Here's some good information on James Dobson, one of the worse hate-mongering bigots of our age. He is a co-founder of the "Focus on the Family" cult which uses its tax-exemption status to further its anti-woman, anti-gay agenda. I used to work inside the cult's headquarters when it was in Pasadena so I know full well what this evil bigot's real motivations are: Greed and hatred.

US News, May 4, 1998
Send letters to letters@usnews.com

A Righteous Indignation

James Dobson--psychologist, radio host, family-values crusader -- is set to topple the political establishment


On March 18, in the basement of the Capitol, 25 House Republicans met with psychologist James Dobson for some emotional venting. But this was not personal therapy; it concerned the fate of their party. Dobson, long on loyal radio listeners and short on patience, was threatening, in effect, to bring down the GOP unless it made conservative social issues, including abortion, a higher legislative priority. "If I go," he has said, "I will do everything I can to take as many people with me as possible."

In the audience sat some of Dobson's closest ideological allies. Rep. Steve Largent of Oklahoma, a former star football player, was a volunteer speaker for Dobson's organization, Focus on the Family, from 1990 to 1993. He credits this with "sparking my interest in public policy." Rep. James Talent of Missouri, years before, had pulled off the highway and prayed along with Dobson on the radio to become a Christian. "He is the instrument through which I committed my life to Christ. It is the single most important thing that has ever or will ever happen to me."

But for over two hours, until nearly midnight, House conservatives confronted Dobson about his indiscriminate attacks on the Republican Party, asking credit for achievements he had ignored. At one point the wife of a congressman, in tears, explained how Dobson's broadside had hurt their family, inviting harsh questions from friends. An emotional Dobson, according to one witness, responded, "I'm so sorry I hurt you."

Sobered, Dobson canceled planned meetings with the New York Times and the Washington Post, where he would have laid out his threat to leave. But in the next two weeks, he sent lengthy, public letters renewing the threat, which hangs in the air like distant thunder at the Republican picnic.

This conflict dramatizes a growing gap between grass-roots conservatism and governing conservatism, between the raised expectations of activists and the weary realism of legislators. It reveals a party that may be crumbling, not at its periphery but at its center, among its most loyal supporters. And it may be signaling a major shift in the attitudes of Christian conservatives toward politics.

Many Republicans are taking Dobson's divorce threats very seriously. House Speaker Newt Gingrich has hosted several meetings with other House leaders to discuss Dobson's specific demands, which include defunding Planned Parenthood, requiring parental consent for abortions, and eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts. House Majority Leader Dick Armey has asked subcommittee chairmen to explore how Dobson's agenda could be advanced. But Dobson will not be easily appeased. Of the assurances he has been offered that his issues will be taken seriously, he says: "We've got to see the proof. . . . If they will not change, I will try to beat them this fall."

His focus

Dobson is a central figure in Republican politics because he is the central figure in conservative Christianity. His radio and TV broadcasts are heard or seen by 28 million people a week. A core audience of 4 million listens to his Focus on the Family radio show every day. That gives him a greater reach than either Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson at the height of their appeal. Dobson's most popular books have sold more than 16 million copies, and his other tracts and pamphlets have sold millions more. His organization, Focus on the Family, has a budget five times the size of the Christian Coalition's and gets so much mail it has its own ZIP code. His mailing list of over 2 million is one of the most potent organizing tools in the religious world.

But the 62-year-old Dobson is not a preacher or political activist. He is a psychologist, and his authority comes from an ability to connect with people right at the level of their problems. "His family advice is simply helpful, and he has a reputation for absolute integrity--standing for something and sticking to it," says Prof. John Green of the University of Akron, an expert on the religious right.

The effect is completed by the slight drawl of a country doctor, a radio voice that is at once effortless and authoritative. Its influence seems to surprise even him. "My voice is a friendly voice that comes into the home each day, somebody they know, somebody many of them trust. And it does become a kind of friendship. It's a strange thing. I have a lot of women especially who write me and say, 'My father was not a father to me. . . . You've become a father to me,' which is interesting when you consider I've never met them."

Dobson is very much the son, grandson, and great-grandson of Nazarene evangelists, a denomination known both for moral sternness--no movies or makeup--and for the emotional openness of the camp meeting. This is the evangelicalism of the quivering lip, the arm around the shoulder, the lump in the throat, the easy tear. Though he might resent the comparison, Dobson displays a Clinton-like emotional connection, particularly with women, who make up the vast majority of his audience. He accepted the Nazarene faith at the age of 3 and never rebelled against it, though, like many of his generation of Nazarenes, he abandoned its more rigid prohibitions against pop culture.

As an only child, Dobson was "spoiled rotten," recalls old friend Mike Williamson. "His family doted over him." And Dobson developed a particularly close relationship with his father, who combined the moral rigor of a preacher with the softer traits of an artist. (He was a serious painter.) "He was a gentle man, a kind man, an easy touch, but outraged toward sin," Dobson says. "He had an abhorrence of that which offended God, and a lot of what I feel today reflects that."

Dobson might have been expected to go into the ministry himself. But Nazarene ministry must be inspired by a very specific calling from God, and Dobson never felt it. He went instead to a Nazarene school in California, Pasadena College, and then to the graduate program in psychology at the University of Southern California. There he found himself interested in the science of child development, and he spent 14 years as a professor of pediatrics at the USC School of Medicine and 17 years on the attending staff at Children's Hospital of Los Angeles.

In the middle of this career, Dobson was hungry for broader influence on the issue he cared about most: child rearing. He hired an agent and began lecturing. And he published a book in 1970 titled Dare to Discipline. It sold 3 million copies and established his national reputation. Dobson, who has written 15 other books, is a critic of permissive parenting. He stresses the idea that kids need boundaries to develop self-esteem and self-confidence. Children's behavior can be conditioned by the judicious use of rewards and punishments. He believes spanking is permissible, but only between 18 months and 8 years, and never by anyone with a history of abuse or a violent temper. But he also argues that rules without relationship lead to rebellion. So parents, while firm, should be emotionally accessible to their children.

Dobson stresses the need for fathers to be fully engaged in the life of their family, in contrast to the distant breadwinners of the past. His film on the subject, Where's Dad?, had a profound effect, for example, on Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia. "That film, that day, changed my life. After that, I never went to a political event on Sunday, not when asked by George Bush or Ronald Reagan. I dedicated myself to spending more time with [the children]. My kids joke about B.D. and A.D.--before Dobson and after Dobson."

The psychologist's method is a mix of traditional parenting, biblical insights, and basic psychology--a traditionalism humanized by common sense and flexibility. His advice to a mother and 12-year-old daughter fighting bitterly over whether the young girl should be allowed to shave her legs: "Lady, buy your daughter a razor!" His counsel on masturbation: "Attempting to suppress this act is one campaign that is destined to fail--so why wage it?" He urges discipline for the big issues and tolerance on the smaller stuff.

When demand for Dobson as a speaker began to steal time from his own two children, he quit his job at Children's Hospital of Los Angeles in 1977 and started his radio program. Two years later, he summarized his parenting views in a seven-part Focus on the Family video series, which has now been seen by 70 million people. Rapid growth carried the ministry through five headquarters buildings and from California to Colorado Springs, where 1,300 people work in the $113 million enterprise.

Focus provides answers to those seeking advice. It is also the center of a pro-family culture that is a kind of parallel universe to mainstream popular culture. There are monthly magazines for preschoolers, grade schoolers, teen boys, and teen girls. Glossy, frank, and helpful, they have articles like "Battle of an Anorexic," "Back-to-School Fashion," and "Spiritual Growth Boosters." Other magazines go to single parents, teachers, physicians, and pastors. Focus's second-most-popular production--after Dobson's daily radio program--is Adventures in Odyssey, a children's radio drama with moral story lines that is carried on over 1,500 radio stations. There are women's seminars and "Life on the Edge" seminars, designed to help parents and teens communicate about the challenges of adolescence. A new abstinence video, titled No Apologies, combines MTV production techniques, biblical values, and the explicitness of an Army VD training film. Teens who have already had sex are urged to be "recycled virgins." It is countercultural, urging children to rebel against the slipshod moral world around them by displaying virtue.

Most of the Focus operation, which receives up to 12,000 letters, calls, and E-mails every day, is occupied with "constituent service." In one pile of counseling requests at a random Focus cubicle, a long-distance trucker asks how to keep his family together when he is always gone; a woman deals with a miscarriage; a divorced man asks if it is OK to remarry. Prototype responses, drawn from Dobson's vast output of advice, guide counselors. All incoming letters are stored by computer, so the next time these people write, the dialogue will pick up where it left off. Focus does not just answer mail; it maintains relationships. Some hard cases are referred to licensed counselors. Some people are offered temporary financial help. They deal with one or two suicide threats a week.

Dobson's reach grows each day. At a recent weekly meeting of the Focus "cabinet"--Dobson plus his senior executives--there were reports on the translation of Focus broadcasts into Zulu. On how three Central and South American countries were putting Focus abstinence material into their public schools. On how Adventures in Odyssey is now one of the top five radio programs in Zimbabwe. On how 500 state-owned radio stations in China are about to begin the Focus broadcast.

When it comes to the business of helping people, Dobson the empathetic extrovert has a reputation as an intimidating micromanager. No one, no matter how long or loyal their service, is exempt from confrontational scrutiny. "I saw people who had given blood [serving] him come out of his office weeping," says a former employee. "He believes so strongly in his rightness." Another former employee says "the pace [at Focus] is unbelievable. But everyone has to appear perfectly happy."

At the center of it all is a man who does not lack confidence. He tells a story about his ill father, who prayed for three days and nights without sleep that his time on Earth would be extended so he could finish his work as a minister. At dawn, God told him he was going to reach millions around the world--not through himself but through his son. The next day Dobson's father suffered a major heart attack; he died in a few weeks. "I saw for the first time," says Dobson, "why [Focus on the Family] seemed charmed--beyond my ability and beyond my intelligence, my academic knowledge, my ability to communicate." This is the person who has chosen to test his influence against the Republican Party. He does not describe his actions as those of a man moved by grubby ambition; he sees it as a calling.

Politics and prophecy

Dobson was once positioned to be a more conservative version of Joyce Brothers. "If I had simply stayed on those [family] themes, I could have moved with ease through all denominations in both political parties. But I care about the moral tone of the nation. I care about right and wrong. I have very deep convictions about absolute truth."

His sense of political urgency has come in stages. Convinced that his and his followers' views were not being given voice in Washington, he created in 1982 an advocacy group, the Family Research Council. But it was purposely designed to keep him one step removed from direct political involvement. Gary Bauer, a key aide in Ronald Reagan's White House, now runs the group, and he is supposed to be the partisan lightning rod, allowing Dobson to focus, as it were, on the family.

But Dobson, in the past several months, has become so dissatisfied with conservatives' performance in Congress that he wants to become more directly and personally involved in politics. "He has watched the manipulation of the religious right for the last decade," argues his close friend Charles Colson. "He feels a sense of betrayal and responsibility for stewardship of the great silent majority."

He is particularly intolerant of those who share his views but not his driving sense of urgency. So he has developed a habit of targeting allies with footnoted letters showing that Dobson can at times slip over the line between righteousness and self-righteousness. When Ralph Reed, then the head of the Christian Coalition, was insufficiently critical during the last election of Colin Powell for his support of abortion rights, Dobson wrote to Reed: "Gary Bauer and I have discussed your recent statements and considered the need to distance ourselves from you. . . . Some of the politicians with whom you have made common cause . . . would seal the fate of [unborn children] and sacrifice millions more in years to come. I will fight that evil as long as there is breath within my body." Commenting on Dobson's tendency to attack allies, conservative columnist Cal Thomas argues, "You begin to marginalize yourself, saying, I am the only true believer. Soon you are left only with your wife, then you begin to look at her funny. All of a sudden, you're Ross Perot." When confronted with the charge, Dobson responds: "I guess it irritates me when people who know what is right put self-preservation and power ahead of moral principle. That is more offensive to me, in some ways, than what Bill Clinton does with interns at the White House."

Dobson is not the kind of traditional conservative who has a keen appreciation of the limits and complexities of politics. He is a moralist and a populist, demanding rapid, immediate progress to fit a flaming moral vision: "If you look at the cultural war that's going on, most of what those who disagree with us represent leads to death--abortion, euthanasia, promiscuity in heterosexuality, promiscuity in homosexuality, legalization of drugs. There are only two choices. It really is that clear. It's either God's way, or it is the way of social disintegration."

Some conservatives dismiss this as an impractical philosophy for a governing party since progress emerges by small steps. Other conservative critics fear that Dobson's increased partisanship might undermine the generally nonpartisan good works of Focus on the Family. Still others warn that his walkout strategy will only result in the election of Democrat Dick Gephardt as House speaker. Dobson's response: "It is never wrong to do what's right. And you stand for what's right whether it is strategic or not."

The fact that Dobson has struck a chord among conservative activists may be signaling an important shift of political styles in evangelicalism. There are at least three of those tendencies to be considered: priest, kingmaker, prophet. From the 1950s to the 1970s, Billy Graham performed a priestly function as minister to the ministers of state. His role was to legitimize power and to use his access to present the Christian Gospel, which was his primary goal. Personal contact and influence were paramount. In the 1980s, culminating in the rise of Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition, the goal shifted from legitimizing power to exercising power--the role of kingmaker. Robertson, the son of a senator, understood the give and take of coalition building and the need for a place at the table.

But the pragmatism of the religious right is under serious question, particularly in the wake of the coalition's embrace of Republican Bob Dole in the last presidential election, which many in the movement argue was a compromise too far. University of Akron's Green compares Dobson to an Old Testament prophet "speaking truth to power." It is a designation Dobson accepts: "I really do feel that the prophetic role is part of what God gave me to do."

And that frames the questions for his supporters: Do Christian activists want to be players or prophets? Insiders who accept inevitable compromises, or outsiders who hold on to higher standards?

The next move

Dobson has rejected the idea of becoming a political candidate himself or trying to create a third party. This leaves him with two options. The conventional choice is for Dobson to intervene directly in Republican primaries on the side of social conservatives. This would require, in Dobson's words, "periodic leaves of absence" to protect the nonprofit status of Focus on the Family. Bauer's political action committee has already scouted 40 races where Dobson might throw his weight on the side of a candidate. After the congressional elections, Dobson would determine how to have the maximum impact in the 2000 presidential campaign. Bauer himself is considering a presidential run and covets Dobson's endorsement.

But Dobson is also actively considering "going nuclear" against the GOP leadership. Instead of working through primaries in the summer, Dobson would urge social conservatives to abandon Republicans in November--to stay at home or vote for third parties--with the goal of ending the GOP majority in Congress. "It doesn't take that many votes to do it. You just look how many people are there by just a hair, [who won their last election by] 51 percent to 49 percent, and they have a 10- or 11-vote majority. I told [House Majority Whip] Tom DeLay, 'I really hope you guys don't make me try to prove it, because I will.' " One senior Republican official says he has identified six districts in which Dobson could "turn the tide" against the GOP candidate. Dobson muses about delivering this message by "getting a stadium with 50,000 seats and having Chuck Colson and Phyllis Schlafly and Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer and myself fill it at a strategic time. That gets the attention of Republican leaders."

Some Republican insiders believe the effect of either approach--working within the party or working against it--would be much the same. Bauer's political action committee's fervent support for a conservative candidate in a recent California congressional special election helped elevate the abortion issue. Party leaders believe this allowed Democrat Lois Capps to win in the moderate district. They fear that if Dobson intervenes on behalf of social conservatives in other contests, similar results will follow. As for the nuclear option, the mood of many Republicans is frustrated resignation that Dobson will always be on the attack against the GOP. "It wouldn't matter how many hoops of fire we jump through, it is never enough for him," complains one party official. That strategist and others say majority parties have a responsibility to govern, and that means muting ideological fervor at times. It is hard to imagine this official and Jim Dobson in the same party--and it may be increasingly hard for Dobson to imagine that as well.

With Major Garrett and Carolyn Kleiner


The views and opinions stated within this web page are those of the author or authors which wrote them and may not reflect the views and opinions of the ISP or account user which hosts the web page.

Return to The Skeptic Tank's main Index page.

E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank