Donald E. Wildmon, a conservative activist whose alarm over indecency on television spawned a national organization, the American Family Association, a once powerful cog of the Christian right, and who led boycotts over sexuality and gay themes in some of America’s most popular TV shows and in the arts, died in Tupelo, Miss., where he lived, on Dec 28. He was 85.
The cause was Lewy body dementia, according to a statement posted by the American Family Association.
Mr. Wildmon’s crusades beginning in the 1970s against boundary-pushing trends in popular culture and the arts — including high-profile attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts — were an early thunderclap of the culture wars that have moved from the fringe of the Republican Party to its mainstream.
A former pastor in the United Methodist Church, Mr. Wildmon became a lightning rod for liberals, who attacked him for bigotry and stifling free speech. In 1981, the president of NBC, Fred Silverman, a champion of socially conscious television, said that Mr. Wildmon’s threats to boycott advertisers were “a sneak attack on the foundation of democracy.”
“A boycott,” Mr. Wildmon responded in an interview with The New York Times that year, “is as legal and as American as apple pie.”
Over more than three decades, groups that Mr. Wildmon led boycotted Target stores for substituting the word “holiday” for “Christmas,” ran full-page ads denouncing the 1990s police drama “NYPD Blue” for “steamy sex scenes” and picketed a Hollywood studio over Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” which portrayed Jesus as having sexual desires.
Mr. Wildmon also called for national brands to withdraw their ads in 1982 from an NBC-TV movie written by the poet Maya Angelou, “Sister, Sister,” in which a woman has a relationship with a minister who embezzles from his church. Mr. Wildmon said the movie — which he had not seen — promoted “negative stereotyping of Christian people.”
Though he sometimes played up a folksy country persona in national TV interviews, Mr. Wildmon was sophisticated about the bottom-line ways of TV executives and big brands.
“People may call me an ignorant bumpkin,” he once said. “I don’t mind. The more they are mistaken, the better it is for me.”
His boycotts did not always hit the mark. The protests against “The Last Temptation of Christ” in 1988 only raised awareness of the movie, which opened to long lines and sold-out shows in major cities.
In 2006, the American Family Association and other groups announced a boycott of Ford Motor over its sponsorship of gay pride events and advertising in publications aimed at gay readers. Nearly a year later, Ford had not changed those practices.
Other Wildmon campaigns were more effective. He was credited with pushing the Southland Corporation to remove Playboy and Penthouse from 7-Eleven stores in 1986 after testifying before a Reagan administration commission that pornography was linked to violence.
In 1981, the chairman of Procter & Gamble, Owen B. Butler, said it had withdrawn ads from 50 TV shows after threats of a boycott from Mr. Wildmon and the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the leader of the Moral Majority, who teamed up to form the Coalition for Better Television.
“We think the coalition is expressing very important and broadly held views about gratuitous sex, violence and profanity,” Mr. Butler said at the time. “I can assure you that we are listening very carefully to what they say.”
While still a pastor, Mr. Wildmon had a revelatory moment over the Christmas holidays in 1976 when he gathered around the television with his family. He kept switching channels — from a program with an adultery scene, to another with profanity, to a third with a man attacking someone with a hammer — before telling his children to turn off the set and resolving to do something about what he considered immoral content.
He challenged his church in Southaven, Miss., to forego TV for a week. The story was picked up by local news media, then nationally, and Mr. Wildmon found a new calling. He resigned from the ministry and moved his family to Tupelo, where in 1977 he founded the National Federation for Decency, later renamed the American Family Association. By 1989, his campaigns against popular culture brought in $5.2 million that year in donations into his group.
That year, Mr. Wildmon was at the forefront of attacks against the National Endowment for the Arts over grants for work that conservatives considered obscene. As a right-wing fury enveloped the small federal agency, hearings over its budget brought the actress Jessica Tandy, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma and others to Washington to passionately defend it.
Mr. Wildmon had sent a photograph in 1989 to every member of Congress of a work by the artist Andres Serrano of a small crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine, which had appeared in an exhibition with partial N.E.A. funding. “I would never, ever have dreamed that I would live to see such demeaning disrespect and desecration of Christ in our country that is present today,” Mr. Wildmon wrote lawmakers.
The Serrano work, along with an exhibition that included sexually provocative photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe that the N.E.A. also helped underwrite, led Republicans in Congress to pass legislation requiring the N.E.A. to uphold “general standards of decency” when funding art. The Supreme Court later ruled that the requirement did not violate the First Amendment.
In 1990, the chairman of the N.E.A., John E. Frohnmayer, clashed with Mr. Wildmon during an appearance together on CNN. “My question for you,” Mr. Frohnmayer angrily asked, “is what has your association done for the family lately?” He was forced out of the job by President George H.W. Bush two years later when N.E.A. funding became an issue in Mr. Bush’s re-election campaign.
Donald Ellis Wildmon was born on Jan. 18, 1938, in Dumas, Miss., the youngest of the five children of Ellis Wildmon, a venereal disease investigator for the state health department, and Bernice T. Wildmon, a schoolteacher. He graduated from Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., in 1960 and from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in 1965. Ordained by the United Methodist Church, he was appointed to several congregations in Mississippi and Georgia before leaving the ministry to start the activist group that would become the American Family Association, whose leadership he passed on to a son, Tim Wildmon, in 2010.
In addition to his son Tim, he is survived by three other children, Angela and Mark Wildmon and Donna Wildmon Clement; his wife of 62 years, Lynda Bennett Wildmon; a sister, Louise Yancy; and six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
In many ways, Mr. Wildmon’s crusades sought to hold back powerful tides of modern American life, where acceptance of gay rights has gradually become mainstream and most restraints on violence, profanity and sex on television, especially streaming, gave way long ago.
“It’s not sex per se I object to,” Mr. Wildmon said in 1981. “It’s the constant, gratuitous dwelling on it. I’m saying there ought to be more balance.”