A Voice That Carries

Times Staff Writer

They call because they feel afraid and alone, and because the voice on the radio is kind.

My husband is addicted to gambling. My sixth-grader refuses to study. My aunt is an alcoholic. My daughter hears voices. A cousin molested me when I was a boy.

“My son talks so ugly. Today he said, ‘stupid mommy.’ It breaks my heart, and I don’t know what to do.” A sob escapes the young mother on the line.

“I know he’s a busy man, but I was wondering, would it be possible for me to ask Dr. Dobson a few questions?” she asks. “I want to apply the Bible in how I raise my boys. But I’m really struggling.”

It is calls like these -- by the thousands each week -- that have transformed plain-talking child psychologist James C. Dobson into a formidable political force.


The founder of the evangelical ministry Focus on the Family, Dobson, 69, is known in Washington as a warrior for the religious right -- relentless, ruthless and dangerous to cross. He’s so influential that White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove rushed to line up his support for the nomination of Harriet E. Miers to the Supreme Court by personally reassuring him of her conservatism.

But if the political world treats Dobson as a powerbroker, to millions of Americans he is simply a friend.

In daily radio broadcasts, monthly newsletters, 18 websites, nine magazines and 36 top-selling books, Dobson offers advice on toilet training, temper tantrums, infidelity and other stresses of family life. At the heart of his ministry is the toll-free resource line he has run for more than a quarter-century.

The calls to 1-800-A-FAMILY are personal, not political. Yet over the decades, the hotline has bolstered Dobson’s influence in the nation’s capital by cultivating millions of grateful, reverentially loyal constituents. It has also emboldened him to use that clout to push a conservative social agenda.

“In those thousands of calls, we believe we’re seeing the unraveling of the social fabric of this country,” said Tom Minnery, vice president of public policy for Dobson’s organization.

Focus on the Family gets close to 10,000 calls, e-mails and letters daily. Most are book orders or other purchases from the vast ministry warehouse. But up to 1,000 a day are more complex: requests for help researching topics such as depression and divorce, or pleas from despairing men and women seeking Dobson’s advice.

Those calls are routed to a warren of gray cubicles where dozens of assistants call up Dobson’s writings to guide their responses. They are authorized to send out free self-help books and tapes; each year, the ministry gives away material worth more than $1 million. Trained to mimic Dobson’s reassuring, low-key manner, they also offer much-welcomed empathy.

“I don’t know where else to go,” one young mother told social worker Sarah Helus, breaking down as she described her headstrong 3-year-old.

“I’ve tried spanking him with a switch like Dr. Dobson says, but it hasn’t been effective,” the mother said. “I’ve tried explaining to him that Mommy and Daddy make mistakes too and we all have to ask Christ’s forgiveness. Nothing works. And I just lose it.”

As her son howled in the background, the woman said she had read three of Dobson’s parenting books, including “The Strong-Willed Child,” several times. They hadn’t much helped, but she hadn’t lost faith. She begged for a few minutes to ask Dobson how, precisely, she should respond if her son throws a fit in Wal-Mart.

Helus told her gently that Dobson doesn’t take calls. But his wisdom on scores of topics is loaded into two computers on every assistant’s desk.

Already that day, Helus had used those resources to help a pastor find statistics for a sermon on divorce; to calm a father furious about his 4-year-old’s habit of laughing at inappropriate times; and to recommend several books to a man whose wife had recently confided she was sexually abused as a child.

Now, Helus scanned Dobson’s writings on tantrums. “Dr. Dobson has said that kids like this are often really, really bright,” she soothed.

Glancing through a databank of book reviews, Helus recommended several parenting texts. Then she suggested a free phone session with one of the ministry’s 16 licensed counselors, who handle 1,300 of the most serious calls each week.

“Does what they say correspond with what Dr. Dobson would say?” the mother asked anxiously. “Because I love Dr. Dobson.”

Dobson has devoted himself to nurturing the masses since the late 1970s, when he quit his jobs as a psychologist at Childrens Hospital in Los Angeles and a pediatrics professor at the University of Southern California to host a family advice radio program. (Declaring Southern California too expensive, he moved his ministry to Colorado Springs in 1991.)

In his books and broadcasts, Dobson speaks directly to his core constituents: well-educated, middle-class white women in their late 20s to early 40s who work outside the home at least part time.

His broadcast draws an audience that averages 7 million to 9 million a week.

Urging listeners to take control of their children, Dobson advocates spanking, though never in anger. He acknowledges that marriage is hard but opposes divorce in almost every situation. He teaches that homosexuality can be overcome with discipline and prayer. He also offers tips on plenty of other topics, such as eating well, adjusting to menopause and guiding children to God.

In effect, Dobson wins allies for his political battles by talking about everything but politics.

Dobson turned down several requests for interviews; his staff said he was overwhelmed with work. But strolling through the 81-acre Focus campus -- which is always bustling with hundreds of tourists -- Dobson’s spokesman explained his strategy.

“It’s all about that old saying: I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care. First, we must earn your respect and trust by ministering to you and your family. Then we can bring up a policy issue now and then,” said Paul L. Hetrick, a vice president of Focus on the Family.

When Dobson breaks from his family advice format to talk politics on the air -- which he does only a few times a month -- “you’re going to pay attention because you know Dr. Dobson cares about you and wants to make a difference in your life,” Hetrick said.

Dobson gains still more credibility because he’s seen as less partisan, and less personally ambitious, than many leaders of the religious right. He routinely takes on top Republicans, calling them traitors who should pay at the polls for compromising on issues such as abortion.

A recent poll for PBS found that 77% of white evangelicals view Dobson favorably. Other Christian leaders were far less widely trusted. Pat Robertson’s approval rating stood at 55% and Jerry Falwell’s at 46%.

That broad base of support helped Dobson stage huge rallies to boost Republican candidates in the 2004 election. He’s credited with helping unseat former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and with bringing conservative Christians to the polls in force to back President Bush.

“We try to follow up on what [Dobson] says,” said Marilyn Budensiek, a fan from Hobe Sound, Fla., who organized a voter registration drive in her church last year at Dobson’s urging.

“When he says there’s a need to act, you know it’s a real important issue,” said Lisa McCulloh of Simi Valley.

Explaining that he still feels “fear and trepidation” about endorsing Miers, because she has no judicial record, Dobson has not asked listeners to campaign for her -- yet. If he ever does, he is sure to be heard. His ability to flood the Capitol switchboard is legendary.

A campaign against Sen. Ken Salazar last spring, on the issue of judicial filibusters, provoked such a barrage of calls and e-mails that the Colorado Democrat called Focus on the Family “the Antichrist of the world.” (Salazar later apologized, saying he meant only that the ministry’s approach was “un-Christian.”)

Dobson devoted just 7% of his $142-million budget last year to explicitly political activities, such as the Salazar campaign. This year, 5% of the budget has been set aside for politics.

In truth, though, politics are entwined with much of the ministry’s primary work nurturing families -- especially through the hotline.

When callers seek advice on a daughter’s pregnancy or a husband’s infidelity, the ministry sends them brochures, books and CDs that hint at political as well as personal solutions.

Some references are subtle. A pamphlet called “When a Loved One Says ‘I’m Gay’ ” attributes same-sex attractions to unhealthy family dynamics but also lays some blame on “today’s ‘gay-affirmative culture.’ ”

Other political references are overt: A recent edition of the ministry’s flagship Focus on the Family magazine defined conservatives as championing democracy, human rights and “the cause of freedom around the world,” while “liberals defend civil rights, abortion, pornography and homosexuality.”

Hotline responders also draw connections between the distress they hear daily and Dobson’s political agenda. Month after month, the Focus staff counsels wives whose husbands ran off with male lovers. Or gambled away the house. They hear from adults who blame their alcoholism on their parents’ divorce.

“People who are not part of the Focus world tend to say ‘Oh, that kind of thing doesn’t really happen.’ But it does. We hear the desperation,” said Barbara Higgins, senior manager for constituent services.

The calls reinforce the ministry’s view that America’s moral foundation is crumbling -- and must be shored up with political action to curb pornography, end abortion, revoke no-fault divorce laws and stop recognizing gay relationships as legitimate.

“I think my sons have been touching each other,” one woman recently told a hotline counselor.

In a voice clenched with worry, the woman said she had learned her 11- and 9-year-old boysvisited pornographic websites. She reprimanded them, but a few days later walked in on the older boy calling for his brother to touch his erection.

“This is a real serious situation,” licensed counselor Joann Condie told the mother. “But there’s hope. We can walk you through this. We’ve done this many times before.”

For nearly an hour, Condie explained Dobson’s view that pornography is addictive and when children see it, abusive, akin to a sexual assault. She bemoaned the lack of political will to combat the porn industry.

“Would it be OK with you if I prayed for your family?” she asked as she brought the session to an end.

“Lord, we know these children have seen things that are not appropriate,” Condie said. Her hands were folded across her desk, her eyes closed. “We pray a hedge of protection around each member of this family.”

The mother, her voice shaking, whispered: “Amen.”

Condie’s next call came from a woman whose teenage son was slashing her underwear and pantyhose.

Over half an hour of gentle questioning, Condie traced the teen’s behavior to anger over his parents’ divorce and his mother’s plans to remarry. She also suggested he may be struggling with his sexuality.

“He’s not getting a healthy understanding of his own maleness, or how men should relate to women,” she said. “The dangers are probably far greater than you might imagine.”

Drawing from a national list of more than 2,000 counselors committed to following Dobson’s principles, Condie referred the family to further therapy.

She looked glum as she hung up.

“I’m sure every generation has said, ‘Kids these days are going to the dogs.’ But truly, in the last few years I’ve seen a lot more damage than ever before to marriages, to kids, to families,” she said.

“When you have a job like this, reality sets in,” she said. “These folks are wading into deep waters.”