James Dobson

The Religious Right’s 800-Pound Gorilla

A New York Times reporter recently dubbed James Dobson “the nation’s most influential evangelical leader,” a senior editor at the New Republic says he is the Right’s “new kingmaker,” and TV news pundits, cable and otherwise, can’t get enough of him.

Similar accolades abound — from friend and foe — and are tied to the Colo­­rado religious broadcaster’s in­volve­ment in the 2004 elections.

“I can’t think of anybody who had more impact than Dr. Dobson,” on rousing evangelicals to the polls, Richard Viguerie, a GOP direct-mail guru, recently told U.S. News & World Report. “He was the 800-pound gorilla.”

Dobson, who founded the nonprofit evangelical ministry Focus on the Family in 1977, is working hard to live up to the hype, or at least not blow this moment to exert his much-heightened visibility and power to advance the Religious Right’s agenda. He and allies in the movement hope to erode the First Amendment principle of church-state separation and legislate fundamentalist views about abortion, homosexuality and other social concerns.

Dobson has warned politicians of all stripes that their jobs will be in jeopardy if they fail to submit to his demands. According to Dobson, evangelical Protestants played a major role in re-electing President George W. Bush, giving him a “great mandate.” Bush and congressional Republicans, he says, must reward the religio-political movement.

“I believe what we have just experienced is not an end to the struggle, but a respite,” Dobson told The Denver Post shortly after Bush’s victory. “If the Republicans do what they’ve done in the past, which is to say, ‘Thanks so much for putting us in power, now we don’t want to talk to you anymore,’ they will pay a severe price in four years and maybe two.”

In a recent letter to millions of his followers, which The New York Times reported on in January, Dobson provided more specifics. First, he bragged about his involvement in defeating Tom Daschle, the Senate minority leader from South Dakota. Dobson appeared at several anti-gay marriage rallies in the state, drawing tens of thousands, where he railed against federal judges, deriding them as tools of an evil agenda to destroy Western civilization. He blamed Daschle for blocking many of Bush’s judicial nominations. One of FOF’s publications, Citizen, noted that Dobson held two of those rallies within the last three months of the campaign, speaking to “approximately 70, 000 people – about 10 percent of the state’s population.”

Dobson wrote that Daschle’s colleagues in the Senate should take note, “especially those representing ‘red’ states.” He singled out Democratic Sens. Ben Nelson of Nevada, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Bill Nelson of Florida. If they get in the way of Bush nominees to the federal court, Dobson warned they will be in the “bull’s-eye” when up for re-election in 2006.

Additionally, Dobson promised in the letter “a battle of enormous proportions from sea to shining sea” if Bush fails to nominate “strict constructionist” judges to the judiciary or if Democrats mount filibusters to block such nominees.

Before that letter, Washington politicos got a glimpse of the power Dobson may be able to wield. Dobson and allied Religious Right leaders were incensed when moderate Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, who was in line to become the Senate Judiciary chairman, suggested during a victory speech in Pennsylvania that judicial nominees bent on overturning Roe v. Wade would be difficult to confirm.

Dobson, during an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, called Specter a “problem,” not only for his comments on judicial nominees, but “because he has been the champion of stem cell – embryonic stem cell research” and claimed “he must be derailed.”

Specter quickly back-pedaled, telling reporters he never meant to suggest that anti-abortion judges would not be confirmed. According to media accounts, Senate offices were flooded with calls to block Specter’s turn as Judiciary chairman. Although Specter was finally given the chairmanship, it came only after he issued numerous pledges to support Bush’s judicial picks.

Although Dobson has issued stern warnings to politicians in the past, his reputation has not been seen as so blatantly political.

Dobson, a psychologist by training with a Ph.D from the University of Southern California, nurtured the FOF ministry while largely staying out of the political limelight. Instead, he published reams of books, pamphlets, news­letters on parenting advice, albeit with evangelical underpinnings, and increasingly bashed gays as dangerous to children and Americans’ well-being in general.

His first book, Dare to Dis­cipline, sold more than 3 million copies, according to FOF’s website, and was a call for parents to be sterner in the rearing of children. His latest book, Marriage Under Fire, warns of a nation “Hurtling Toward Gomorrah.” According to Dobson, gays, “radical feminists,” “liberal lawmakers” and Hollywood filmmakers have gone unchallenged in their zeal to bury values Americans celebrated in the 1950s with calls for civil rights for gays, gender equality and too much sex and violence in music and movies.

Dobson’s FOF, now based in Colorado Springs, has grown exponentially since its founding. FOF resides on an 81-acre campus and receives so much mail it has its own zip code. It employs more than 1,000 people and produces books, magazines, newsletters and Inter­net websites. Dobson’s radio broadcasts are syndicated internationally and reach more than 116 countries. According to Slate.com, his weekly column is published by more than 500 newspapers.

Dobson’s family counseling — and his great success at communicating that advice — have helped make him one the Religious Right’s most influential voices. TV preachers such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, though still reaching millions of followers, have seen their reputations wane, in part because of off-the-wall or terribly offensive comments. John C. Green, a political science professor at Akron University in Ohio and director of the school’s Ray Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, told Church & State that, “Dobson is widely admired among evangelical Protestants, and even beyond, because of his family ministry and radio programs.”

Green added that Dobson’s “political statements have become more common over time, reaching a high point in 2004.” One reason for this increase was that same-sex marriage came on to the political agenda.

Political polling by Green, which was noted in the Jan. 17 edition of U.S. News & World Report, showed that 78 percent of evangelicals supported Bush, which represented a 7-point increase from 2000. Green said much of the increase could be attributed to Dobson’s political activities.

But even before the 2004 elections, Dobson had started to delve more directly into political activities. In 1988, he helped create the Family Research Council (FRC), which was then headed by former Reagan White House official Gary Bauer. Dobson would later cut his formal ties with the group, but to this day remains closely associated with it.

Dobson also drew notice and stirred controversy in 1998 for complaining that the Republican Party was not doing enough to advance the Religious Right’s agenda. (See “Family Feud,” May 1998 Church & State.)

But as the 2004 campaigns got underway, Dobson leaped full-fledged into the nation’s political fray.

Dobson lowered his profile at FOF and hit the campaign trail for Bush’s re-election, as well as the election of other socially conservative Republican candidates. He also launched a “sister ministry” alongside FOF, called Focus on the Family Action, a 501(c)4 nonprofit with greater ability to operate politically. The New York Times reported that the budgets of both FOF and its political arm were projected to be $146 million in 2004. (In 1993, FOF’s annual budget was then nearing $80 million.)

In his January interview with the Times, Dobson said he could never regain an image as an apolitical promoter of evangelical Christian values.

“I can’t go back, nor do I want to,” he told the Times. “I will probably endorse more candidates. This is a new day. I just feel the need to make use of this visibility.”

With many pushing the conventional — if disputed — wisdom that evangelical Christians played the dominant role in Bush’s victory, Dobson has found little trouble in exploiting his heightened visibility. Only days after the president’s re-election, Dobson appeared on ABC’s Sunday news program, “This Week,” and boasted about his involvement in the political arena. During the interview with host George Stephanopoulos, the Reli­gious Right leader elaborated on a warning he gave a White House staffer who had called to thank him for his work on behalf of Bush.

“Well, the essence of it is that people of faith and the people that I think put George Bush in power again have some very strong views,” Dobson said. “And I think that this president has two years — or more broadly, the Republican Party has two years — to implement those policies, or certainly four, or I believe they’ll pay a price in the next election.”

When Stephanopoulos prodded by asking Dobson “what specifically do you want from President Bush?,” the religious broadcaster responded by declaring that he was not just speaking for himself, “but I think for millions of people.” Dobson mentioned action on abortion, marriage and lower taxes and then added, “especially, especially putting conservative judges on the judiciary.”

Dobson’s increased political powers will likely also prove troubling to citizens and public interest groups worried that socially conservative judges would be inclined to weaken church-state separation.

Beyond blaming feminists and gays for America’s alleged moral decline, Dobson has long argued that the First Amendment principle of church-state separation has been wielded by “secular humanists” to strip the nation of its Christian identity. In 1993, Dobson helped launch the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), which funds litigation aimed at weakening the First Amendment.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has often found itself battling ADF-funded lawyers in court and in the public arena. Since the early 1990s, ADF has sponsored or helped to fund lawsuits aimed at allowing for government funding of religion, school-sanctioned prayer and display of religious symbols on government property. (See “The Alliance Defense Fund’s Hidden Agenda,” June 2004 Church & State.)

It is the controversy over same-sex marriage, though, that has animated Dobson’s political interests.

In summer 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that struck down a Texas law criminalizing gay sex. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the majority opinion in Lawrence v. Texas, invalidated the law, concluding that it violated the Constitution’s Due Process Clause.

Dobson reacted to Lawrence with anger and bombast, citing frequently Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent that the ruling would result in “a massive disruption of the current social order.”

Toward the end of 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Court, citing Lawrence, did rule that the state could not forbid gays from entering into legal marriages.

“I simply could not sit this one out,” Dobson told the Denver Post in an interview on his high-profile efforts on behalf of Bush’s re-election. “I just feel this year, I had to do everything I could to keep the loony left from capturing the United States Supreme Court and shaping its liberal decisions for the next 25 years.”

In his latest book, Marriage Under Fire, Dobson lambastes judges, especially Justice Kennedy, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan, calling him “the most dangerous man in America because of his determination to rewrite the Constitution.” According to Dobson, judicial decisions such as Lawrence portend the unraveling of a “God-ordained institution.”

“To put it succinctly, the institution of marriage represents the very foundation of human social order,” Dobson writes in Marriage. “Everything of value sits on that base. Institutions, governments, religious fervor, and the welfare of children are all dependent on its stability.”

Dobson details an array of arguments against same-sex marriage, many of which he reiterated in the anti-gay marriage rallies he appeared at across the nation in 2004. The arguments are all based on or influenced by his fundamentalist religious beliefs. (Dobson was raised in the Church of the Nazarene, a fundamentalist denomination with a strict moral code.)

In his book, and at an Oct. 22 anti-gay marriage rally in Oklahoma, Dobson argued that marriage was becoming non-existent in countries that recognize gay unions. For example, he argues that 80 percent of all children in Norway are born out of wedlock. Actually, just under 50 percent of births in that country are out of wedlock and the trend got underway in the 1970s, long before the nation began recognizing same-sex unions in 1993.

Nowhere has Dobson offered sound arguments as to why legally recognized gay marriages would lead to the decline of heterosexual marriages. Like many Religious Right leaders, he simply makes the assertion that because two things occur roughly at the same time, that one must have caused the other. In the Norway example, he failed to even do that.

Most importantly, Dobson argues that government and society must not tolerate laws that offend his evangelical Christian brand of religion.

“A life in keeping with God’s design and instruction brings the greatest possible fulfillment, while any deviation from His design invites disaster,” Dobson writes in Marriage Under Fire. “This is why the Bible warns against all harmful forms of sexual behavior, including premarital sex, adultery, prostitution, incest, bestiality and pedophilia.”

Dobson believes that “the homosexual activist movement and related entities” are the forces working to undermine God’s plans.

“The institution of marriage and the Christian church,” he insists, “are all that stand in the way of the movement’s achievement of every coveted aspiration.”

This current pinnacle of power may be Dobson’s greatest opportunity to influence local and federal lawmakers and to help advance the Religious Right’s agenda. His FOF now has 35 closely allied “state policy councils” working to push anti-gay legislation, bills encroaching on reproductive rights and measures that allow for more government support of religion. Dobson, along with other Religious Right leaders, such as Paul Weyrich, has also helped form the “Arlington Group,” a coalition to push a Religious Right agenda in Congress.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in an interview with U.S. News, called Dobson a leading spokesman for evangelicals and noted his increased power in Wash­ington.

“He may not be an insider, but he can shut down the phone lines in Congress,” Land said.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, says Dobson’s increasing influence is cause for concern.

As Lynn told The Baltimore Sun in late November, Dobson “clearly wants” to use a religion-based political machine to advance his agenda.

“We should worry about people who have genuinely messianic instincts,” said Lynn, “and I think he has.”