James Dobson has big plans for America.
Dobson, the founder of the Religious Right powerhouse Focus on the Family, has been traveling the nation, speaking at rallies ostensibly to drum up support for a Federal Marriage Amendment.
Scratch just a bit beneath the surface, however, and you’ll see what he’s really up to: trying to forge a church-based political machine to usher in his vision of “Christian America.”
Like a weird mirage shimmering in the desert heat, the image of a remade, officially Christian United States has led many people astray over the years. It marked the Puritans with a legacy of intolerance. It distracted some ministers from social reform in the late 19th century. It made TV preachers the poster boys for extremism in the 20th.
Dobson is merely the latest deluded person to set off in search of this chimera. Along the way, he trots out hoary lines we’ve heard before: The nation has turned its back on real faith. Our immorality will soon bring about our very destruction. Only a national embrace of a rigid, narrow interpretation of Christianity can save us.
Dobson’s spiritual ancestors said the same thing in the 1800s. Two hundred years later, we’re still standing, and the claim looks all the sillier for it.
Speaking recently in Charlotte, N.C., Dobson insisted that the American people share his theocratic vision. For example, he cited opinion polls purportedly showing that more than 70 percent of Americans want prayer and Bible reading in public schools.
A funny thing happens when you take a closer look at those polls: Dobson’s support vanishes. A 2001 poll by the group Public Agenda found that a mere 6 percent favor requiring students to recite Christian prayers in public schools. Most people said they support the right of students to say the prayers of their choosing on a voluntary basis.
That’s not what Dobson wants. After all, if the decision is left to individual students, some may choose not to pray. He stands for the imposition of religion by the state. The American people, by contrast, oppose coercion in religious matters.
Dobson talks about the importance of religion to American life. What he often fails to tell people is that, in his vision, only his narrow brand of Christianity counts as real religion.
Consider school prayer again. Dobson favors it as long as he gets to approve the prayers. If a Wiccan, a Buddhist, a Hindu or even a liberal Christian, for that matter, came into the classroom to lead prayers, Dobson would be the first one to complain.
Likewise, Dobson wants the Ten Commandments posted in government buildings, because they are included in the Bible he reads. How would Dobson react if passages from the Koran or the Hindu Upanishads were posted?
Unlike Dobson, some in the Religious Right are upfront about what they want to do to America. A recent poll by the Barna Group found that 32 percent of respondents say they favor a constitutional amendment “to establish Christianity as the official religion of the United States.”
The advocates of that amendment are obviously misguided, yet they are at least honest enough to say what they want. If asked, Dobson would probably deny that he wants an officially “Christian” America yet that would be the practical effect were his worldview adopted. The country would be “Christian” as Dobson interprets Christianity.
Dobson’s interpretation of the Bible convinces him that abortion is wrong. Therefore, the U.S. government must ban all abortions. Dobson believes the Bible teaches that homosexuality is a sin. Therefore, the government cannot extend equal rights to gays. Dobson doesn’t believe in evolution because it conflicts with his reading of the Bible. Therefore, evolution must be removed from the public schools.
Never mind that there are Christians who read the exact same Bible as Dobson and come to the opposite conclusion on all of these issues. To Dobson, those people are just wrong. His view is right and comports with what God wants. End of discussion.
Ultimately, therefore, what Dobson wants is not a society based on the Bible but his interpretation of the Bible. That’s what makes him dangerous. Throughout history, without exception, every theocrat who usurps the power of the state to write his interpretation of the Bible into law has spawned only tyranny. If you don’t believe that, pick up a history book and read about 16th-century Geneva, where Miguel Servetus was burned at the stake for disagreeing with John Calvin’s view of the Trinity.
John Leland, the Revolutionary-Era Baptist and advocate for American religious freedom, would have more than a few bones to pick with Dobson. Were Leland able to debate Dobson, he’d make short work of the would-be theocrat.
“The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever,” Leland wrote in 1790. “If all the souls in a government were saints of God, should they be formed into a society by law, that society could be not a Gospel Church, but a creature of the state.”
Leland’s words stand as a strong rebuke to the repressive vision of James Dobson.