Fox News commentator Todd Starnes began his journalistic career in newspapers before moving into public relations at Baptist Press and the Baptist Union University in Jackson, Tenn. While in Jackson, he started work at the local talk-radio station. He ended up improving the ratings of that station so much he got a promotion to the Sacramento, Calif., market, where he came to the attention of Fox News. I recently spoke with Todd Starnes at the International Christian Retail Show in Atlanta where he was promoting his new book, God Less America.
Can you recount what got you out of public relations at Union University and back into straight journalism? A lot of journalists in our line of work go to the promised land of PR where the paychecks are a little bit bigger. I think that was one of the factors. You have better hours, and you’re not always on the clock. You’re not beholden to the breaking news story. I didn’t realize until I got out of journalism how much I missed that. A tornado had actually hit our town and had knocked out power to the local newspaper. It hit Jackson, and it almost flattened Union University, too, which is of course a big story.
The newspaper was without power, and I remember being out there and surveying the damage. I had overheard the conversations, and I said, “Why don’t you guys just bring your whole news operation over to the university?” They did. They actually set up the entire newspaper in our university communication offices, and they were able to get that newspaper out without missing a deadline. That was, for me, the sign of, “You know what? Time to get back into journalism.” Fortunately, we had an outlet of Clear Channel Communications, one of the massive media conglomerates. They own the stations here in town. I went on the staff as their news director, and about a year later was hired at their affiliate in Sacramento.
When you were at that station in Jackson, even though it was owned by a big conglomerate, it wasn’t doing that great in the ratings. But you did something that changed the landscape a little. Can you describe what happened? Let me preface this by saying Dave Ramsey would not approve of what I did. The Passion of the Christ movie had just come out, and we were looking at a way to market our station and to really connect with our listeners. We had no budget for PR at all. I cashed in my 401(k) plan, and I purchased all the opening night tickets to The Passion of the Christ in our community, in Jackson. We gave away those tickets on the air. … It was this idea of identifying your market, understanding who your listeners were. As a result of that movie coming to town, we were able to build a really strong audience there.
On the strength of your success there, you moved on to Sacramento. What happened there? I was having a blast at the KFBK, the great station there, and one day I got sick. I went to the doctor. I thought I had bronchitis. Long story short, my aortic heart valve was in the process of failing, and I had to have open-heart surgery at the age of 37 years old. … My news editor said, “Hey, why don’t you think about keeping an audio journal of your experiences going through this?” I said, “Okay.” When the surgery time came, we actually had a reporter in the surgery suite tdocumenting what the doctors were doing. That series ended up winning the Edward R. Murrow Award and also won the Associated Press Mark Twain Award for Storytelling. And, just to gush, a few months after the heart surgery, I received a telephone call from Fox News. They said they were getting ready to launch a new radio news network and asked if I would be interested in coming to work at Fox News Radio.
What was your first job at Fox? I was the overnight anchor, which is banker’s hours in reverse, 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. It was not a glamorous gig. … From anchoring, they moved me to reporter. [I] had the honor of covering the 2008 presidential campaign. I was embedded with the Obama side of the campaign and met a lot of wonderful people. Then just about three years ago, we launched a Paul Harvey-style news and commentary, which is on nearly 400 stations.
You’re clearly outspoken about your Christian faith. Fox News has a reputation of being conservative but not necessarily Christian. How’s that been for you? I think that Fox is faith-friendly. They’re willing to give all faiths a shake. They do a good job telling faith stories, and I appreciate that as a Christian. Not once have I been censored. Not once have they said, “No, you can’t do that story. Stay away from that story.” They give me full autonomy in my column, in my commentaries, whatever I want to write about. They’re more than happy to do it as long as we tell both sides of the story there. I enjoy doing that because I want people to see, for example, how the atheists think. What is their argument? Ultimately, since I’m a columnist, I do get to have my say in the piece. But I do try as best as possible to present both sides of the story.
Is it fair to say some of your opinions have gotten you into trouble? Oh, sweet mercy. That may be the understatement of the year. … Look, when I write something, I think that it’s fair game. People are going to be able to talk about it one way or the other. They’re going to like it; they’re going to hate it. I’m not any of those things that people say I am, and the left loves to target people. They like to smear them with, “Oh, that person is … They don’t support gay marriage. That means they’re a homophobe or they’re a hater. They’re a bigot.”Growing up in the Southern states, I think the racism part is what really gets to me more than anything else because I count many people of many different shape, sizes, and colors to be my friends. At the end of the day, when things like that happen, when people hurl insults your way, I just kind of let them slide. I don’t respond to that kind of stuff. It is what it is. People who know me, my friends, my family, they know the kind of person that I am.
And Fox is not intimated by that sort of thing? We have a lot of commentators at Fox who face the same kinds of things. One of the things that I do try really hard to do in my piece is not get personal in the attacks. I love going after the issues, but I don’t hurl the personal insults. That’s something that I try not to do. Yeah, they would get concerned if I went and said, “Hey, this is an issue,” because I do get a lot of death threats, get a lot of nasty e-mails, stuff like that but so far, nothing that’s really led to me being nervous or anything like that. I am a member of the [National Rifle Association], by the way.
Have there been moments where your Christian faith has not been in lockstep with the conservative point of view of some of your Fox colleagues? I think there’s always going to be differences of opinion. … There’s a minister out in Chicago who said, “We don’t need people bowing down to the Democratic donkey or the Republican elephant. We need people bowing down to the light of Judah.” There is this idea, especially in the conservative, evangelical Christian faith that the Republican Party is our party. I try to dispel that idea in the book.For example, when you go back and look at all of the major cultural decisions that had been decided in this country, those were decided by Supreme Court justices appointed to the bench by Republican presidents, not Democratic presidents, Republican presidents. I think people need to understand they should not be beholden to a political party. This is far beyond politics. This is about religious liberty. This is about being able to freely worship God.
I’m assuming that since you wrote a book about the subject that you think religious liberty is a defining issue for our day. I certainly do. … I was talking to Rick Warren one day. He was at Fox News, and he said that he believes religious liberty is going to be the civil-rights issue of our generation. This is Rick Warren saying this. This is not the late Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. … We’re starting to see many pastors who have not been talking about these kinds issues starting to speak up because they understand what’s coming. They see the tide has turned. They see what’s happening over in Canada where pastors are frequently accused of being haters or accused of violating hate crime laws from the pulpit. I think this is a very, very important issue, and I think it’s going to become a much more important issue in the days ahead.
Talk about your book, God Less America. One of the ideas on the book is that if we have a God-less America, perhaps God won’t continue to bless America. I wanted to make a play on that phrase because … I was covering a story once about this atheist group. They wanted to take God out of the Pledge of Allegiance. I’m like, “Who are we going to pledge allegiance to?” You know, “I pledge allegiance to ‘blank?’” When you look at our founding documents, we are endowed by our creator. If you take “creator” out, who do you put in there? Who is going to guarantee us those rights? If you look back through history, whenever you insert a man’s name in that phrase, it doesn’t work out. It always leads to tyranny, and it leads to horrible things. … We have in this country an ongoing war on religious liberty that is specifically targeting the Christian faith. Unless you’re reading magazines like WORLD Magazine, unless you’re reading my column, you’re not going to know anything about this. That’s really been the thing for me is people read 250-some-odd pages of evidence and they’re like, “We had no idea this was going on in the country.” This is a significant issue that people need to pay attention to.
What is some of that evidence? For example, in the United States military, our soldiers were told in training briefings that evangelical Christianity and Roman Catholicism were examples of religious extremism right up there with Hamas and al-Qaeda, that organizations like the American Family Association and the Family Research Council were considered to be domestic hate groups. These sorts of things are simply outrageous, and you really have to sit back and wonder, who is deciding all of these, and what is the ultimate end-goal?
[Look at] the baker in Colorado, Jack Phillips right outside of Denver [at] Masterpiece Cakeshop. I think most of your listeners are aware of the particulars. But what really got me was the punishment they handed down to this man that he was going to have to take his staff through re-education training, as if the way they’ve been brought up, the morals they’ve been taught are somehow wrong and they have to be rectified. That really is outrageous. I don’t care what religion you are. If you don’t want to bake a cake, you will not have to bake that cake. I wouldn’t go into a gay bakery and [say] you need to make some sort of a cake that supports traditional marriage. Why would I do that? What why you do that?
If some of our listeners do read your book, what do you want them to take away? I want them to be alarmed, but I also want them to be educated so that they can take action. I think a lot of folks out there feel like there’s no one in the mainstream media talking for them. … I want to be that person. I want to be their voice. I write in the first line of the book, “I feel like a Duck Dynasty guy living in a Miley Cyrus world.” I think a lot of other people feel just like that, that something is just not right. I want them to be encouraged, though, because, at the end of the day, we know that true hope and change doesn’t happen at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. It happens at the foot of the cross. I want people to understand that there is hope, but that hope is in our Lord. It’s not in a political party, and that, together—and there are a lot of us—together we can take a stand and we can do so not out of anger, not out of hate, but out of love and compassion for our country. I believe that God’s going to bless our land.
Listen to Warren Cole Smith’s full interview with Fox News commentator Todd Starnes on Listening In: