A Man of Millions : Broadcaster James Dobson Has Become a Leading Name in Evangelical Circles--and the Politicians Have Noticed
From his 46-acre Rocky Mountains headquarters, where the air is pure and the alpine panoramas are dazzling, James C. Dobson believes he has a clear view of the gathering cultural storm on the nation’s horizon.
From Hollywood in the West to Washington in the East, Dobson sees traditional values and families under assault.
Gratuitous sex and unspeakable violence saturate motion pictures and television. Gangsta rap puts it to music. Politicians vote for distributing condoms in public schools and publicly funded abortions.
“Parents of faith are at war with culture. Their own kids are hearing things and experiencing things that shock the parents,” declares Dobson, a child psychologist and founder and president of Focus on the Family, a $100-million-a-year Christian broadcasting and publishing empire.
Dobson’s determination to stop what he calls the nation’s moral free fall has made him one of the biggest names in Christian evangelical circles in the country.
It has also made him a major player in a resurgent religious right. As next year’s presidential election draws near, four potential Republican nominees have made pilgrimages here seeking Dobson’s advice and counsel. They want to speak to the man who speaks to millions.
Indeed, if religious broadcaster Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition--with arguably the best organized precinct organization in the country--forms the political shock troops of the religious right, then some see Dobson as a minister of ideology, a defender and definer of biblical morality.
“My job is to do what I think [the Lord is] asking me to do,” Dobson told a recent gathering here of the nation’s religion news writers. “I don’t want to sound prophetic about that or self-aggrandizing, but I did come to say something.”
Each week, 3 million to 5 million listeners--about two-thirds of them in their late 20s to early 40s--tune in to Dobson’s “Focus on the Family” radio broadcasts for fatherly guidance on everything from disciplining young children (he believes in spankings under certain circumstances) to adolescent rebellion.
Every month his office gets 250,000 letters and phone calls, many of them asking for counseling, prayers for the sick, financial assistance or advice on parenting. In June a record 320,000 calls and letters poured in.
It is little wonder that Christianity Today magazine has called Dobson “the undisputed king of Christian radio.” Little wonder, too, that President Clinton--who has stepped up his own public comments about family values--mistakenly referred to Dobson as “Rev. Dobson” even though the broadcaster is not ordained.
Born in Shreveport, La., the only child of a Church of the Nazarene pastor, Dobson didn’t set out to become a political lodestone for the religious right.
“I just saw the family unraveling and felt such a need to try to do something about it,” Dobson said in explaining why he left his position as associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the USC School of Medicine in 1977.
Dobson, a successful author, persuaded his publisher to advance him $30,000 in lieu of royalties on a book and started a fledgling Focus on the Family broadcast out of a two-room office in Arcadia.
Even Dobson was surprised at the response. “It just exploded,” he said. After first moving to larger offices in Pomona, Dobson shifted his entire operation in 1991 to a sprawling new, multistory headquarters here employing 1,300 people--all of them professing Christianity.
“He’s not trying to save the world,” said a Pasadena father of three young sons. “He’s trying to save families!”
For example, in his 1970 book, “Dare to Discipline” (Tyndale Publishing), Dobson advocates spanking children, but only when they deliberately challenge parental authority.
“I am recommending a simple principle: When you are defiantly challenged, win decisively,” Dobson wrote. “When the child asks, ‘Who’s in charge?’ tell him. When he mutters, ‘Who loves me?’ take him in your arms and surround him with affection. Treat him with respect and dignity, and expect the same from him. Then begin to enjoy the sweet benefits of competent parenthood.”
Dobson draws no salary from his ministry and pays a portion of air time expenses to reimburse Focus on the Family for publicity that boosts his book sales. When books are specifically offered on the air Dobson waives all royalties.
Mindful of financial scandals that have befallen other broadcast ministries, Focus on the Family makes a point of saying that Dobson has “no limousines or airplanes or condos in Hawaii.” Dobson and his wife, Shirley, who is chairwoman of the National Day of Prayer Committee, live in a condo here.
Critics don’t question Dobson’s sincerity. Some even applaud his family counseling programs. But they charge that Dobson trades on the credibility and trust he has built with listeners to further a conservative political agenda.
“He is in a very fatherly, very supportive, very trust-inducing role,” said Amy Divine, founder of Citizens Project, a group here that has closely monitored Dobson. “The flip side of it,” she said, “is a role that is increasingly political. The positions are often quite extreme but are being packaged with this very gentle demeanor that makes them more palatable.”
Opposition to gay rights and to feminists are among her concerns. She said Dobson gave free air time to a group that won voter approval in 1992 of an anti-gay rights initiative, state constitutional Amendment II, that would deny homosexuals protection as a minority. The matter is now before the U.S. Supreme Court. Divine also complained of Dobson’s stands favoring prayer in public schools, the teaching of creationism and his opposition to abortion.
When it comes to abortion, many liberal Christians share Dobson’s concern over the number of abortions taking place. But they wonder about Dobson’s commitment to the poor.
“I wish they were as concerned about children after they are born, especially poor kids in many of our neighborhoods,” said Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners, an evangelical Christian organization based in Washington that is active in social justice issues.
Wallis also worries that the religious right is too readily aligning itself with the Republican party.
“The religious right--the Christian Coalition and these groups--are becoming almost a component within one political party,” Wallis complained. That poses a danger, he said, to religion’s ability to remain independent in its call for moral choices.
Reacting to heightened political activism by the right, a group of “evangelical progressives” and old-line denominational leaders issued a manifesto last May that declared that the religious right does not speak for all Christians.
At the same time, a group of 50 religious, civil liberties and educational organizations called the Coalition to Preserve Religious Liberty denounced as a threat to the separation of church and state the proposed Religious Equality Amendment backed by Dobson and many others in the religious right who believe it is needed to protect student-led school prayer.
Dobson is unapologetic for his political activism and his view that American society should be guided by biblical principles, although he says he eschews a “Christian” political party or establishment of a theocracy.
He is unflinching in his opposition to abortion and homosexuality, unwavering in his belief in the permanence of marriage, and utterly convinced that he is carrying out the will of Jesus Christ.
Evoking a classic theme used by prophets of old, Dobson said that when America began drifting from “eternal truths,” most of its problems began.
“When I was in high school, in my senior year , a hit song was ‘Oh My Papa.’ It was such a loving, warm song about a relationship with father. By 10 years later it was getting testy. You know, ‘Yakety Yak, Don’t Talk Back.’ Now Ice-T and Body Count and Nine Inch Nails talk about killing their parents. One of Ice-T’s lyrics says ‘Mama’s got to die tonight.’ First he sets her on fire and then he beats her to death with a Louisville Slugger. Then he cuts her into little pieces and puts her in bags and took her to cities all over the country,” Dobson said. “That sold 500,000 copies. That’s one of the most popular songs among the youth. Parents see that and they’re aghast.”
Dobson does not hesitate to employ graphic descriptions of pornography, abortions and fetal tissue experiments for their shock value.
After one especially vivid description of how scientists extract brain cells from a fetus, Dobson declared: “Folks, that’s wicked! That’s evil!” His voice rose an octave. “And I’ll fight that as long as I live!”
And Dobson knows how to fight.
Last year the congressional switchboard was flooded with almost a million calls after Dobson and another Christian broadcaster, Marlin Maddoux, urged listeners to protest a provision in a $12.4-billion federal education bill. Dobson warned that the provision would have outlawed home schooling--a subject dear to the hearts of many religious conservatives.
Almost overnight, the House voted 421 to 1 to remove the provision from the education bill.
Displays of such raw political power--and Dobson’s computer database with 3 million names--are reason enough for politicians to seek Dobson out.
Four Republican presidential hopefuls have met with Dobson in Colorado Springs in the last few months: Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, columnist Pat Buchanan and Alan Keyes, a former mid-level State Department official in the Reagan Administration.
Dobson has also met several times in Washington with Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole at Dole’s invitation and with House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
But Dobson insists that he will never endorse a candidate, and he recently rejected a plea from Conservative Caucus President Howard Phillips, who also heads the U.S. Taxpayers Party, to help organize a third party candidacy.
Unabashedly setting political agendas is a Focus on the Family spin-off, the Washington- based Family Research Council headed by Dobson’s friend and former Reagan Administration official Gary L. Bauer. The two organizations severed legal ties in October, 1992, to free Bauer from restraints on lobbying imposed by Focus on the Family’s nonprofit status. But Dobson remains on Bauer’s board of directors.
Focus on the Family also spends $4 million a year--about 4% of its annual budget--on public affairs broadcasts and quasi-political organizing, including the sponsorship of “community impact seminars” to help church members get involved in causes that affect families.
Family policy councils have been organized in 36 states, including California. While there are no financial ties, Focus on the Family provides the councils with in-kind services, including literature and tips on how to prepare “nonpartisan” voter guides.
The Clinton Administration has been repeatedly castigated for advocating gays in the armed forces, and for lifting a ban imposed by the Reagan and Bush administrations on fetal tissue experiments. Scientists say such experiments hold promise for treating ailments such as Parkinson’s disease and diabetes.
Republicans are not exempt from Dobson’s often biting commentary.
When Gingrich sent out a fund-raising letter, Dobson protested. “There was not one word in that six-page letter about values, about families, about moral issues, about this whole concern about what’s happening in this country,” Dobson said. When Dole, who is viewed as the leading contender for the GOP presidential nomination, indicated that it didn’t matter how his running mate stood on abortion, Dobson took to the airwaves. “What an insult to the millions of Americans who grieve over the killing of pre-born children!” Dobson declared.
Dobson also accused Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour of avoiding moral issues while talking about “safe” issues like taxes and deficits “as if the only things Americans care about is money.”
Even other Christian right leaders are not beyond Dobson’s wrath if he thinks they fall out of line. Three weeks ago, Dobson chastised Ralph E. Reed Jr. of the Christian Coalition and conservative icon William J. Bennett for what Dobson charged was their willingness to overlook Gen. Colin L. Powell’s abortion position because Powell would make a good Republican presidential contender.
“This posture may elevate your influence in Washington, but it is unfaithful to the principles we are duty-bound as Christians to defend,” Dobson wrote to Reed in an Oct. 9 letter.
Dobson revels in what he sees as the electoral clout of religious conservatives. Forty-three percent of the Republican vote last November, he said, was cast by evangelical Christians, an “incredible base,” in Dobson’s view.
Republicans, he said, risk a third party candidacy if they fail to take a strong stand on moral issues. He conceded that a third party candidate couldn’t win, but he would siphon enough votes--perhaps 5% to 8%--to cost Republicans the election.
But Dobson said he would not lead such a movement. “I do not want political power. I think God has me where he wants me, and when he’s ready for me to move on he can put somebody else here.”