on his own faith.

“I went through a period where I lost my emotional connection to my faith,” he told CT in 1991. “I’m not entirely out of that period. I don’t know if I will ever regain my emotions.”

Wildmon said this wasn’t because of the boycotts themselves, however. He felt estranged from his faith because so many churches and so many Christians didn’t see the urgency and importance of fighting for public morality like he did. He couldn’t understand why Christians were so focused on church suppers and softball teams when the culture was being overrun by evil.

While he agreed that getting advertisers to pull ads from TV programs with sexual content wasn’t the same as bringing people the Good News of Jesus Christ, he still thought it was related.

“I see it helping make conditions in society conducive to the message that a Charles Colson or Billy Graham or somebody else brings,” he said.

And Wildmon didn’t think conversion was supposed to be the end of Christian life, either.

“Once an individual accepts Christ, what then?” he asked. “Is that it? Is that the sum total reason for the existence of the church?”

The answer seemed clear to him. To be a faithful Christian in contemporary America, Wildmon believed, you had to get involved in politics, protests, and boycotts—even when they weren’t effective.

“God didn’t call me to be successful,” Wildmon told The New York Times. “He called me to be faithful.”

Wildmon is survived by his wife, Lynda, and their children Tim, Mark, Donna, and Angela.

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