It's lunch hour on a Friday, and Wyatt Roberts steps out into the golden clatter of sunlight and midday traffic on Brazos Street and immediately spies Bill Crocker, vice chairman of administration for the Travis County Republican Party. Crocker greets Roberts warmly and introduces him to two other 50ish men in suits. "This," Crocker says, wrapping his arm around Roberts, "is the craziest man in downtown Austin." Everyone laughs.
photograph by Bruce Dye
Roberts, executive director of the American Family Association of Texas (AFA), has been called a lot worse. He is accustomed to a wide range of labels -- joking or otherwise: Radical right-winger. Homophobic. Nice guy. Computer whiz. Publicity hound. Skilled organizer. What he wants to be called, simply, is a conservative Christian, but that's a tag the secular press seldom uses to describe him -- to the dismay of Roberts and others of his ilk.
Clearly, Roberts is not your average Christian next door. His agenda extends far beyond attending the First Evangelical Free Church of Austin on Sundays and hanging with churchgoers the rest of the week. The Mississippi-born Roberts is a 'round-the-clock watchdog for the Lord. The oldest of five children, he is working to deliver the lot of us from moral decay. He's also one of few single men his age -- he's all of 33 -- who proudly owns up to being a virgin. He has a girlfriend, but he believes conjugal bliss is reserved for heterosexual married partners only.
To many, Roberts is a merciless pest, a ubiquitous housefly, the kind where you go -- Swat! Swat! -- and it buzzes around all the more wildly. But it is Roberts' organizing firepower -- his ability to rally support in both Christian spirit and dollars (thanks in large measure to the high-tech communications apparatus he has assembled) -- that forces people to stand up and take notice, like it or not. Roberts is not just some nut trying to make a name for himself. Okay, maybe he is trying to make a name for himself, but he definitely has his wits about him.
"He's just the right kind of leader we need for this operation," says Ashley Callahan, the Texas AFA operations director. "He has a great demeanor for someone who takes a lot of flak."
Ironically, Roberts' most successful AFA battle to date is one that got him very little flak and, as a result, minimal press coverage. Yet, his effort -- a quick-strike boycott this past fall of Diamond Shamrock, the largest convenience store chain in Texas -- was a carefully orchestrated move designed to halt the sale of Playboy and Penthouse magazines at the company's 1,300 Corner Stores and Stop `N Go shops across the state.
Pull the Porn
In the weeks leading up to the boycott, Texas AFA leaders and a telephone crew of 130 volunteers had been pressuring Diamond Shamrock officials to -- as Roberts would say -- pull the porn. At the time, the San Antonio-based refiner maintained it would continue selling the magazines (in shrink-wrap) because an "extensive study" determined there was sufficient consumer demand for such periodicals. In late October, Roberts turned up the heat, going public with a statewide boycott. There were more letters, more phone calls, and a foot-and-a-half stack of signed petitions.
A week later, Diamond Shamrock announced the creation of new "Family Reading Centers" in all its stores -- sans Playboy and Penthouse. Company officials refused to acknowledge that the boycott played a role in the action, calling the move instead an economic decision based on a "careful study and review of magazine sales...." But in a Nov. 4 letter to Roberts, Diamond Shamrock CEO Roger Hemminghaus informed him of the company's change of heart and thanked Roberts for expressing his opinion "on our magazine sales and the issue of pornography."
Hemminghaus continued, "We hope you will encourage your constituents to shop at our stores for quality gasoline, convenient ATM services, and the wide variety of products that we sell." The next day, Diamond Shamrock announced its new family-oriented marketing niche, with no mention of the fact that the corporation had been in a pro-family pressure cooker for several weeks.
Not all conservative Christians support Roberts' methods, however. Jonathan Schober, the son of an Austin minister, finds Roberts' style rather irksome. "I'm what you would consider one of those crazy, right-wing Christian extremists," says Schober, a 25-year-old Republican party loyalist. "But while I think Wyatt is a nice guy, and I consider him a friend, I don't agree with his tactics. I think it's tragic that he has made himself into a bigger target than he needs to be." Schober, a staunch First Amendment supporter who opposes government regulation of the Internet, also disagrees with Roberts' opposition to the sale of adult magazines. "I don't like pornography, so I choose not to buy it or not to look at it. But I don't think we should make pornography illegal," Schober says.
Triangle Angle Backfires
Since moving to Austin in 1995 from Dallas, Roberts has waged some heady moralistic battles that have made him an unpopular soul in a town where acceptance and tolerance is a point of civic pride. Yet, Roberts claims to hold no personal ill will against individuals for their political or social stances. Lunches, or one-on-one "visits" with adversaries, are not uncommon for Roberts. "It's very easy for me to separate people from policy," says Roberts, who claims to have many friends, including those "on the other side" (meaning gay), with whom he enjoys debating issues. Roberts chortles merrily when asked if one of his friends, a lesbian, is merely a token he uses to publicly counter arguments that he's homophobic. Roberts says he wouldn't bother with tokenism. "Are you kidding?" he asks. "I don't believe in all that affirmative action stuff."
photograph by Bruce Dye
The woman, Kim Franklin-Tope, confirms that the pair's friendship is genuine, although she says she is disappointed that Roberts did not attend her and her partner's wedding in November, held at the Kingdom Seekers and Christ Jesus Church -- a charismatic Bible-thumping church in South Austin, where lesbians and gays make up a large share of the congregation. "I admire Wyatt because he doesn't back down from what he believes," says Franklin-Tope. "So often these days there are people, even pastors, who are easily swayed by popular opinion. Wyatt's stance is unfavorable in a lot of people's eyes, but that's his conviction. He tells me it's his God-given conviction, and I respect that."
Oddly enough, the pair's friendship grew out of Roberts' efforts to bring down her former employer, the Texas Triangle, a lesbian and gay weekly newspaper. In late 1995, Roberts led a boycott against Triangle advertisers and began reading their names on his radio show on KIXL-AM. The paper is still in business, and the station dropped Roberts' show; still, he claims triumph in his effort and credits the boycott with a subsequent financial crunch at the Triangle that seriously threatened the demise of the weekly.
But unlike the Diamond Shamrock case, the evidence just isn't there to support Roberts on his claims of success against the Triangle. If anything, the endeavor brought him scorn and contempt for going after a popular mainstream publication that has earned widespread respect for its refusal to run sex ads, despite the revenue-generating potential that such advertisements offer. And, it gained the Triangle some favorable coverage in the national press.
"If he's concerned about pornography, there are certainly more directions he could take," says Triangle editor-publisher Kay Longcope. "But he targeted a couple of our cartoons and said they advocated pedophilia. That is something that we absolutely abhor." The satirical element in the cartoons, she adds, must have gone over Roberts' head.
Roberts acknowledges that the Triangle has been his greatest challenge since he moved to Austin to replace Jeff Fisher as the head of the Texas AFA. (Fisher is now the director of the Texas Christian Coalition.) Perhaps what he regrets most, though, is the cancellation of his radio program. With a background in music and advertising, Roberts fancies himself a performer. His controversial performance at KIXL, however, cost him his show.
"The management at the station told me that it wasn't so much the message that was causing me trouble, but the methodology. So I agreed to stop broadcasting the names of Triangle advertisers," he says, steering his Mazda northward to El Torito's and a $5.95 lunch buffet. In the cassette player is a tape Roberts recorded of himself. "This is me on the keyboards," he says, raising the volume a bit. The composition is a synthesized, saxophone-sounding piece that rings of early David Sanborn. Roberts, who holds fast to tradition in every other sense of the word, doesn't care for traditional jazz.
"Then," Roberts continues with the story of his KIXL show, "they called me one day and said they were going over some scheduling changes and that my show wasn't cost-effective. They just weren't getting the results they had hoped for." Roberts says he took the news in stride. Now, he's toying with the idea of another show on another radio station, which he declined to name, and says he's in the initial informal chatting stages with the station manager.
Looking back on his early performance when he took over the Texas AFA position nearly two years ago, Roberts concedes he experienced culture shock when he moved here from Dallas, where he was the AFA's communications director. "I didn't understand what Austin was about," he says. "It certainly wasn't like Dallas at all."
A Higher Calling
Kirk Overbey, a member of the state Republican executive committee who doesn't count himself as an AFA member, regards Roberts as an effective leader. But he acknowledges what is sometimes an awkward relationship between local Republicans and conservative Christians. "I think he is appreciated a lot more outside of Travis County," Overbey says. "Republicans in Travis County are a lot more concerned with their image than in other parts of Texas. So I wouldn't say Roberts is that influential within the party. But I don't think he tries to be. His main purpose is what he does in the AFA."
photograph by Bruce Dye
Callahan, the operations director for Texas AFA, sees Roberts coming into his own as an aggressive leader in the pro-family movement, which is gaining in popularity with more and more young people. "You're starting to see a lot more young conservatives like Wyatt taking on leadership roles in the AFA," says Callahan, who himself was active in the Young Conservatives of Texas at the University of Texas.
Indeed, the AFA could be regarded as a training ground for a higher calling, such as a leadership post in the much more visible and politically active Christian Coalition, led by politician-evangelist Pat Robertson. By contrast, the Tupelo, Miss.-based AFA, founded in 1977 by the Rev. Donald Wildmon, focuses the bulk of its energies on trying to eradicate society's moral ills.
The true test of leadership in organizations such as the AFA and the Christian Coalition can be measured in how well the leaders hold up to criticism. So it could be concluded that people like Roberts -- people who can weather (some would say relish) heated opposition to unpopular stances -- are the ones who prove to be the conservative Christians' most valuable soldiers on the battlefield.
"The AFA is made up of people who are not going to sit idly by and watch the country go down the drain," Roberts says. "I believe that every person can make a difference. If I feel like God wants me to do something, whether it's popular or not or whether I succeed or not, I've still got to do it. Failure doesn't dissuade me."