2016-06-30
window.twttr = (function (d, s, id) { var js, fjs = d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0], t = window.twttr || {}; if (d.getElementById(id)) return t; js = d.createElement(s); js.id = id; js.src = "https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js"; fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js, fjs); t._e = []; t.ready = function (f) { t._e.push(f); }; return t; }(document, "script", "twitter-wjs"));
Excerpted from "The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical America Are Winning the Culture War," with permission of St. Martin's Press.

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."In person he comes across as an anti-politico. Dobson's sandy, comb-over hair, blue eyes, gentle smile, and his 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 '41 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 20 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 resume includes having co-founded 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, the founder of the militant anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, in his unsuccessful 1998 bid for the House of Representatives.

And yet Dobson declined to answer a list of questions about his political advocacy for this book 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 childrearing 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."
window.twttr = (function (d, s, id) { var js, fjs = d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0], t = window.twttr || {}; if (d.getElementById(id)) return t; js = d.createElement(s); js.id = id; js.src = "https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js"; fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js, fjs); t._e = []; t.ready = function (f) { t._e.push(f); }; return t; }(document, "script", "twitter-wjs"));
more from beliefnet and our partners