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The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical America Are Winning the Culture Warby Dan Gilgoff
"He has the benefit of not being a partisan voice. He is the single most credible figure within the evangelical community."
When James Dobson arrived in Montgomery in August 2003, the symbolism of the location was not lost on him. He had come to call for the return of a two-and-a-half-ton Ten Commandments monument to the Alabama Supreme Court. It had been wheeled away a day earlier in accordance with a federal judge's ruling that the statue represented an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion. More than a thousand Christian demonstrators had gathered in the plaza outside the courthouse to call for its return, and Dobson flew to Montgomery to address the crowd. He opened his remarks by noting that Rosa Parks had launched her bus boycott in the same city nearly half a century earlier. "She had no power," Dobson told the crowd, dotted with umbrellas opened against the 90-plus-degree midday sun. "She had no influence. She had no money. . . . But she saw something that she felt was evil. It was imposed on her and all black people by the rule of law."
Of course, white evangelical Americans, for whom Dobson had become the top political spokesperson, had helped form the backbone of opposition to the civil rights movement that Parks's 1955 boycott set in motion. Jerry Falwell condemned civil rights activists from his Virginia pulpit and opposed the Lyndon Johnson-era civil rights laws as "a terrible violation of human and private property rights."1 Jim Crow proponents opened Christian schools to avoid subjecting their children to integration.
In Montgomery, though, Dobson drew a direct parallel between Parks's civil disobedience and that of Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore. An evangelical Christian who'd been elected to his post by campaigning to "restore the moral foundation of law," Moore had been suspended from the bench by a state judicial ethics commission for flouting the federal order to remove the monument he'd installed two years earlier. But Dobson said Moore's suspension and the court-ordered removal of the Commandments were an attack on Christians, just as Jim Crow laws had attacked African Americans. "We as people of faith are also being sent to the back of the bus," he told the crowd in Montgomery.
Despite his passion for Moore's cause, Dobson was initially reluctant to journey to Montgomery. Not more than four months earlier, he'd stepped down from the presidency of Focus on the Family, the $130 million, thirteen-hundred-employee media ministry he'd founded in the late 1970s. And at sixty-seven he was war weary. "I can't fight every battle," Dobson remembered thinking, in a later interview in his Colorado Springs office. "This one is not mine." It was also true that many of the nation's most prominent evangelical leaders had publicly criticized Moore's intransigence. Richard Land, leader of the political wing of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Ted Haggard, then president of the National Association of Evangelicals--both usually in Dobson's corner on political matters--said that Moore was out of line in defying a federal order. The long evangelical tradition of deference to government authority, which included opposing the tactic of civil disobedience, had partly explained evangelical objections to the civil rights movement. Even the director of Alabama's Family Policy Council, a kind of state-level Focus on the Family affiliate, said that Moore was wrong.
To Dobson, though, the removal of "Roy's Rock," as the granite Ten Commandments monument had come to be known, and Roy Moore's suspension were the last straws in a decades-long campaign by the courts to expel religion from the public square. And the organizers calling from Montgomery needed him. A modest but growing assemblage of mostly evangelical Christians was keeping vigil outside the Alabama Judicial Building, praying for the return of Roy's Rock and planning a climactic rally to focus the attention of the national news media. Moore himself refused to appear, saying that the protest should focus on the Commandments, not on him. Dobson was being asked to fill the keynote speaker's slot. No other Christian Right leader would have the same impact or would attract as much attention within the huge evangelical subculture. "It is not an exaggeration to say that he is to some people a Martin Luther King, Jr., crusading for the liberation of people who can't help themselves," said the National Association of Evangelicals' Ted Haggard, whose organization includes thirty-five million Americans, before gay sex and drug-use allegations forced him to step down in late 2006. "Martin Luther King helped African Americans unlike anyone in a hundred years, and Jim Dobson is the leader for civil rights of people who can't speak for themselves: unborn babies."
Reluctantly, Dobson boarded a plane.
His Montgomery speech walked the crowd through what Dobson called a forty-year record of transgressions by the federal judiciary, beginning with the Supreme Court: its 1962 decision ending officially sanctioned school prayer, its 1963 decision that ended devotional Bible reading in public schools, and, of course, 1973's Roe v. Wade. Dobson cited eighties- and nineties-era Supreme Court rulings that barred prayer at graduation ceremonies and ended the mandatory posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools. He pointed to a recent decision by a federal appeals court in California which found that the recitation of the pledge of allegiance in schools represented an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion because it included the words "under God."
And just a couple of months before, Dobson noted, a 6 to 3 vote by the Supreme Court in the case Lawrence v. Texas struck down the country's last state sodomy laws. In his dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia warned that the ruling threatened to undo the state-level bans on gay marriage that Dobson and his vast national activist network had helped pass in the 1990s. Particularly galling to Dobson was that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Reagan appointee, had cited a European court's ruling in his majority opinion in Lawrence. "I just returned from Europe," Dobson told the crowd, "and I'm telling you, that is a very pagan place."
In fact, it is fair to say that in Montgomery, Dobson perceived that America had arrived at a historic crossroads, with nothing less than the survival of Western civilization hanging in the balance. Down one road lay a nation where a Christian God was acknowledged as the foundation of government, family, and morality--the kind of nation that Dobson believed America had been for two hundred years and had begun to drift from only in the 1960s. Down the other lay America as contemporary Europe, home to the planet's most secular society. The courts, Dobson believed, were gradually steering the country down this latter course, against the people's will, by scrubbing religion from public life, striking down abortion restrictions and anti-gay rights laws, and otherwise thumbing their noses at God's law.
But in Montgomery, Dobson also glimpsed the possibility of deliverance from the judicial oligarchy. For one thing, he was freer than ever to parlay his national influence into political clout, having just stepped down from the presidency of Focus on the Family, where IRS laws governing nonprofit organizations restricted his political activism. And, while the crowd in Montgomery hardly qualified as overwhelming--a couple of thousand, according to press reports, though some Focus staffers remembered more than five thousand activists showing up--Dobson interpreted its intensity as symbolic of a new level of disgust among the country's seventy million white evangelical Christians, and a new willingness to stand up and fight. Most importantly, Dobson knew the presidential election was just over a year away and that the outcome was likely to remake the federal judiciary from the very top by determining who would get to appoint the first Supreme Court nominees in more than a decade--George W. Bush or his Democratic opponent.
So even as he used the removal of Roy's Rock as a rallying cry for evangelicals to join the culture war, Dobson himself was probably more moved by his appearance in Montgomery than anyone else. "I saw that a segment of the American people needed a voice, needed a spokesperson," he said in the Colorado Springs interview. "I saw that the issues hung in the balance. . . . And I saw the crowds, saw what they were saying, saw the intensity of it, saw Roy Moore and what he was trying to do. And I came out of there and said, 'I can't sit this one out.' And it was that day that I said to my colleagues, 'For one thing, we got to do what we can to take Tom Daschle out.' "
It was, by historical standards, an audacious goal. South Dakota senator Tom Daschle had served for the last decade as the Democrats' Senate leader, and neither party's Senate leader had been defeated at the polls since the election of Barry Goldwater in Arizona in 1952. After knocking off a Republican incumbent in 1986, Daschle had twice cruised to reelection.
But Dobson was unfazed. He'd been incensed by Daschle's role in leading Senate Democrats to block ten of George W. Bush's nominees to U.S. Appeals Courts--though more than two hundred federal judicial appointees had been confirmed, a success rate in line with that of previous first-term presidents. Dobson saw defeating the Democratic leader as the surest way for Bush to be able to continue his rightward realignment of the courts, particularly on the eve of expected Supreme Court vacancies. Unseating the man the GOP had tagged the "obstructionist in chief" would be the political equivalent of slipping a horse's head into the Democrats' bed.
So in 2004, Dobson endorsed John Thune, an evangelical Christian and conservative Republican who'd served three terms in the House of Representatives. Thune had come within 525 votes of victory in his bid to unseat South Dakota senator Tim Johnson in 2002. In 2004, Thune played up his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, focusing the race on hot-button social issues to an extent unprecedented in South Dakota history. His message found particular resonance among the one in four South Dakotans who is an evangelical Christian. So would James Dobson's endorsement. "There is literally a generation of Americans who have grown up with Dr. Dobson," Thune said in an interview in his Senate office after the election. "His voice is golden out there, particularly among Americans who had a conservative value system or conservative worldview. He could speak to them like nobody else could, absent somebody like Billy Graham."
While Dobson had occasionally granted endorsements to conservative Republican candidates in previous elections, he hit the campaign trail for Thune in 2004 with a zeal that he'd never shown any other candidate. He stumped for Thune at a huge Christian music festival over Labor Day weekend and in a pair of October "Stand for Family" rallies sponsored by Focus on the Family Action, a new political organization that Dobson launched in 2004. Through his South Dakota appearances, Dobson reached roughly one tenth of the state's population. He also attacked Daschle in full-page newspaper ads paid for by evangelical activist Gary Bauer's political action committee. Appearing under the banner An Important Message from Dr. James C. Dobson, the ads accused Daschle of "doing the two-step" on abortion and same-sex marriage, selling South Dakotans a conservative line while voting with the liberals back in Washington.2 A high-profile culture warrior who'd run for president in 2000, Bauer knew that showcasing Dobson would be more effective than appearing in the ads himself. "If I go into South Dakota and say, 'Vote for Thune or against Daschle,' people say, 'Of course he's going to say that--Bauer's a political operative,' " Bauer said. "When Dobson says it, he has impact. . . . I can't think of anyone with more equity in a heartland state."
Unlike other Christian Right titans--Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson, or former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed--Dobson has never run for public office or led a primarily political organization. A child psychologist, he won an enormous following by dispensing what many consider to be biblically based family advice, mostly about raising children and maintaining successful marriages, through a daily radio program also called Focus on the Family. "Dr. Dobson is almost like a father to me," said a forty-six-year-old mother of four from Cañon City, Colorado, who stopped by Focus's Colorado Springs bookstore in late 2004 to do some Christmas shopping. "I was having a difficult time raising my kids, and he helped rescue me."
Dobson's radio show is carried on upward of two thousand domestic radio stations, with six to ten million weekly listeners. He receives so much mail from fans that his organization requires its own zip code. His dozens of books, including Dare to Discipline, Preparing for Adolescence, and What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew about Women, have sold in the tens of millions. His videos and DVDs have reached an even wider audience, via television broadcasts and church-sponsored screenings. In an interview, the Southern Baptist Convention's Richard Land, whose group claims sixteen million American members, called Dobson "the most influential evangelical leader in America. . . . The closest thing to his influence is what Billy Graham had in the sixties and seventies."
The politicians who have been influenced by Dobson say their admiration for him stems from his family advice, not his political advocacy. In Washington, Republican congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia was so moved by Dobson's 1981 child-rearing film Where's Dad?, particularly by a sequence in which Dobson recites the lyrics to Harry Chapin's seventies-era hit "Cat's in the Cradle," that he installed a separate phone line in his Capitol Hill office exclusively for his wife and kids to call on. Wolf stopped attending work-related events on Sunday to spend more time with his family. "If George Bush or Bill Clinton came to the end of my street on Sunday, I would not go," Wolf said in an interview in his House office, where a framed passage from one of Dobson's books hangs on the wall. "It's a firm, firm, firm, firm rule. . . . The message Dobson gives in [his books] is universal. It has no political overtones. Dobson has had an impact on my life to the point that my kids refer to me as B.D. and A.D., before Dobson and after Dobson. They saw the fruit of Where's Dad?"
When Dobson takes to the airwaves to urge listeners to call Congress in support of a Supreme Court nominee or to stop a piece of legislation from advancing, his admonitions are taken as those of a trusted family adviser, not a political shill. His influence among evangelicals outshines that of any previous Christian Right standard-bearer because he is not seen as the Christian Right's standard-bearer. "I have no political ambitions, and that puts me in a different category than somebody who does," Dobson said in an interview. ". . . I'm separate from [the political system]. I'm not owned by it. I don't want anything there. I wouldn't run for president if it was handed to me on a platter. I would be absolutely claustrophobic in the public eye every moment of the day."
Dobson prefers the role of a behind-the-scenes political fixer, publicly downplaying his level of political involvement to protect his credibility among his followers. He portrays himself, and is characterized by friends, as a reluctant warrior. He tends to frame each act of political advocacy as an unprecedented foray into politics born of a new crisis that demands he stop biting his tongue. In a newsletter to Focus constituents following President Clinton's inauguration, for example, Dobson wrote, "Nothing in my adult life has shaken me quite like the devastation we are seeing."3 In short, Clinton's arrival, because of his support for abortion rights and gay rights and because of allegations that he'd been unfaithful to his wife, was treated as an unprecedented crisis. But twelve years later, in a 2004 letter to Focus on the Family constituents advocating a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, Dobson's tone was remarkably similar in its urgency: "I do not recall a time since the beginnings of Focus on the Family, 27 years ago, when the institution of marriage faced such peril." And Dobson played the sky-is-falling card again in 2005, when a group of U.S. senators reached a deal to avert the so-called nuclear option--suspending the Senate's filibuster rule that requires 60-vote supermajorities to confirm President Bush's judicial nominees--telling his radio listeners, "This one hit me personally harder than anything ever has coming out of Washington."
In person he comes across as an antipolitico. Dobson's sandy, combed-over hair, blue eyes, gentle smile, and penchant for tan-colored suits give him the appearance of having just stepped out of a Hallmark card. His big, boxy eyeglasses, as seen in photographs going back to the early 1980s, announce that he is oblivious to fashion, and his six-foot-plus frame and lanky build tend to make the chair he's occupying look too small, giving him an air of paternalistic authority. Even when worked up in a lather, as he frequently is, Dobson's speech is unhurried, and the slight western drawl and note of hesitancy in his voice give it an almost exaggerated folksiness. On the radio dial, amid the racket of overly caffeinated DJs and fast-talking automobile salesmen, Dobson's daily Focus on the Family broadcast is an island of placidity. Even when speaking in baleful terms, as in 2006 when he said The Da Vinci Code "has all the evidences of something cooked up in hell" and was a "satanic plot," Dobson sounds a lot more like a quaint grandfather than a fiery Baptist preacher. When he devotes an episode of his program to political issues, such as Supreme Court nominees or an upcoming election, he apologizes to his listeners for preempting a previously scheduled program, creating the impression that even he would rather be focusing on the family.
And yet Dobson is hardly a political neophyte. The biggest portrait in his Colorado Springs office isn't of Jesus Christ; it's of Winston Churchill. Dobson fell in love with the painting when he saw it at a Tampa art gallery in the mid-1990s, but his wife refused to let him buy it, fearing he'd hang it in their bedroom. So Dobson told one of Focus's board members about the portrait, and the board promptly took up a collection and bought it for him. "Churchill knew in forty-one he could never beat Germany," Dobson said in a late 2004 interview, rising to fetch a biography of the statesman from his bookshelf. "So his hope was to help the British people hang on until the Americans came. For the last twenty years, all the centers of power have been influenced by a different worldview than what we share as evangelical Christians," he continued, citing Congress, the judiciary, higher education, and Hollywood as examples. "Our strategy has been to let people who see things the way we do know what's at stake and to encourage them to hang on until change occurs."
But when asked about his political activities--as opposed to his political opinions--Dobson can be remarkably coy, as if he senses that discussing such matters on the record would tarnish his image as an above-the-fray family counselor. His political résumé includes having cofounded the Washington-based Family Research Council, which would eventually replace Christian Coalition as the Christian Right's top beltway advocacy group in 1983; joining President Ronald Reagan's federal task forces on gambling and pornography; successfully promoting a Colorado ballot initiative barring the state from passing antidiscrimination laws for homosexuals in 1992; meeting with all the major Republican presidential candidates in 1996; and endorsing conservative Republican candidates beginning in the 1990s, including Randall Terry, founder of the militant antiabortion group Operation Rescue, in his unsuccessful 1998 bid for the House of Representatives.
And yet Dobson declined to answer a list of questions for this book about his political advocacy on the basis that the questions were too political. "[R]esponding to the majority of your questions . . . would drag Dr. Dobson further into the public policy arena than he is willing to go," his spokesman said via e-mail in late 2005. "Furthermore, Dr. Dobson has dealt with most of these issues from a personal perspective and not as President/CEO/Founder/Chairman of Focus on the Family or [sister organization] Focus on the Family Action." In the late 2004 interview in his Colorado Springs office, Dobson went so far as to dismiss his own political clout. "You can't even tell someone else's dog what to do," he said. "If they don't want to do what you're suggesting, they don't do it. You can't manipulate people like that. . . . So that's a phony argument that somehow I have used these child-rearing and marriage principles to warp and twist people into doing things they wouldn't want to do. That is off the wall, man. That is crazy."
Copyright © 2007 by Dan Gilgoff. All rights reserved.
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