Unlike other Christian Right titans—Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, Christian Coalition founder and 700 Club host Pat Robertson, or former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed—James 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 childrearing 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 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 advisor, 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." 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 a 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 beginning 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 required 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."