Focus on the Family founder James Dobson is keeping religion-and-politics observers on their toes this election. Back in February, Dobson told his radio listeners that he would not vote for Sen. John McCain, citing McCain's support of embryonic stem-cell research, among other issues. In June, he began criticizing Sen. Barack Obama's interpretation of the Bible. Then, in late July, Dobson began warming up to McCain's candidacy.
Beliefnet politics editor Dan Gilgoff profiled Dobson's political influence in his book The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical America Are Winning the Culture War. Gilgoff has been covering Dobson's moves and other religion-in-politics stories on his blog, God-o-Meter. Some of his coverage is also cross-posted on CT's politics blog.
Where did the idea for your book on Dobson come from?
This story kind of fell into my lap. After the 2004 election, the media was in a real frenzy as to how to capture the "values voters" who apparently tipped the election to George Bush. I got an assignment to identify and profile the most prominent evangelical, which brought me to Focus on the Family. After a few days of romping around there, I finally was able to secure an interview with James Dobson.
How did you decide to profile Dobson?
I came up with James Dobson initially by talking to some scholars and activists in the evangelical world. In going out to Colorado Springs and doing my initial profile, I got these glimmers of Focus of the Family being the headquarters of this vast machine. There was the untold story of James Dobson ruling over this national empire.
How does he compare to figures such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson?
Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were both evangelical activists first and foremost. James Dobson has always resisted this active role and this high visibility role in politics, because then he would be seen [more] as a political figure than as a family advice-giver. Evangelicals felt that this trusted family adviser was really involved in the intimate details of their lives. His mailing list was bigger than Falwell's or Robertson's. I think he gained more power than either of those two. Someone like Rick Warren is arguably more influential culturally, [but] he isn't as involved in domestic policy so he isn't comparable. The media still cite the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition as the main organizing vehicles for the Christian Right, but neither of them really exist.
Why do you think Dobson finally warmed up to McCain?
I think this might be a way to not backpedal on his word. He can get out there and bash Obama. There's a lot of consternation in the Christian Right because Obama is reaching out to their traditional constituency. There are a lot of Christian Right leaders who see it as a turning point. This might be an attempt to push back on some of that.
Do you see signs that evangelicals are moving away from the Republican Party?
Bush had a special connection to evangelicals and was able to get record numbers of them. The polls are showing that McCain is getting support in the high 60s. The polls are not showing that much has shifted. If it doesn't change, the Democrats at a national level might just have to kiss that vote goodbye.
Even though the Denver meeting [where several evangelical leaders endorsed McCain] might've been a turning point for McCain, he wasn't there, and there didn't seem to be anyone from his campaign. [Liberty Counsel founder and meeting organizer] Mat Staver told me that the meeting happened in spite of the campaign. On one hand, McCain is the lesser of two evils. Evangelicals want to be unified in the future so they don't end up with a candidate like him. It was a lot more practical than it was born of a turnabout by the campaign to take the movement seriously.
You began God-o-Meter last fall, when there were several serious candidates. How has it changed now that there are two nominees?
There are still so many stories to follow and to report on this late in the game. The McCain campaign is trying to bring out religious outreach very late in the game. What will put McCain at a disadvantage is if he doesn't have those huge organizational structures, huge mailing lists, voter guides, and voter turnouts to the polls. Getting that organizational support is important.
Obama could do that in a way on a smaller scale in terms of connecting with rank-and-file voters, some of whom have been put off by the Christian Right. He talks about coming to Jesus and he talks like a born-again. He can act like some evangelicals on that level. He can really seriously cultivate their support. He's doing what he needs to do, but it's a question of whether they will come his way. He needs to show that he's really not pandering by supporting faith-based initiatives. His record is so liberal on cultural issues that that would be his biggest stumbling block.
What do you expect from the upcoming party conventions?
I haven't seen anything on the Republican side, but I think the Democrats are really going to use it as a real showcase. The convention's CEO, Leah Daughtry, was so distraught over the 2004 election that she was leading the DNC to help the Democrats reach out to religious voters. I would say she revitalized the Democrats' faith outreach, but she really raised it up from nothing. I think she's going to use the convention as a staging ground to show the Democrats' receptivity to people of faith.
One of the most memorable lines from 2004 in Boston was when Barack Obama said, "We worship an awesome God in the blue states." That was one of the few instances when religion came into play in the convention.
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The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical America Are Winning the Culture War is available from ChristianBook.com and other retailers.
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