Whatever your opinion of the politics of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, or Ralph Reed, generally they have done their political activism in plain view of the citizenry whose personal lives their policies if enacted, would alter dramatically. Not so with James Dobson. This year is the twentieth anniversary of the found-ing of his giant political action organization known as Focus on the Family, and yet most people would say, “James who?” That is because of two important factors.
James Dobson lobbies Washington more powerfully than any individual or organization within the religious right. As a quick reference point, in December of 1996 the second most influential leader of the religious right, Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition, announced excitedly that 1996 donations to his coalition had reached a lofty $26 million—a 38% increase over the previous year’s contributions.1 In contrast, Dobson’s organization, Focus on the Family, plus his Washington lobbying arm, the Family Research Council, raised approximately $125 million during the same period. But Dobson does his lobbying without answering to the mainstream public for his positions. He consciously avoids contact with the national press and shuns the media talk-show circuit. He deliberately eschews the public spotlight, choosing instead to do his political scheming in private so as not to be questioned or challenged. When he is queried about the size and nature of his political agenda, he responds with calculated deception, indicating that any activism on his part or his organization’s is so minor as to be of no real consequence.
The other reason people know so little about this particular powerhouse within the religious right is that no one inside his organization has ever spoken out in this way before. Remarkably, mine is the first published critique of the behind-the-scenes James Dobson in his more than 20 years in public life. And it comes to you from a somewhat unlikely source, a former devoted fan.
Allow me to take you, rapid-fire, through the observations of numerous professionals regarding the question of Jim’s influence. For example, in a lengthy profile of Dobson, Tim Stafford observes:
[Dobson] is heard on more radio stations than anyone but Paul Harvey. But while Paul Harvey offers news and cracker-barrel philosophy, James Dobson asks his listeners to take action: to organize against pornography in their communities, to write to Washington. And they do. Few organizations anywhere can mobilize the supporters that Dobson can.
In early 1987, angered that government officials had silenced Joanne Gaspar [a member of Reagan’s domestic policy staff] for her anti-abortion decisions, Dobson inspired 100,000 letters to the White House. Gaspar was restored to power. Largely because of such public clout, Dobson has developed considerable influence in Washington.2
In the fall of 1995 ABC television did a prime-time profile of Jim that included this opening statement by “Day One” anchor Forrest Sawyer followed by the second observation by ABC reporter John Hockenberry:
He is one of the powerful men in the country, and yet few people even know his name.
On Capitol Hill he’s treated like some kind of powerful lobbyist. You’ve probably never heard of him but James
Dobson is one of the most influential leaders of the religious right. Dobson’s vision to transform America is known to every member of the House and Senate and he’s been deliv-ering his message to the White House in person for years.3
In advance of the August 1996 Republican Convention, Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, observed in an ABC television interview,
In many ways James Dobson is the ultimate stealth cam-paigner. He is a person who likes power, who likes to be a king maker. I think you could make a strong case that if you had a deadlocked Republican convention, if you were a can-didate you’d be more interested in getting the support of James Dobson than the support of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson combined.4
I met James Dobson for the first time in late 1976, and agreed to produce for him the very first “Focus on the Family” radio broadcast for airing in March of 1977 on a small network of stations our agency signed up for his fledgling nonprofit corporation by the same name.
I worked closely with Jim for the next decade, first in an agency-client relationship and then inside Focus on the Family as a voting member of the board of directors as well as the corporation’s senior vice-president for creative services. In that role my staff and I had responsibility for creating the core elements of the Focus on the Family communications enterprise—Dobson’s internationally distributed radio, television, and print media products, the contents of which focused on either family life or politics. If you were a consumer of psychologist James Dobson’s best-selling products, you might think of him a religious version of Dr. Benjamin Spock or Dr. Joyce Brothers. If you were a consumer of Dobson’s political fare, you might regard him as a religious version of Pat Buchanan.
The enormous scope of the communications empire we were able to build will explain why James Dobson has such influence; why, for example, Dobson was selected by the staff of Time magazine to be a semi-finalist for its June 1996 list of the 25 most influential people in America. The daily half-hour radio talk-show our Chicago agency launched in 1977 is now carried by over 1,500 stations in North America and 3,400 stations worldwide, with an estimated audience of well over five million loyal listeners. Richard Turner of Newsweek magazine reported in the December 16, 1996, issue on what he called “The Inescapable Voices of America.” He referred to “A handful of radio personalities who reach listeners coast to coast….” “Radio’s most successful talking heads,” he called them. According to Turner, the five most listened-to radio personalities are Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura Schlesinger, Howard Stern, Don Imus, and Dr. James Dobson.5
When Dobson opposes or supports legislation and calls on his followers to join him in pressuring Washington, it is quite common for 500,000 to 1 million phone calls and letters to rain down on the capital within hours. All five candidates for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination traveled to Colorado to seek Dobson’s endorsement, some as many as four times. Time magazine was right. This is an American kingmaker. And he warrants our close scrutiny for a number of disturbing reasons.
DOBSON’S CIVIL WAR
The first time some of us heard that the religious right, or those cultural conservatives who have a religious component to their political activism, had actually declared “war” on the rest of us was probably during Pat Buchanan’s infamous speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention. He spoke combatively, in terms that chilled many listeners, of a religious war in America, something few thought possible. His eerie words brought home to millions of us the repulsive feelings associated with holier-than-thou moralists who presume to have a corner on right and wrong and who seem to be itching to fight about it.
Two years earlier a secretive but increasingly powerful political organizer, psychologist, radio talk-show host, millionaire businessman, and author by the name of James Dobson had spoken even more bluntly of hostilities within our society—not differences or debates, but war. Dobson wrote his particular declaration of war, his manifesto of contention, in a book titled Children at Risk that was published in 1990. In it he spoke of a “Second Great Civil War”:
Nothing short of a great Civil War of Values rages today throughout North America. Two sides with vastly differing and incompatible worldviews are locked in a bitter conflict that permeates every level of society. Bloody battles are being fought on a thousand fronts…. Open any daily newspaper and you’ll find accounts of the latest Gettysburg, Waterloo, Normandy, or Stalingrad … someday soon, I believe, a win-ner will emerge and the loser will fade from memory.6
On reflection one wonders what it is in a man that causes him to see in the faces of all around him only the enemy; what it is in his spirit that causes to be reflected back to his gaze only images of conflict, hostility, and war, struggles to the death where there must be a winner and a loser whose memory is obliterated from the earth. I believe James Dobson’s declaration of war is a reflection of his own temperament and disposition. He is a man at war because he is a man of war. An outsider might speculate in reading Dobson’s assessment above that either he sees a real threat or he’s more than a little paranoid, prone to hyperbole, believes in conspiracy theories, and is given to doom-and-gloom prognostications. But I was an insider. No speculation needed here. The answer is the latter—it is not that he sees a problem, he is a problem.
If our children came home talking like Dobson we’d take them directly to a psychiatrist because these ruminations of death and bloody conflict are not the outlooks of the healthy, balanced psyche we wish for them, one that would enable them to be productive members of society. We would worry for their well-being. It is no less worrisome a worldview in the grown man and self-proclaimed moral leader whose declared intention it is to reshape America’s public policy to his own ultraconservative religious liking.
In Children at Risk, Dobson goes on to explain that on one side of the enormous chasm dividing Americas are those people of traditional beliefs which he describes as rooted in the Bible, the Ten Commandments, the New Testament, and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Dobson believes that Christian, biblical understandings underlie almost every moral issue of the day. What we hear in this assessment is that traditionalists and conservatives, those who vote with Dobson, do so because they are oriented toward the New Testament and Christianity. What Jim means here is that if you are a conservative Jew or a traditionalist who is also an atheist, you have political beliefs that are Christian. You just don’t realize it. In other words, political values like Jim’s—lower taxes, smaller government, larger defense, the elimination of the Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Arts, the barring of women and homosexuals from military service—rep-resent Christian politics, right politics.
Dobson claims that until thirty years ago the basic values and beliefs in the West, which Congress and the judicial system reflected, were biblically based concepts. If you’re wondering about the time our “biblically based” Congress and judiciary determined in their “biblically based” wisdom that blacks were personal property and slavery was moral and it was irreligious for women to vote, I’m not sure what chapter and verse of the Bible Jim would point to for an explanation. But if you gave him sufficient time, I’m confident he could offer some reason for his sweeping generalization.
Dobson then describes the other side of the rift dividing society, those with whom he sees himself locked in a bitter, bloody moral struggle for the very soul of America. They are the secular humanists, people for whom “God isn’t,” and for whom right is determined by whatever seems right at the time. According to Jim all manner of evil, such as abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia, flows from these godless Americans. Because of them “everything emanating from the Creator was jettisoned, including reverence for Scripture or any of the transcendent, universal truths.”7
Dobson goes on, in Children at Risk, to lament that his values are incessantly mocked by the media, children are corrupted by TV, obscenity abounds, and the government is encroaching upon his constitutional freedoms. Humanistic values dominate in the power centers of society, in Jim’s view. They have outstripped Judeo-Christian precepts in the news media, the entertainment industry, the judiciary, business, medicine, psychology, law, the arts, and the halls of Congress. To Jim’s way of thinking, unlimited resources are available to the incredibly well-organized secular humanists among us for their expansive agenda and for their calculated attack on him and his values. Dobson believes that his opponents are highly motivated and armed to the teeth, but that many on his side are unaware that they are even under attack. He then goes on to tell us that warfare is dangerous, exhausting, and expensive, but that he cannot remain uninvolved.
As you hear these opinions and try to picture the mind and temperament behind them, allow me to apprise you of the following: When Jim says that Judeo-Christian precepts have been outstripped by those of secular humanism you have, in my view, one of the central reasons why James Dobson has declared war on virtually every sector of society. He perceives that his belief is losing ground and he’s angry about that. He’s a poor loser. The idea of holding the minority opinion in America, the minority value system, minority power, or minority control of any situation is anathema to James Dobson.
CHAMPION OF UNREASON
Southern religious traditions bequeathed to Dobson a non-scientific approach to his work. Conservative American Protestantism has struggled for centuries with an anti-intellectual bias that one sees reflected in Jim’s style. Science has been suspect to this group. It is often viewed as an effort to replace faith with reason and to replace God with man. You find within some sectors of this community a fear of science, even a scorn for thinking. For example, you can still find churches, here on the eve of the twenty-first century, where sentiments out of the Dark Ages are repeated: “Beware the university. Beware higher education. Beware of sending your sons and daughters to these godless places.”
At issue here is the constant tug of war between faith and reason, between the seen and the unseen. In Dobson’s tradition, seeing is not believing. In fact, his people would say with excitement, “Believing is seeing.” So Jim is caught between two worlds: the science of human behavior, which, like any science, needs to examine, to hypothesize, to test, and then to announce truth, and that of religion, which announces truth that is already revealed in the Bible and needs no testing. Unfortunately for Jim’s integrity, he declares citizenship in the world of science but functions almost entirely in the world of religion. His presentation of himself would be stronger if he decided on which side he wanted to function.
It was faith and his view of biblical sexuality that led Jim to claim Ted Bundy as Exhibit A in his fight against pornography. (Dobson conducted the notorious execution-eve inter-view with the serial killer in February 1989.) The scientific fact that Bundy was a pathological liar and therefore could not, by definition, serve as the foundation for any theory, did not dissuade Jim. When ABC News reporter John Hockenberry brought up the Bundy incident in a broadcast profile, Jim said as much:
Hockenberry to viewers: Paranoia about being lured into some dark sexual world was also the theme of this unusual instructional video about pornography, the final death row interview with serial killer Ted Bundy the day before he was electrocuted.
Video excerpt, Dobson to Bundy: You really feel that hard core pornography and the doorway to it, soft core pornography, is doing untold damage.
Bundy to Dobson: Pornography can reach out and snatch a kid out of any house….
Hockenberry to Dobson: Why should we believe Ted
Dobson to Hockenberry: Why not? I’m tell you, John, we get mail in here every day from women whose husbands are addicted to that stuff. They have lost interest in marital sex, they want their wives to do the kinds of crazy stuff they see on video. That stuff is a curse and Ted Bundy knew it.
Hockenberry to viewers: Nevertheless, after he was crit-icized publicly for capitalizing on a serial killer, Dobson gave away the proceeds from the video [almost one million dollars] and no longer distributes it.
Observers could not believe that a trained psychologist, a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California, would latch onto Ted Bundy as a case study to prove a theory of pornography—Dobson’s “slippery slope” theory of morality. And they were stunned that this “doctor” would say to the same ABC News reporter that he believes participation in university women’s study programs leads to lesbianism.
Hockenberry to viewers: Some of Dobson’s political ideas are … bizarre. Like his warnings to mothers in this recent fund-raising letter that their college-age daughters may go away to school and come home with lesbian lovers.
The implication in the literature was that university education causes girls to become lesbians.
Dobson to Hockenberry: I said it once, let me say it again. I didn’t say university education, I said women’s study programs have that flavor to it.
Hockenberry: But can it cause lesbianism?
Dobson: Ithink it can encourage it, yeah.8
Still another reason James Dobson, public policy maker, concerns me is the evidence I saw of his homophobia, his prejudice against gays and lesbians.
His homophobia arises, in part, from ultra-orthodox Christianity. Of all the behaviors that my ultra-conservative religious background trained me to judge harshly, the top of the list, A-1 candidate for condemnation was any sexual conduct other than sex between a married man and woman.
Sex before marriage? How dare you! Subscribe to Playboy? My God! Rent R-rated videos? You poor soul, it won’t surprise me when they lock you up for molestation! Sleeping around? I can only pray for you, except that’s hard because your lifestyle disgusts me! Adultery? I can’t believe it! If sexual conduct triggers the greatest levels of judgmentalism within the ultra-conservative, then the specific sexual practice that heads that category of wrong conduct is homosexual behavior. How completely foul, I would say to myself, that a person would have sex with someone of his or her own gender. And this overwhelming emotional reaction against people engaged in homosexuality short-circuits the capacity not only for friendship but even for whatever rationality the ultra-orthodox person may be capable of. To demonstrate, allow me to simulate an interview with a person of Dobson’s persuasion, with a little sarcasm thrown in if you don’t mind. My main point here is the lack of logic in the stereotypical responses I’ve heard from Jim and members of his religious community.
Question: I notice you don’t have any friends who are homo-sexuals. Do they make you uncomfortable? How do you feel when you meet a homosexual?
Answer: Their conduct is aberrant. I become sick to my stomach when I think about that lifestyle. I can’t stand to be near them.
Q: Really? I can easily understand someone having a dif-ference of opinion with someone else regarding their sexual choices, but I’m not sure I understand why you would become sick to your stomach.
A: Everyone knows what those people do. It’s unnatural.
It is disgusting.
Q: Perhaps a simple solution is for you to avoid becom-ing a homosexual because the lifestyle disgusts you. But why do you have such difficulty allowing others to be and to do as they please?
A: Because their choices threaten our society and our children. They’re depraved and corrupting. And they know it. Homosexuals could choose the straight life. They just refuse to do so.
Q: You’re a heterosexual telling homosexuals what their innermost thoughts and feelings are, what their desires and motives are. Isn’t that a little absurd, not to mention judgmental? Homosexuals say that they don’t voluntarily choose to feel homosexual, to find their own gender sexually attrac-tive rather than the opposite sex. They say they “discover” these feelings within themselves; perhaps even fight against them for a long time before recognizing them as their iden-tity, usually at a great personal price. They say that they are no more destructive to themselves and their partners than are any two heterosexuals who fall in love and live together. They argue that heterosexual Americans are not exclusively responsible for America’s strengths. Both groups have stable and unstable partnerships, they would say. Both groups include irresponsibly promiscuous members. Both groups contain members who weaken and destroy other people’s partnerships by encouraging unfaithfulness. There is enough sexual sin in America, they would argue, to keep every het-erosexual and homosexual American humble about who’s to blame.
A: We’re talking about my personal beliefs. That’s all. I believe that God’s plan is for men to be with women and women with men.
Q: That I understand. You have reli-gious convictions. And convictions should be respected. Fair enough. But homosexuals have convictions. Do they warrant your respect, just as you demand theirs? We come back to your first reaction. Why do your powerful negative reactions against the beliefs of others cause you to avoid them, to make no friends among them? If the subject is the challenge America faces managing sexuality in a positive and constructive way, don’t you think some of those chal-lenges are yours?
My point in offering you a conversation that could have easily taken place between Jim and me is not to suggest that resolving society’s sexual issues is as simple as respecting everyone’s individual viewpoints. The pathway to resolving differences of opinion and building consensus on this or any issue does not pass through contempt and deception. We’re going to have to proceed on the basis of dialogue and civility. And we’re going to have to be friends or the journey will not be possible. Toward that end, I’m afraid we’ll receive no help from James Dobson.
CONSPIRACIES AND DEMONS EVERYWHERE
There is a vast quantity of conspiratorial language in Dobson’s work by which he describes a world where evil coalitions of enemies meet regularly and conspire to create an orchestrated, unified attack on ideas Jim holds dear.
Actually, Jim’s conspiratorial thinking goes beyond the bizarre into the truly humorous. According to him, there exists a large and powerful association of liberals who are united in their position on the various social issues of the day and who are funded in such massive proportions that they can do whatever they please, whenever they please: hire staff, distribute mass mailings, purchase print and electronic ads, lobby Congress, and “buy” legislators with campaign contributions. Their pockets give new definition to the word “deep.” Furthermore, this corrupt cabal is united in the evil that permeates their hearts and motivates their actions. These are bad people who just don’t care—about America, about children, about families, about God.
If you are a communicator like Dobson, it certainly simplifies your workload if everyone in your society can be described as either good or bad, for you or against you, and if you know the difference simply by where they stand on certain select political issues. No gray areas here. No “on the one hand … but on other-other hand.” This is litmus-test politics at its best. In fact, I recall a conversation between Dobson and a friend in which the friend was trying to help Jim understand a shockingly simple political reality: there are devout followers of Christ who are pro-choice. If you can imagine the scene, Dobson refused throughout the discussion to agree to that elementary argument. He held tenaciously to the position that a true Christian cannot, by definition, be pro-choice. Finally, when the friend’s debating skills began to overtake Jim’s position, the friend was able to gain the following massive yet amazing concession. One could almost hear a mighty redwood fall as Dobson murmured, “All right, a person could be a Christian and be pro-choice but we’re talking about a Christian who is misinformed and misguided.”
There is no monolithic organization on the right or on the left. James Dobson is barely on speaking terms with Ralph Reed, and Reed is in the same religious camp. Dan Rather of CBS News does not consult with Planned Parenthood executives or Harvard liberals before deciding how to read the evening news to us. There are, however, fear mongers in both camps who provide their troops with phony political intelligence, often for the purpose of raising money to support their campaign against their imagined monolithic foe—people like Dobson, who, in his radio broadcasts, magazine articles, books, and monthly fund-raising letters, overwhelms his constituents with statements like the following:
Two sides with vastly differing and incompatible world views are locked in a bitter conflict. I believe a winner will emerge and the loser will fade from memory.
Secular humanists easily embrace abortion, infanticide and euthanasia when convenience demands.
The resources available to secular humanists throughout society are almost unlimited in scope, and they are breaking new ground every day.
The beleaguered, exhausted, oppressed, and overtaxed fam-ily now stands unprotected against a mighty foe.
I will not take the time here to list or describe the specific attempts by secular humanists to weaken the institution of the family and the church, but they are legion.
Our opponents are highly motivated, well-funded, deeply committed, and armed to the teeth.
Many Christians have … bought the notion, propagated by the secular press and their liberal friends, that it violates the separation of church and state for believers to take a position on controversial social concerns.
We are ordinary people trying to deal with incredibly power-ful and dangerous institutions. We are often outgunned and undermanned.
We are witnessing an unprecedented campaign to secularize our society and demoralize our institutions from the top down. Having turned the culture upside-down, the secularists appear now to have agreed upon three specific mechanisms to complete the task of immobilizing and silencing conserv-ative Christians: deny America’s Judeo-Christian roots, label politically active Christians as violating church-state separa-tion, and ultimately silence politically active Christians.
And closely akin to lumping together all one’s perceived foes into a giant conspiracy is the psychologically dysfunction so prevalent in Jim’s work of demonizing that foe’s intentions: jumping to the most extreme and negative conclusions possible about the hidden motives behind another person’s conduct. Jim has perfected this form of warped ruminating. Here again is a sampling from his broadcasting and print materials:
Once again, the majority of our congressmen have made it clear that they couldn’t care less about mothers at home.
Our representatives ignored their constituencies and voted with the special-interest groups. But whoever said the Congress was fair?
Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and CNN will not tell you this story.
We have seen a concerted effort to distort the truth about what this legislation does to church-based child-care facilities.
The anti-family, anti-religious politicians and bureaucrats in this country have become bolder and far more aggressive in recent years.
This transformation is occurring by the will of our elected representatives and by liberal judges who seem determined to recast society in their own image.
The largest problem Jim represents is that, in his heart, he intends for his America to be a Christian nation. Will we be a nation whose public-policy consensus is strongly influenced by Christian values? Always. But a Christian nation? Never, in my view, unless Jim should prevail. Jim is angry about the degree to which his particular religion is not openly revered as the fountainhead of public policy. He is upset with those who, in his opinion, are causing the country to be something other than distinctly Christian. Rather than being content to be a Christian American and valuing the contributions that Christians like him are making to American society; rather than wanting simply to be a person who contributes to the presence of Christian faith and perspective in society, seasoning the stew of a diverse democracy, Jim’s passions run in the direction of controlling society in such a manner that we have a Christian government. That is his most dangerous mistake.
During his November 25, 1996, radio broadcast, Dobson dissected the results of the recent general election with the help of Gary Bauer. Listening to the precise words they used to characterize what they believed to be the good and bad news from that election, I was struck once again by the awareness that Jim is encouraging the creation of a distinctly Christian rather than a nonsectarian government. For example, he said, with Bauer’s enthusiastic support, “Some of those new guys [speaking of successful candidates for the Senate and the House] are really gong to be outstanding. John Thune is a new Republican, pro-life, pro-family, a strong Christian. Jim Ryun, a Republican from Kansas, has been on this radio program. He’s a wonderful Christian man; great family values. There’s one [new Congressman] right after another like that.”
That crosses the line. It sounds suspiciously like a man whose political goals include creating a Christian government rather than supporting America’s traditional view that we are best served, to borrow from a phrase from Dennis Prager, by “a government that is completely secular and permits complete religious freedom for the individual.”9
The answer to extremism is moderation and balance. The answer to church and state is a reasonable wall. And the answer to Jim and his type is no.
- Christian Coalition Press Releases displayed on the coalition’s homepage, www.cc.org, December 1996.
- Tim Stafford, “His Father’s Son,” Christianity Today, March 1988.
- “Day One,” ABC Television News, October 18, 1995.
- Richard Turner “The Inescapable Voice of America,” Newsweek, December 16, 1996, p. 25.
- James Dobson, Children at Risk (Dallas, Tex.: Word, Inc., 1990), pp. 19, 20.
- Ibid., p. 21.
- “Day One.”
- Dennis Prager, Think a Second Time (New York: Regan Books, 1995), pp. 159-65.
This article was adapted from James Dobson’s War on America by Gil Alexander-Moegerle (Prometheus Books, 1997).