There is one Religious Right leader who has been hovering in the background for a decade or more, quietly building his empire, perhaps waiting for the propitious moment to assume leadership of that fledgling army of religious conservatives known as the Religious Right. That man is Dr. James C. Dobson, a former professor of pediatrics at the University of Southern California School of Medicine.
Dobson attained celebrity status with his books on raising children, following a strict discipline often called "tough love." In 1977 he established a national organization called Focus on the Family (Focus). Fourteen years later, he relocated to Colorado Springs, Colorado, a conservative, Republican, pro-military, town so beloved by religious conservatives that it has begun to supplant Wheaton, Illinois, as the evangelical Vatican City.
Today the Focus complex occupies a site with a postcard view of the Rocky Mountains. It attracts 200,000 visitors a year and recently opened a $8.5 million welcome center where films, videotapes and books espousing Dobson's world-view can be purchased. Interactive displays feature Dobson's opinions on every conceivable topic, enabling the bewildered and confused to find answers to life's dilemmas and complexities.
Dobson's reputation as a problem-solver and answer-man has attracted about 10,000 letters a day to Focus. A specially trained staff composes replies based on Dobson's voluminous writings. Urgent letters are answered by telephone from state-certified counselors.
Dobson's popularity probably stems from his radio advice programs, currently carried on more than 2,000 radio stations. His reputation as the guru of family life, a kind of conservative Dr. Spock, has been reinforced by his books, cassettes and radio addresses which stress discipline, patriarchy, order and traditional conservative religious faith as the cure for family traumas, divorce, drugs, and rampant sexuality.
A 1992 demographic survey conducted by Focus found its members to be largely white, middle-class married women aged 30 to 49, well educated and concerned about marital issues, parenting, and abortion.
Focus's 1995 budget was $101 million, most of which went to producing ten radio programs and eleven magazines. Most of the income comes from the estimated two million members or subscribers, but wealthy donors also play a role. One of them gave $5 million toward the welcome center at headquarters. Salaries for the staff of 1,300 in Colorado Springs consume a good chunk of the annual budget.
But Dobson's focus is becoming increasingly political. Although only $4 million of Focus's budget is allotted to public policy, and only 139,000 subscribers receive Focus' political magazine, Citizen, the Focus empire is shifting toward a political emphasis.
For the past year Dobson has been a vocal critic of the Republican Party leadership's professed desire to build a "big tent" to encompass voters who may hold differing opinions on social issues. In March 1995, Dobson wrote to Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour, saying, "I think you should warn the Republican presidential hopefuls that it will be impossible to skirt the moral issues in 1996." The candidates, he said, "will not be able to double talk, sidestep, obfuscate and ignore the concerns that burn within our hearts — you have my word on that."1
All of the major GOP presidential hopefuls made the trek to Colorado Springs to seek Dobson's support, causing him to gloat openly that "some of us have helped make the Republican Party aware they are being watched and they're being held accountable."2
He chided Senator Phil Gramm for not taking a hard-line stance against abortion and criticized House Speaker Newt Gingrich for ignoring "values" issues in his policy pronouncements. He has flirted openly with forming a third party of religious conservatives and other "moral purists" if the GOP does not toe the line. While endorsing no candidate in the 1996 GOP primaries, Dobson moved closer to Pat Buchanan's take-no-hostages approach to the religious and cultural issues facing the U.S. In July 1995, he criticized President Bill Clinton's address on religion in public education, and he blasted the Fourth World Conference on Women for its "anti-family" bias.3
Dobson has succeeded in disarming many of his opponents and critics with his image of sweet reasonableness. Some members of the press have been impressed by Dobson's demeanor. Jennifer Mears of the Associated Press said, "The 'folk hero' Dobson has earned the trust of millions by quietly dispensing his prescription for troubled times: family values and Scripture."4 But just how reasonable and wholesome are Dr. Dobson's prescriptions? His best-selling books give us some clues.
Sexual issues dominate his writings. They are all-pervasive and encompassing. He writes, "Of all the dimensions wherein we have mishandled this younger generation, none is more disgraceful than the sexual immorality that has permeated the world in which they live. There is no more effective way to destroy the institution of the family than to undermine the sexual exclusivity on which it is based."5
In Emotions: Can You Trust Them? he writes, "During the past 15 years we have witnessed the tragic disintegration of our sexual mores and traditional concepts of morality. Responding to a steady onslaught by the entertainment industry and by the media, our people have begun to believe that premarital intercourse is a noble experience, extramarital encounters are healthy, homosexuality is acceptable, and bisexuality is even better. These views — labeled as 'the new morality' — reflect the sexual stupidity of the age in which we live, yet they are believed and applied by millions of American citizens."6
He believes that sexual restraint is the sine qua non of civilization. Departure from these norms represents death and decline for the culture. Looking at premarital sexual behavior trends, he laments, "I have never considered myself to be a prophet of doom, but I am admittedly alarmed by statistical evidence of this nature. I view these trends with fear and trepidation, seeing in them the potential death of our society and our way of life."7
Citing an obscure anthropologist, Dobson lays out his underlying thesis with startling clarity. "Mankind has known intuitively for at least 50 centuries that indiscriminate sexual activity represents both an individual and a corporate threat to survival. And history bears it out. Anthropologist J.D. Unwin conducted an exhaustive study of the 88 civilizations which have existed in the history of the world. Each culture has reflected a similar life cycle, beginning with a strict code of sexual conduct and ending with the demand for complete 'freedom' to express individual passion. Unwin reports that every society which extended sexual permissiveness to its people was soon to perish. There have been no exceptions."8
He concludes, "Illegitimate births, heartbreak, shattered personalities, abortions, disease, even death — this is the true vomitus of the sexual revolution, and I am tired of hearing it romanticized and glorified. God has clearly forbidden irresponsible sexual behavior, not to deprive us of fun and pleasure, but to spare us the disastrous consequences of this festering way of life. Those individuals and those nations choosing to defy His commandments on this issue will pay a dear price for their folly."9
Dobson's preoccupation with sex reaches new heights in When God Doesn't Make Sense. He seems to identify sexual transgressions as the only sins that God cares about. Little is said in any of Dobson's books about corporate sins, structural deficiencies in society or government, oppression of the poor and disadvantaged, greed, selfishness, or materialism. Sin is sexual, and constitutes the primary disobedience to God. This disobedience leads inexorably to spiritual and physical death. "Scripture makes it clear that there is a direct link between disobedience to God and the consequence of death."10 Continuing, he argues, "He forbade certain behavior because He knew it would ultimately destroy its victims. It is not God who leads to death, but sin. And sin becomes a cancer that consumes those who embrace it ... This, said Paul, is what sin does to an unregenerate person. It attaches itself to its victim and pollutes everything it touches. Without the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ, all of us are hopelessly condemned by this plague of wickedness. This link between sin and death applies not only to individuals, but to nations as well."11
Dobson yearns for the past in sexual mores. "There has been a general understanding for thousands of years that premarital and extramarital sexual behavior is dangerous. Those who broke the rules put themselves at risk for syphilis, gonorrhea, unwanted pregnancy, and social rejection. Women, even more than men, understood the dangers of promiscuity and tried to protect themselves from it. There were exceptions, of course, but the culture generally recognized and supported Christian standards of morality."12 But modern folks have departed from these time-honored norms. "This commitment to premarital chastity and marital fidelity was widely supported in our society from 1620 to 1967. Then, suddenly, adherence to the biblical standard disintegrated."13
He writes, "The cancer of sin has matured and is yielding a staggering harvest of death."14 "We are a sick people with weak, ineffectual families."15 "Can anyone doubt that sexual liberation has been a social, spiritual, and physiological disaster!?"16 "Many of the trials and tribulations that come our way are of our own making. Some are the direct consequence of sin."17
Dobson believes that homosexual activity is a grave sin forbidden by the Bible. Citing several scripture references, he concludes, "These scriptures leave little room for debate. The only way their message can be negated is to reject the authority of God's Word ... our responsibility is to call sin by its name and to admonish men and women to live in purity and holiness ... Whereas we are obligated to treat gay and lesbian individuals with respect, we are morally responsible to oppose the radical agenda of the gay rights movement. What they are trying to accomplish in the culture is wrong, and it must be resisted."18
One curious concept advanced in Sex, Lies &...the Truth is that of "secondary virginity." Young people who have been sexually active are told to return to abstinence until marriage. "Becoming a virgin again is impossible from the physical standpoint. But it's entirely possible from a spiritual standpoint. You can go through a transformation and come out right — with yourself and, more important — with God."19
Dobson's opposition to abortion is neither muted nor subtle. He believes it is evil incarnate. Furthermore, a society which allows abortion will be punished by God. He writes, "Nearly 30 million unborn babies have been killed since the Supreme Court issued its despicable Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. That number represents more than 10 percent of the U.S. population, and it is growing by 4,110 per day. Such bloodshed and butchery, now occurring worldwide, is unprecedented in human history, yet we've only seen the beginning. Don't tell me this crime against humanity will go unpunished! Those voiceless little people cry out to the Almighty from the incinerators and the garbage heaps where they have been discarded. Someday, this 'unborn holocaust' will rain death and destruction upon our nation. Just wait. You'll see. It is in the nature of the universe. Sin inevitably devastates a people who embrace it.... Alas, we have chosen death! And we will have hell to pay for it."20
He also emphasizes the alleged psychological problems that the procedure is said to cause. "What many women don't realize is that having an abortion can create even more difficulties than proceeding with the pregnancy. Many women who have had abortions will tell you that it is much easier to remove a baby from your womb than it is to remove that baby from your memory. Once the procedure is over, the thoughts of what that child might have become linger on for years, and those thoughts can cause serious psychological problems."21 The far more numerous studies with different results are ignored.
Dobson condemns sex education programs in public schools. "One of the problems with sex education as it is currently taught in public schools is that it breaks down the natural barriers between the sexes and makes familiarity and casual sexual experimentation much more likely to occur. It also strips kids — especially girls — of their modesty to have every detail of anatomy, physiology and condom usage made explicit in co-ed situations. Then, the following Friday night when the kids are on a date and attend a sexually explicit movie or watch a hot TV program showing teenagers in bed with one another, it is just a tiny step to intercourse — whereas a hundred years ago it was an enormous decision to give up one's virginity. This familiarity also contributes to the terrible incidence of 'date rape' in North America. In short, the way sex education is handled today is worse than no program at all."22
Dobson charges that many, if not most, sex educators are hostile to the traditional family and conservative sexual values. The family, he says, is being destroyed, and this destruction "has been accomplished, deliberately and thoughtfully by those who despised the Christian system of values. Today's 'safe-sex' advocates are advancing that campaign with devastating effectiveness."23
Dobson's hostility to public education is pronounced. He encourages church-related education. "I believe strongly in Christian education for those of you who are followers of Christ. My wife and I are products of a church-sponsored college that made an incredible contribution to our lives. Both our children graduated from Christian universities, and we're delighted that they did."24 Grudgingly admitting that there may be some good in secular colleges, he adds, "Let me acknowledge that many students thrive academically and spiritually in large, secular schools, and they do not regret their decisions to go there. Some get involved in Christian ministries on campus and emerge with their faith intact. Furthermore, there are thousands of dedicated Christian professors in public universities, and they believe God has led them to teach in that environment."25
Summarizing his recommendations, Dobson gives four reasons why public universities are hostile to Christians: "Secular universities today are bastions of moral relativism that leave no room for the Christian world-views."26 "State universities are dominated by 'politically correct' thought that can be contradicted only at great personal sacrifice."27 "The politically correct philosophy on many campuses disdains Western civilization, with its emphasis on the Judeo-Christian heritage."28 "State universities are breeding grounds, quite literally, for sexually transmitted diseases (including HIV), homosexual behavior, unwanted pregnancies, abortions, alcoholism, and drug abuse."29
Dobson is prone to sweeping generalizations. "I doubt if many students or their parents realize just how antagonistic many of our state schools have become to anything that smacks of Christianity. There is simply no place for God in the system. The new god is 'diversity,' which respects all world-views and philosophies — except one. The Christian perspective is not only excluded from the classroom, it is often ridiculed and undermined."30
He is adamantly opposed to equal rights or empowerment for women. "The primary responsibility for the provision of authority in the home has been assigned to men,"31 states Dobson. He maintains that there is a "Creator's blueprint for a successful home."32 He adds, "Men in Western nations have experienced a severe crisis of identity in recent years, similar to the confusion that their wives have encountered. It has been brought on by persistent challenges to everything traditionally masculine, just as the women's movement has mocked traditionally female behavior and mores. Masculine leadership, especially, has been ridiculed as 'macho' and invariably self-serving."33 Also, he claims, "My observation is that most women are merely waiting for their husbands to assume leadership."34
Feminism is called an unmitigated evil, and Dobson refers to it as the "now defunct Women's Liberation Movement."35 He says, "It left its mark before disappearing from the scene, but the general public quickly realized that anger between the sexes and lesbian ideologies, even the Equal Rights Amendment, were not in society's best interests. Unfortunately, many gullible people were sucked into the web before their eyes were opened. Some are still paying the price for mistakes made during that era."36
Dobson rejects the idea that children should learn about different religious traditions. He says bluntly, "When parents say they are going to withhold indoctrination from their small child, allowing him to 'decide for himself,' they are almost guaranteeing that he will 'decide' in the negative. If a parent wants his child to have a meaningful faith, he must give up any misguided attempts at objectivity."37
Dobson places his religious convictions at the center of his worldview. Telling readers that "I gave my heart to Jesus Christ as a three-year-old child,38 Dobson reminds parents, "There is nothing more important to most Christian parents than the salvation of their children. Every other goal and achievement in life is anemic and insignificant compared to this transmission of faith to their offspring. That is the only way they can be together throughout eternity..."39
Dobson also believes that individuals should not develop their own ethical or moral systems. Believing in an infallible, inerrant and authoritative Bible, Dobson advises readers, "Nowhere in Scripture — not once in 66 books — is there the slightest indication that God wants us to make up our own rules."40
Dobson is consumed with nostalgia. "The examples of humanistic folly have been legion in recent years. The only logical answer is to return America to the Judeo-Christian values system with which we started! It served us so well, from the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock through the 'Happy Days' of the 1950s."41
Dobson calls overpopulation "mythological,"42 and says, "based on birthrate, the population of this country is actually in decline."43
While Dobson wants abortion banned, religious activities "restored" to public schools, taxes lowered, and criminals punished, he also proposes a massive federal program to encourage wives to stay at home and raise the family's children. To do this he wants the government to give a $7,000 deduction for each dependent each year, which would cost taxpayers $50 billion.44
Dobson is a full-fledged counterrevolutionary. His beguiling personality cannot hide his sinister agenda, which impacts negatively on America and her culture.
N O T E S
1 Gustav Niebuhr, "Advice for Parents and for Politicians,"
The New York Times, May 30, 1995.
3 Larry Witham, "Pro-Family Dobson Avoids Partisanship," Washington Times, July 20, 1995.
4 Jennifer Mears, "Dobson Bases Appeal on Values, Religion," Washington Times, February 15, 1996.
5 James Dobson, The New Dare to Discipline (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1992), p. 7.
6 James Dobson. Emotions: Can You Trust Them? (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1992), p. 65.
7 Dobson, Emotions: Can You Trust Them?, p. 65.
8 Dobson, Emotions: Can You Trust Them?, pp. 65-66.
9 Dobson, Emotions: Can You Trust Them?, p. 68.
10 James Dobson, When God Doesn't Make Sense (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1993), p. 181.
11 Dobson, When God Doesn't Make Sense, p. 182.
12 Dobson, When God Doesn't Make Sense, p. 184.
13 Dobson, When God Doesn't Make Sense, pp. 184-185.
14 Dobson, When God Doesn't Make Sense, p. 188.
15 Dobson, When God Doesn't Make Sense, p. 189.
16 Dobson, When God Doesn't Make Sense, p. 189.
17 Dobson, When God Doesn't Make Sense, p. 192.
18 James Dobson, Life on the Edge: A Young Adult's Guide to a Meaningful Future (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1995), p. 221.
19 Focus on the Family, Sex, Lies & ...the Truth (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1995), pp. 134-135.
20 Dobson, When God Doesn't Make Sense, pp. 183-184.
21 Focus on the Family, Sex, Lies & ...the Truth, p. 96.
22 James Dobson, The New Dare to Discipline (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1992), p. 218.
23 Dobson, New Dare to Discipline, p. 206.
24 James Dobson, Life on the Edge: A Young Adult's Guide to a Meaningful Future (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1995), p. 229.
25 Dobson, Life on the Edge, p. 230.
26 Dobson, Life on the Edge, p. 230.
27 Dobson, Life on the Edge, p. 231.
28 Dobson, Life on the Edge, p. 232.
29 Dobson, Life on the Edge, p. 233.
30 Dobson, Life on the Edge, p. 230.
31 James C. Dobson, Straight Talk, (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1995), p. 92.
32 Dobson, Straight Talk, p. 97.
33 Dobson, Straight Talk, p. 97.
34 Dobson, Straight Talk, pp. 151-152.
35 Dobson, Straight Talk, p. 186.
36 Dobson, Straight Talk, p. 186.
37 Dobson, Emotions: Can You Trust Them?, p. 36.
38 James Dobson, When God Doesn't Make Sense (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1993), p. 45.
39 Dobson, When God Doesn't Make Sense, pp. 199-200.
40 Dobson, When God Doesn't Make Sense, p. 187.
41 James Dobson and Gary L. Bauer, Children at Risk: What You Need to Know to Protect Your Family (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1990), p. 294.
42 Dobson and Bauer, Children at Risk, p. 290.
43 Dobson and Bauer, Children at Risk, p. 289.
44 Dobson and Bauer, Children at Risk, p. 298.