"Why are we here?" asked H. B. London at a meeting of the executive cabinet at Focus on the Family. London, vice president of ministry outreach and James Dobson's cousin, opened the meeting with a devotional, citing projections that the influence of Christianity would decline in the next millennium. Then he read from Esther: "For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father's house will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?" (4:14).
During the meeting the cabinet addressed the problem of a backlog of unresponded-to correspondence. In October, the constituency response department received over 260,000 letters or calls, which was 20,000 more than the average. "Creative broadcasting scheduling" in October accounted for the higher-than-usual response (the topics included the killing of homosexual student Matthew Shepard, Y2K, and Frank Peretti). At the time of this mid-November meeting, the constituency response team was backlogged by about 38,000 letters or calls that had not been answered, and they were concerned about "how long someone out there [was] waiting for a reply."
Twelve thousand people a day write or call 1-800-AFAMILY ordering resources or soliciting advice. This does not include the radio listeners who hear Dobson's broadcasts on 2,500 stations in 95 countries (in six languages); or the 600 million radio listeners in China. There are "easily a billion" worldwide, according to one Focus VP. Focus has 75 outreach ministries and an annual operating budget of $116 million.
Why are they here?
There is more than one way to answer that question. One VP at the meeting answered it this way: "America has lost its story," implying that part of Focus's mandate was to help America rediscover its story. James Dobson himself answered it, echoing London's devotional: "We're here by divine appointment, for such a time as this." Others might see it another way: They are here because James Dobson rescued millions of struggling moms who responded with such force that it took his creating a multimillion-dollar ministry machine to handle the estrogen-empowered inquiries.
A rising star
Things are changing for James Dobson. Not in terms of the moms who love him and the dads who thank him that their wives are no longer candidates for Sally Jesse Raphael. But as the culture continues its "moral free fall" (as he calls it), a lot more people are listening to what James Dobson has to say about it.
Dobson is being pursued by secular television and radio markets because of the increasing popularity of his nonreligious family-oriented programming. His 30-minute religious program is now heard on almost 2,000 stations around the country. This broadcast is largely limited to Christian stations, and his listeners are Focus's main constituency.
But he is moving into a wider general audience and is winning a hearing among non-Christians. He presently runs 90-second radio spots on 230 secular stations and is third only to Paul Harvey and Charles Osgood in radio popularity.
He is in discussion with ABC about assuming a new three-minute radio slot modeled after other popular short features. He writes a syndicated newspaper column that appears in 600 newspapers a week (reaching 9 million homes). And more than 60 secular television affiliates show a TV version of his 90-second family commentaries.
His radio voice and folksy family advice are reaching Middle America—a constituency not totally composed of churchgoers. These listeners may not even be Republicans; they may, in fact, be numbered among "the American People" who said Clinton shouldn't be removed from office. Many are, nevertheless, raising kids and looking for answers. Dobson provides them that guidance.
But there is the rub. As he has gained access to this wider audience, critics have assaulted his highly publicized political involvement.
Hanna Rosin, in GQ (Jan. 1999), said Dobson "embodie[s] the man-eating demons haunting [Newt] Gingrich." Margaret Carlson, in Time (May 25, 1998)—like many socially and politically liberal pundits—questions how "Christian" Dobson and the "Christian right" are: "The golden rule doesn't include gay bashing and divisiveness." She calls James Dobson "the country's most powerful Christian activist." Paul Gigot wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "the media … treat the Ph.D. psychologist and radio commentator as the lord of an omnipotent, ominous 'religious right.' "
This scares some people. Barry Lynn, the oft-quoted Dobson antagonist of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, opines: "His folks respond quickly, directly to whatever he tells them [on the radio] to do."
To this the Today show's Katie Couric can attest, as she was recently on the receiving end of a phone-calling campaign initiated by Dobson. Couric, on national television, linked the death of Matthew Shepard to the rhetoric of people like Dobson. NBC felt the extent of Dobson's reach when an army of mothers jammed their phone lines for days in protest. ("If mama ain't happy ain't nobody happy" never rang more true.)
Dobson answers all of his critics this way: "Our job is to engage the culture on behalf of the family, and if that brings us criticism, then so be it."
Upon entering the main administration building on the Focus on the Family campus on Explorer Drive in Colorado Springs, one steps into a world that arises out of deep forest green carpet that has the feel of home. Brass fixtures and polished banisters accent walls that are graced with pictures of a young Jim Dobson, his mom and dad, and his wife, Shirley, and other memorabilia, awards, and philosophy statements penned in calligraphy. These hang symmetrically around the seven miles of (donated) oak trim. Save for the bullet hole in the wall left by the man who held four Focus employees hostage in May 1996, this world captures a picture of an American dream come true.
On the "employees only" third floor, the only way to open the doors to offices and meeting rooms is by means of electronic keys attached to picture I.D.s. There the hallways are lined with framed prints carrying images of little girls with peaches-and-cream complexions wearing frilly dresses sitting reflectively on wraparound porches with geranium boxes.
But then there is that bullet hole—the one reminder in this perfectly sculpted world that the world beyond Explorer Drive is wretched, hateful, and unfair. No one was killed during the standoff. At first only two women had been seized. But when two male Focus employees approached the assailant and asked to be held in their place, they were taken too. The S.W.A.T. team, a vice president explains, made its way inside through other doors and was ready to "take him out" (it's odd hearing a Focus person say that) when the hostage-taker surrendered. His captives had been praying for him—aloud—and the Spirit of God broke him; everybody walked away unharmed.
This is the "Empire of Nice," as Rosin calls it. But the niceness belies the grittier reality of what takes place inside these walls. The pastoral ministries office had dealt with calls from a pastor who was struggling with a computer-porn addiction; another who had engaged in a sexual indiscretion; another who was facing a broken marriage; and another who was losing his church—all that day. "That goes on every day. I mean, every day," says London.
Every week, the psychological counseling services at Focus receive 600 calls that require crisis intervention. "In the five years since I've been here," says Willie Wooten, supervisor of the department, "the kinds of calls we get are a lot more complex and serious. We don't get as many bed-wetting [calls]. Marriage, divorce, infidelity, depression, drugs, sexual abuse of children—these are the top [issues]."
From floor to ceiling in the Focus warehouse (another building on campus), walls of boxes stand packed with books, pamphlets, or tapes ready to be shipped out by the truckload. The image captures the voracious hunger for help that people possess and the way Focus has perfected the packaging and dispatching of resources to feed that appetite.
Vice president of the Focus Resource Group, Kurt Bruner, says, "If 80 to 90 percent of what we do is caring for and meeting needs of families, then you earn the right to speak out when it enters the public arena."
A prophecy fulfilled
"He has no vision," said vice president of business services, Tom Mason, about James Dobson. He meant that Dobson never strategized how to become "lord of [the] 'religious right,' " to borrow from Gigot, though Dobson would eschew that appellation. He would explain his current place of influence as merely the end result of a lifetime of being there for people, answering their questions, and responding to their needs.
He grew up under the prophetic word uttered by his great-grandfather G. W. McCluskey when he received a promise from God in prayer that every family member in the next four generations would serve the Lord. Dobson's lineage placed him in that fourth generation and, coming from a long line of preachers—including a grandmother who was an ordained pastor in the Church of the Nazarene—he got nervous when his cousin, H. B. London, answered the call to pastoral ministry. Dobson never heard that call.
An only child, Dobson grew up under the attentive eye of a gregarious and wise mother well-versed in the yet-to-be-formulated Dobsonian school of discipline. His father, being an evangelist, was gone a lot—too much by Dobson's present standards—and so his mother kept him in line. "My mother had a greater influence on me than my father. She was a strong disciplinarian who would have given her life for me in a heartbeat. So that concept of love and discipline in balance came from her. Much of what I wrote in the early days was modeled after her."
He graduated from Pasadena College in 1958 and married Shirley Deere two years later. He went on to receive a Ph.D. in child development from the University of California. He joined the faculty at the USC School of Medicine, becoming an associate clinical professor of pediatrics. He worked for 17 years at Children's Hospital and, concurrently, 14 years at USC, where he directed a $5 million 15-year project about children with phenylketonuria (a genetic disorder that causes progressive mental retardation). His scientific articles were published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Pediatrics, and Journal of Pediatrics, and his research was recommended by the Menninger Clinic: "If you can only have one book on your shelf about mental retardation, this should be it."
His work at Children's Hospital/USC required only four days a week, and so he used his extra day for counseling, speaking, and writing. This was the sixties, and having been raised in the wholesome environment of a loving family with a strong moral disposition, he began to be shocked by what he saw happening in the culture.
Dare to Discipline came out in 1970 and was an instant success. Dobson's no-nonsense prescription for parenting struck a balance between authoritarian strictness and extravagant love: "Many well-meaning specialists … have stressed the importance of parental understanding of the child, and I concur, but we need to teach Junior that he has a few things to learn about Mamma, too."
Within a few years he added to his arsenal of helpful resources for parents and families Hide or Seek (1974), What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women (1975), The Strong-Willed Child (1978), and Preparing for Adolescence (1978)—bestsellers, all. From then on the man had no peace. Women everywhere, including at church, beseeched him for desperately needed advice.
By 1977 he saw that he could not continue the dance between his work at Children's Hospital and the increasing demand for his advice as a counselor, writer, and speaker. On a step of faith, he resigned his position at the hospital and launched his fledgling ministry with seed money he received from Tyndale House (publisher of his many bestsellers) to purchase a year's worth of radio time.
By the end of the second critical year, his radio listeners were keeping the ministry afloat.
Drawing action lines
The Focus on the Family mission statement reads: "to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in disseminating the Gospel of Jesus Christ to as many people as possible, and specifically, to accomplish that objective by helping to preserve traditional values and the institution of the family." This has driven James Dobson in his mission, but it also begs the question, How does "preserving traditional values" translate into "disseminating the Gospel of Jesus Christ"? Some of Dobson's endeavors have confused how best to answer this question.
The arena in which Dobson fights for "traditional values" has evolved as his ministry has grown and the culture has changed. Preserving "traditional values" often comes down to the nuts-and-bolts of how to get through a bad day with a rotten kid. Should a parent snoop through Susie's backpack? Yes, Dobson says, if the parent has reason to believe she is into something that will harm her. Should Joey's parents be concerned about his masturbation? No, he says. It's normal and fairly innocuous; better not to make an issue of it. Should the mother of a teenage slob require her to clean up her room? "Given the possibilities for chaos that this girl might precipitate," he says, "spit-shined rooms may not be all-important."
Dobson's ministry captured a hungry audience because his guidance stood in stark contrast to the cultural mood. The moral breakdown that started in the sixties was still playing itself out in the seventies, while a new generation of mothers wrestled with uncertainty as to how best to raise their children in that environment. Their confusion was exacerbated by the feminist movement that diminished the value of the stay-at-home mom.
James Dobson blessed motherhood, offered practical wisdom, and did so with a disarmingly folksy drawl that had moms at kitchen tables everywhere calmed and inspired. When my three sons were four and under, I saw his film series Shaping the Will Without Breaking the Spirit. I was so animated by what I learned that I wrote the principles in my journal:
- Anger will not encourage obedience; action will.
- Anger assassinates authority.
- We must teach our children to link behavior with consequences.
- Draw an "action line": a clearly defined boundary between acceptable and unacceptable behavior, the crossing of which would result in disciplinary measures.
Moms like me developed trust in the friendly voice of James Dobson, and radio listeners continued to register their enthusiastic response. The more they responded, the more Focus designed broadcasts and generated resources to address their stated concerns. This is what Tom Mason meant when he said that Dobson never had a vision for what Focus would become: it simply became the vehicle to address the needs of its listeners. And James Dobson became a kind of Answer Man.
As Focus listeners' kids grew up, their concerns expanded beyond the home into the realm of schools and communities. "Traditional values" then took on the burden of how to deal with sex education in public schools or whether to allow kids to march in school-sponsored goblin parades at Halloween.
People longed to know what was right in a world with so many wrongs; to find a way to seize control of their destinies in a world that seemed out of control; to discover a safe haven. Dobson gave them those things.
The problem is, maintaining a healthy synergy between an ever-widening sphere of need and an ever-expanding ministry can get unwieldy. Constituency response had to become more systematized and expeditious (though no less human); researchers had to carry more of the load generating material for broadcasts and newsletters; issues had to be simplified; lines had to be drawn.
In the meantime, the world Focus kids were facing was becoming larger and scarier. The ever-widening sphere of concern about family issues evolved, eventually, to include policies being made in Washington. So it became unavoidable that Dobson's message of "traditional values" would ultimately include political activism.
It could be argued that Dobson did not move into the realm of politics so much as politics moved into his domain: morality.
Dobson's dismay with the moral condition of the culture emerged out of his early writings—most notably, Dare to Discipline. But what began in the sixties as social revolution, evolved in the seventies, eighties, and nineties into social engineering at the hands of an activist judiciary and intrusive government agencies. The courts, in essence, became an arm of the boomers' revolution, translating into law some of the assumptions that drove the cultural upheaval. (Roe v. Wade, 1973, stands out as an obvious example.)
Beyond this, Dobson's tenure as a member of the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography in the 1980s spurred his activism, as he confronted sordid and depraved expressions of this industry that made pin-up calendars and air-brushed Playboy centerfolds pale by comparison. He was particularly concerned about pornography's effects on women and children. "If people understood … what pornography does to the individual addicted to it, they would be far more motivated to work for its control." He realized this issue could only be restrained by means of the law, which required political activism.
Tom Minnery, VP of public policy at Focus, says, "The political establishment has grabbed part of the moral realm of society and begun dictating the definition of marriage or what constitutes pornography, and has disallowed communities from putting in controls in these areas. We're trying to elbow our way back and be a moral influence on those issues."
Dobson articulated what he thought was at stake in a book he coauthored with former Family Research Council president and now presidential candidate Gary Bauer. In Children at Risk (1994), Dobson drew the dividing line between two sides of a "culture war." "Nothing short of a great Civil War of Values rages today throughout North America," he wrote. "Two sides with vastly differing and incompatible worldviews are locked in a bitter conflict that permeates every level of society." Our children, he said, "are the prize to the winners of the second great civil war."
In Dobson's mind, his mandate never changed—to defend and uphold moral absolutes in the context of the family—and his political activism is an extension of his moral outrage. (He emphasizes that his activism in politics is the exercise of his constitutional right to speak "as a private individual and not as the president of Focus on the Family.")
With his army of attentive listeners waiting in the wings, he called them to arms and they answered the call. But now, instead of leading them to victory in a battle of the wills with a tantrum-throwing toddler, the Answer Man led them in a battle of the wills with Congress. Says John Hockenberry of ABC's Day One: "In an era of cynicism, he's built an influential political base quietly, by paying attention to people politicians have traditionally ignored. [It is] an empire and an army he built one mother at a time."
The strength of his political muscle, however, was not fully apprehended until he made his now infamous speech in February 1998 when he excoriated the gop before 300 Republican leaders at the Council for National Policy (CNP) in Phoenix, Arizona. He accused the party of "betraying" the evangelical constituency by failing to pass "pro-family" and "pro-moral" legislation and chastised them for going soft on the moral issues religious conservatives hold dear. He threatened to leave the party and "take as many people with [him] as possible."
He named names, some of whom had been loyal to his causes. Legislative issues took up only a small portion of the speech, which—according to GQ's Rosin—had more of an "apocalyptic prophecy" tone:
Dobson closed with a veiled warning conveyed through a prayer from the Book of Deuteronomy. "This day I call heaven and earth as witness against you that I have set before you a choice: life and death, blessings and curses."
"You've got to make a choice," he told the Republicans.
The following weeks he found himself on major television news programs, in articles in the nation's leading newspapers, and on the cover of U.S. News & World Report (May 4, 1998). In that article, he said, "I really do feel that the prophetic role is part of what God gave me to do."
Living with prophets
Talk of a "prophetic role" raises red flags for those who find themselves disagreeing with Dobson. This, too, begs the question: In their opposition to conservative policy initiatives, are they also fighting against God?
Within the secular realm, the so-called cultural elite have little desire to be preached to. And even if they were willing to hear Dobson out, they have no point of contact with which to engage a discussion on these terms. "Out of nowhere, the gentle doctor disappears, to be replaced by a raging, angry prophet, thundering from the mountains of Colorado about the rotting of America's soul," writes Rosin. "These jeremiads seem totally out of place in our secular age." News commentators Cokie Roberts and Steven Roberts captured Dobson's dilemma: "Right and wrong is not a popular notion in the secular capitals of Ivy-educated tastemakers who cringe at the concept of absolutes and get queasy at the idea of sin." Rosin put it a different way: How do you save souls in an age when people no longer fear hell?
Dobson, in some ways, fuels this antipathy. His self-avowed "prophetic" mantle makes it difficult for those outside the community of faith to engage, for lack of what one scholar calls Niebuhrian "middle level axioms"—common language that all parties can relate to. He hampers his ability to be heard by those who do not operate within a biblically informed paradigm.
A month after the speech he gave at the CNP in March, Dobson met with the same Republicans he had castigated. They appealed to him to give them credit for what incremental accomplishments they have achieved in fighting the good fight in an unruly battlefield. Writes Rosin:
Toward the end, one of the congressmen's wives began to cry, telling Dobson his disapproval had caused her family to be ostracized by their friends. "She basically said, 'Dr. Dobson, I'm your biggest fan, and my husband pours his life's blood out for you here in Washington. You don't know how hard he works, and then you go and make that speech out in Arizona,' and then she just stopped talking. It was a very emotional moment."
Dobson apologized to that woman. As a result of that encounter he canceled his interviews with the New York Times and the Washington Post during which he had intended to discuss his plans to leave the party. It probably hadn't occurred to him when he drew an "action line" at that CNP meeting that he was pushing some of his own Focus devotees onto the other side.
Within the family
But the prophetic model is no less problematic for some within the believing community who do understand this kind of terminology.
Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners and head of the politically active Call for Renewal, disagrees with Dobson's Right-leaning politics: "I have yet to hear James Dobson weigh in on social justice issues." Wallis adds, "James Dobson's strength is to talk to us about parenting and family life. He's good at that, and Christians from across the political spectrum have benefited from that. And that's where he should have stayed."
Wallis objects to Dobson's political engagement because "Dobson's efforts have been traditional, hard-ball, inside-the-[Republican]-party kind of stuff. He's totally partisan."
Ed Dobson, pastor of Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, and Cal Thomas, a syndicated columnist, don't challenge James Dobson's sympathy for Republican issues so much as they object to the way he exerts his political muscle. In their new book Blinded by Might (Zondervan), these former players in "Religious Right" politics of the Moral Majority criticize Dobson's activism, saying his "zealotry is hampering the very goals he—and we—seek." The authors assert, "Although [abolitionist William] Wilberforce devoted his entire life to making a difference in the human condition through political involvement, he understood that the lasting hope for humans lay not in politics but in the church and true Christian religion."
In an editorial that appeared in this magazine (May 20, 1996, p. 16), Ed Dobson explained the danger of activist evangelical leaders engaging in politics in the name of Christianity: "The unfortunate implication is that it is not enough to believe right, you must also act right according to their definition . …I fear that [this kind of] overt political involvement will lead to polarization and alienation from people who need to hear the gospel."
Many believe that to summon the voice of Moses and apply it to the Republicans confuses two separate missions. It is surely worthwhile to point America to policies that embody biblical wisdom for the governing of society (e.g., how best to raise children, preserve values, and affirm life). But that, they would argue, is not the same thing as "disseminating the Gospel." Assuming the role of a biblical prophet confuses these two mandates by leaving the impression that obedience and disobedience to God is measured in terms of one's stance on gop policy issues—about which wise, God-fearing people can disagree.
For Christians, there is little room for debate on such matters as partial-birth abortions. But there is room for healthy debate when it comes to the prudential questions, such as, What is the best way to reduce the number of abortions in our society?
One response fits all
Because Dobson's style of engagement has been so shaped by his worthwhile fight as a lone conservative voice against liberal culture, he has tended to employ the same combative stance against those who oppose him on issues where there can be legitimate disagreement. This is especially a problem when he takes on issues beyond his behavioral science expertise.
One example is when Focus on the Family sponsored an ad in Christian magazines in 1997 questioning the trustworthiness of some Bible translations. The two-page ad (which ran in CT) left the impression that the trustworthiness of versions not adopting the translation guidelines drawn up by him and a coterie of "traditionalist" scholars (enumerated in the ad) could be called into question. This was an affront to many evangelical Bible scholars.
Dobson also wrote a piece in World magazine (May 3/10, 1997) attacking those who were working on a revision of the New International Version: "The Committee on Bible Translation (CBT) and executives of Zondervan Publishing House are editing the inspired words of God himself … degenderizing the biblical text and inserting words that are not represented in the source documents." He concluded, "Frankly, I find it breathtaking that the CBT or any other group would feel justified in editing the utterances of the Holy One of Israel."
Mark Strauss is a biblical scholar (at Bethel Seminary in San Diego) who agrees with Dobson about the "complementarian" view of biblically distinct roles for men and women in the church and at home. Yet in a paper titled, "Linguistic and Hermeneutical Fallacies in the Guidelines Established at the (so-called) 'Conference on Gender-Related Language in Scripture,' " he wrote a detailed rebuttal. He called the guidelines listed in the ad "linguistically and hermeneutically nave and inaccurate." The faculties of many evangelical colleges and seminaries have echoed Strauss's point.
Dobson admitted later, "I am not a biblical scholar [and] I don't have the academic qualifications to debate [these issues]." Yet in sponsoring the ad and couching it in a way that implicitly indicts the work of Bible scholars, he drew another "action line" and pushed many godly, gifted fellow evangelicals—who are biblical scholars and who do have the academic qualifications to debate these issues—into an adversarial position.
Dobson's rhetoric gives the impression that fighting scholars who translate Hebrew and Greek into gender-inclusive English (which the King James—a version endorsed in the ad—does numerous times) is on a par with his battle with purveyors of pornography on the Internet. This further highlights the ambiguity in the Focus mission statement that seemingly equates "disseminat[ing] the Gospel" with "preserv[ing] traditional values."
And sometimes the Focus system simply breaks down. During a radio broadcast in 1997 when he was discussing feminism, Dobson wrongly portrayed evangelical scholar Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen as advocating an antifamily radical feminist position. It turns out that his researcher had misread Van Leeuwen's book, attributing to her a position she quoted, then argued against. Diane Passno, VP in charge of constituent service, said, "One of our top people was just going too fast and then providing that information to Dr. Dobson. We did owe her an apology because we had misrepresented what she had written." Dobson, after exchanging a series of letters with Van Leeuwen's employer, Eastern College, eventually read a correction on the air and published the same in his Focus on the Family magazine.
The Fourth Great Awakening
Michael Kazin, who teaches history at American University and is a self-described atheist and no friend of conservative politics or religion, has written an essay called "The Politics of Devotion" (The Nation, April 6, 1998). He writes:
The Book [Bible] has been an indispensable source of wisdom and rhetoric for many of the most effective and influential exponents of social change in American history. One cannot imagine the narrative of reform in the United States without the abolitionists, the temperance movement, the Peoples' Party, the civil rights insurgency, the United Farm workers or the movement against the Vietnam War . …
America has from the beginning, been a nation bent on redemption. That, after all, is what John Winthrop was getting at in 1630 when he famously predicted "We shall be a city upon a hill." The struggle to define what needs saving by whom has been fought out continually on a variety of battle fields. And it continues today, in what Nobel laureate Robert Foel recently called our "Fourth Great Awakening … a new religious revival fueled by revulsion with the corruptions of a contemporary society."
Dobson fits Kazin's paradigm perfectly. "Without a moral consensus people become ungovernable," Dobson says. "There are certain moral principles that have existed from antiquity that were accepted in the culture until the last 20 or 30 years. We've moved away from those moral principles. There has to be a common understanding of right and wrong and—even though there will be exceptions—a general acceptance of what we believe."
Paul Gigot says liberals love Dobson because his "politics of ultimatum … could reverse the remarkable and healthy political integration of evangelicals during the last 20 years. If these voters grow disillusioned," he writes, "they'll return to their traditional isolation—and threaten liberals less."
Wallis retracted his comment that Dobson "should have stayed" in the realm of family advice. "The answer isn't to withdraw" from political engagement, he said, "but wouldn't it be wonderful if someone like James Dobson could develop a broader pro-family agenda that could unite both the religious right and left?"
James Dobson would agree with Ed Dobson and Cal Thomas that "the lasting hope" for humans is not politics but in "true Christian religion." He would guffaw at the idea that he suggests the hope for humanity lay in politics.
Whether it is activist engagement of the so-called Christian Left and Right, or pastors urging their constituents to exercise their responsibility to vote, there is general agreement among Christians that, at some level, they should engage the culture and have a voice in politics. In the case of James Dobson, only one party has responded to the moral agenda he has proposed, and, to the dismay of some, it happens to be the Republicans. And he has already demonstrated that loyalty to that party is not a given.
As to the appeal of Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson calling for the church to be the vehicle for cultural redemption, James Dobson responds that if the church had been asserting its voice and making a difference in this realm in the first place, he wouldn't have had to engage in politics. "I have embraced the moral principles that every evangelical church in the country ought to be fighting for, and it has become politicized because of the culture war that has attempted to oppose those principles," he says. Partial-birth abortion, explains Dobson, "is profoundly moral, and I resent the criticisms of the church who doesn't take a stand against it but will criticize me as being political for trying to defend those babies."
"Christians need to be instruments of justice and righteousness in society," says Charles Colson. Even Ed Dobson admitted that when he heard the tape of Dobson's speech at the CNP he found himself agreeing with it. "If the Republican party doesn't respond, then maybe it is time to make a change."
But all the political wrangling, in the end, could be serving a greater purpose. More and more baby boomer parents are seeing the fruit of their own revolution in the faces of their children, and it scares them. While Dobson's public profile gains wider exposure, he is reaching a new, in many cases unchurched, audience that is posing the questions and raising the concerns that Dobson answers best.
He has a lot to say about today's America. He doesn't always say it right, and sometimes he confuses his roles. But Focus on the Family is having a life-giving effect in a soul-sick nation. Says Gary Bauer: "Jim Dobson has more influence today than last year and will have more influence next year than this one."
Focus now has ministries in all corners of the globe. Adventures in Odyessy, a radio drama for children, is one of the most popular radio programs in Zimbabwe; Dobson's 90-second nonreligious radio program is being translated into Mandarin and is carried on a government-owned station in China; the "Sex, Lies, and the Truth" abstinence campaign has recently been implemented in Nigeria and, in Central and South America, over 110,000 young people have made sexual abstinence pacts based on this program. Jim Daly, VP of marketing and international ministries, said that the Costa Rican First Lady requested the Christian version of the video because kids in their schools wanted to know where they could get the "power" to abstain.
The number of teens having sex in the U.S. dropped 11 percent in the 1990s, after 20 years of steady increases. The decrease marks the first time this decade when less than half of our nation's young people say they are having sex. This may or may not be linked to Focus's abstinence campaign; but the nonreligious version of the video Sex, Lies, and the Truth has been viewed in 25,000 public schools across the U.S. The United Nations, a few years ago, bought 20,000 copies of Focus's nonreligious abstinence booklets and distributed them through their Family and Health Program.
The radio dramas and entertainment videos sponsored by Focus are being well received by general audiences. "Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Cost of Freedom" won the prestigious Peabody Award in 1997 for a radio drama, sharing the stage with 60 Minutes, the producers of Ellen, and Mobil Masterpiece Theater; the Focus and Tyndale House video series McGee and Me has been seen nationally on ABC.
But Dobson's influence is probably most notably felt in the mundane moments of day-to-day living. There is a stay-at-home mom picking up the neighborhood kids to haul them to story hour, or a dad coaching Little League and giving extra encouragement to the team runt, all because James Dobson has encouraged them to embrace these blessed roles joyfully. Because of James Dobson, there is a mother today who won't be coerced in the check-out line by her would-be toddler terrorist throwing a fit over a pack of Gummi Bears.
His lack of "common language that all parties relate to" has caused him (and others) some pain. The discussion of homosexuality is one area where Focus, more recently, has been intentional about revamping its literature to exude more compassion and less vitriol. The "Truth in Love" ad campaign sponsored by Family Research Council and endorsed by Dobson conveyed a positive message: "We're standing for the truth that homosexuals can change"; "It's not about hate … It's about hope." Even so, Frank Rich of the New York Times used these ads to accuse FRC (and indirectly, James Dobson) of "stirring up fear that produces hate." In the eyes of some, no matter what Dobson does, sinister motives are attributed to him, which makes him understandably irritated.
But when a lesbian journalist went to the Focus headquarters to learn about the "Religious Right," she surprised herself when she ended up liking these people. She spent three hours with three leaders, including Paul Hetrick, Dobson's right-hand man, and concluded (in Ferocious Romance):
It feels so liberating that I don't have to hate them at every moment and in every way. … My three adversaries admit to me that they are probably sinners toward gay people. … Still, I feel what I can only describe as divine grace—as an incalculable gift from Somewhere—that I have gotten to tell these men my anger in person and across a table from them, not two thousand comforting miles away from here, in published writing. … Getting to tell these men my "wrath," as Blake would put it, means that I can also love them without fear.
Some question whether Dobson is a modern-day prophet, a parent figure to an adolescent nation, or a hard-ball political operative. He has said he would "give my life" for these issues, and he almost has, twice. He suffered a heart attack in 1990 and a stroke in March last year. "You're not going to take a hill unless you're prepared to die on it," he says.
It is yet to be seen how history will judge him, whether his contributions will have the effect of a Wilberforce.
But this much we know: We are living in a "wayward" America. Our "intermediary institutions"—families, schools, business organizations, private associations, and so on—are being weakened by the cultural ethos and the "radical individualism" being written into law by the courts. And in this context, the Focus ministry machine keeps humming along—overcoming that constituency-response deficit, packing up those books, and shipping them out.
Maybe America has lost its story. And maybe James Dobson has been called for such a time as this. For all the levels of discourse he brings to the cultural conversation—be they moral, political, prophetic, or otherwise—as one social observer asked, "If he weren't in there screaming, who would be?"
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