Author of the following is Ron Alridge, television critic for the Chicago Tribune. It is reprinted by permission of the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate, Inc.

The Rev. Don Wildmon just won’t go away. The conservative United Methodist minister from Tupelo, Mississippi, who heads the National Federation for Decency, has been ridiculed, ignored, and publicly debated, but somehow he always lands on his feet.

The latest survival exercise came when Wildmon appeared on the popular nationally syndicated “Phil Donahue” talk show, which the minister’s TV-monitoring group has attacked as too sexy.

An unusually large “Donahue” audience was on hand for the taping, mainly because it occurred in Salt Lake City, where fans don’t routinely get a chance to be in the audience and where the arena is larger than the show’s regular studio in Chicago.

Donahue introduced Wildmon politely, urging the audience to make him feel welcome. Wildmon, wading through the applauding crowd to take his place alongside the host, appeared slightly nervous and drawled that he must be crazy to publicly debate such a talented foe. It was the same technique the country slick preacher used to cast himself as the underdog at the outset of last June’s debate with CBS vice-president Gene Mater. Wildmon won that debate—decisively.

This time there was no clear winner, though Wildmon probably gained the most points simply because he didn’t fall on his face. Donahue was firm, but fair. Wildmon was sincere and gentlemanly.

Donahue argued that discussing sexual topics on television is informative and helpful to many people; Wildmon said such discussions often help legitimize what he considers immoral behavior. Donahue chided Wildmon for trying to censor TV; Wildmon said he has no power, only the opportunity to persuade and the right to try. Wildmon defended his threatened boycott of TV sponsors as both American and democratic. Donahue said advertisers were too scared to withstand such pressure.

And so it went, a fencing match between a clever city boy and a clever country boy, with neither side puncturing a vital organ. The audience frequently voted for one man or the other by applause, boos, and hisses. Support seemed evenly divided. It was a good show, and a highly spirited one.

Both men came out looking good, though an on-camera appearance by Donahue’s beautiful, charming wife, Mario Thomas, was a bit much—especially when she talked about what a great guy her beleaguered husband is. Whether intended or not, it smacked of a stunt designed to win sympathy and support for Donahue.

People are forever surprised when Wildmon waltzes through the spotlight of public attention and emerges unscathed. Many people, such as the folks at CBS who dreamed up last June’s disastrous Wildmon-Mater debate, seem to think he is so hickish, so wrong, so ignorant that mere exposure will cause him to dry up and blow away. Previously, the strategy was to ignore him. From time to time, there have been full-scale counterattacks. Nothing has worked.

What Wildmon’s opponents fail to grasp is that he’s surviving, thriving, and gaining influence because he is (a) sincere, (b) smart, and (c) more than a little right.

I’ve had numerous discussions with Wildmon, and I’ve attacked and defended his various actions. Although I have many misgivings about some of his views, I have no doubt that he is a fundamentally decent, well-intentioned man who believes, correctly, that television is a major cultural force in our society. Given a choice between believing Don Wildmon and believing most of the many network executives I’ve met, I would opt for Wildmon.

You may not agree with Wildmon’s moral code, but he has one, and he makes no apologies for it. He thinks sex is a beautiful gift from God that belongs in the marital bed. He objects to drinking and profanity. He cherishes family life, opposes homosexuality, and thinks people should worship God. He claims to love all people, from gays to murderers, but not necessarily their acts. “We’re all God’s children,” he’s fond of saying. Wildmon is that rare breed of Christian fundamentalist who doesn’t seem to have a mean streak.

When Wildmon looks at television, he sees a medium brimming with promiscuity, profanity, violence, alcoholic beverages, and irreverence. Religious people are shown as fools, he asserts, family life is distorted, and traditional Christian values are woefully underrepresented. To those who prescribe the TV set’s off button as a cure for such video ills, Wildmon says that’s like fighting crime in the streets by staying inside. Now here’s what’s important about the assertions in this paragraph: Wildmon is right. And that’s why he won’t go away.

Wildmon has a faith in the masses that lets him believe that one man, speaking out from the obscurity of Tupelo, Mississippi, can make a difference. Like a minister with a calling, he is convinced that he must try. And he is trying, sometimes stubbing his toe along the way, but always trying. He says he doesn’t want to control every show that goes out on the public airwaves, but he would like to have his values represented more fully and fairly by them.

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Wildmon has reasoned that commercial television responds only to commercial pressures; that you can’t appeal to a network’s morals but you can appeal to its profits. Therefore, he applies his muscle to advertisers, urging them not to sponsor certain types of programming and threatening to boycott them if they don’t comply. Wildmon notes, again correctly, that boycotts are part of the democratic process. Remember the civil rights boycotts of the 1960s?

Too often, the response to this deceptively complex man has been a simpleminded attack rather than a thoughtful effort to understand and explain him. Wildmon is the leader of an important, perilous, somewhat remarkable social movement. There are reasons he and his movement exist. And neither will disappear until those reasons disappear.

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