On 22 October 2008, four years and two days ago, James Dobson issued a strongly-worded letter to Focus on the Family supporters, titled “Letter from 2012 in Obama’s America.” It was forwarded to me, via email, from a family member who is in the habit of believing everything James Dobson says. I suspect the reasoning is since he’s such a good child psychologist, he must be right about politics. In any event, you can read it here.
I have a long history with Dobson’s books and organizations. I even used to contribute to Focus on the Family on a regular basis. I stopped the regular contributions in the mid-1990s, and stopped even the occasional contributions in the early 2000s. Most of what did it for me was his fatwa against California public schools: He ordered Christians to pull their kids out of them, and (though the following weren’t his words) abandon the children left behind to the devil. I felt Dobson was inching more and more to the looney right, and could support him no longer. To be fair, he was probably always there, and I was just inching more and more away from it.
Dobson stepped down from Focus on the Family in 2009, after his dedication to strong Fundamentalist values managed to bite him in the ass: He wanted his son Ryan to be involved in Focus’s leadership, but the board was having none of it. Ryan Dobson is divorced, and for some Fundies—especially those involved in a ministry that condemns divorce—grace extends only so far. If it wasn’t James Dobson’s own son, I honestly don’t know if his own grace would extend that far to any other person. But let’s not speculate. The upshot is, Dobson left, started another ministry, handpicked a new board (which he’s required to have if he wants IRS non-profit status) that will let him hire whomever he likes, and now Ryan can run whatever his dad will let him.
James Dobson has always been a political animal. His attempts to push Focus in a political direction—and his board’s resistance—resulted in his co-creation of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian lobby and think tank. Focus used to promote the FRC’s newsletter, and vice-versa. For a while I subscribed to both. I suppose Dobson’s new board will let him be as political as he likes, and Focus will concentrate more on family resources. Maybe. I dunno. I haven’t kept up with them for a while.
You can tell I used to be knee-deep in them. It started in childhood. When I was a kid in the 1970s, there were pretty much two primary books on child-rearing in the United States. There was Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care, which was a bit of a backlash against the parents who beat their kids and tried to control every little facet of their lives. Spock told parents to talk to their kids, to try to understand where they’re coming from, rather than grab a switch and start whaling on them. And then there was Dr. James Dobson’s Dare to Discipine, which was a bit of a backlash against Spock’s devotees who were too permissive and never gave their kids any boundaries.
Depending on what sort of parent you were—the kid-adapts-to-my-needs, the I-adapt-to-the-kid’s-needs, or the who-gives-a-rip type—you’d follow either Dobson, Spock, or nobody. But for many Christians, the important thing was religion. Spock was a pagan, so he was out. Dobson is a Nazarene—one of the stricter Fundamentalist sects, but nonetheless Christian—and depending on how paranoid a Christian might be about corrupting pagan influences, Dobson was either an interesting alternative, or the greatest child-rearing guru ever.
Dad doesn’t read; he read neither Spock nor Dobson, and resorted to what he felt was the tried-and-true method of beat and control your kids. Mom was, at the time, a Fundamentalist. And I was a rebellious, hyperactive child. Guess which book was around our house? Right you are. So, either way, I got my prepubescent ass beaten. Either it was Dobson style, or drunken father style. Ain’t no grace in that house.
I never did read his books, growing up. I wasn’t a parent, so I didn’t think to check out Mom’s parenting books. Would’ve done no good anyway. I didn’t yet have the intellectual capacity to refute Dobson’s point of view. I do now, but that’s getting ahead of the story.
At our church, people were convinced Dobson’s nasal alto was the very voice of God, so he was usually consulted on anything and everything that had to do with child-rearing. And more. If people had questions about God, and sent them to his radio show, Dobson would try to answer them. He’s a layman, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with laymen answering theology questions; C.S. Lewis did just fine, as I recall. But Lewis never assumed he knew the answers, and regularly reminded people he was only a layman. Dobson, like many medical doctors and psychologists, always took an authoritative stance, and that’s how people received his rulings—as if he were a pastor or scholar, or had a doctorate in divinity or philosophy. He did after all have a doctorate in psychology, so he must know something. And he did know something. But no more than any other longtime Christian. In some cases way less.
So when I was introduced to Dobson, it was as an authority figure. Here was a guy who supposedly knew all about child-rearing and God. Heed his words.
And since I was a knee-jerk conservative, I was soon reading the knee-jerk conservative literature the FRC was producing. I subscribed to Citizen and read about all the horrible, sinful things the Democrats were endorsing. Not permitting or tolerating; endorsing. They were out to destroy our country, and it was my duty as a concerned voter to promote good family-values Republican candidates. (And look the other way when they expressed contempt for the poor and needy.)
It wasn’t till graduate school, and a few useful child psychology courses, that I began to really see the serious flaws on Dobson’s view of child-rearing. (Oho, you thought I was gonna critique his politics, huh? Not yet.)
Dobson’s core principle is that kids need to obey their parents. Period. Exceptions might be made if the parents are sinning; he does allow for that. (Bill Gothard doesn’t; he states if your parents are sinning, you must obey them anyway, because the biblical principle of headship is more important than God’s actual commands. No, I’m not kidding. But back to Dobson.) Assuming the parents aren’t sinning, the children must obey, immediately, without backtalk, without rebellion. Rebellion must always be instantly answered with punishment. Not necessarily spanking, but some parents aren’t particular. Mine weren’t.
This strictness serves two main purposes. One is peace and harmony in the home, with everyone fulfilling their proper roles in the family: Parents in charge, children submissive. The other is how this facilitates the parents teaching their kids about Jesus and Christianity… and politically conservative values, but more on that later.
Of course, this is wrong. The scriptures’ guideline for child-rearing is discipleship. This difference is subtle, but significant. Children, when forced to submit to parents, don’t learn salvation. They learn about salvation. But they don’t see it in practice, because a key characteristic of salvation is grace. Grace does not exist in Dobson-style child-rearing. It can’t. You give the kids grace—you forgive instead of instantly answering rebellion with punishment—and you’re back to square one, with the kids running out of control. Out of your control.
If children don’t learn grace from their parents, they’ll have to learn it elsewhere. You’ve likely heard the stories of how children learned it elsewhere: Some kindly adult, other than their parents, showed them grace, and through it led them to Jesus. Even though the parents were trying their hardest to manufacture Christian kids, it took some other person to evangelize them. It usually does. In the absence of grace, the kids aren’t led to Jesus. They believe in him when they’re little, because just about all kids believe whatever they’re told by their authority figures. They ditch him when they’re older, because just about all kids have to learn to question authority—and the gracelessness of their parents, friends, and fellow Christians, doesn’t help point them back to Jesus. Mom demonstrated far more grace than Dobson permits, which is part of the reason I didn’t go apostate in my teenage years. But I did go hypocrite. (Though that’s on me, not Dobson.)
Discipling your kids looks far different from disciplining them. Look at the way in which we disciple adults. Obviously we don’t spank new Christians when they rebel against us. Neither do we force them to obey us. Neither do we connect their growth in Christ with how well they obey—we know better than to teach that salvation comes by works. Instead, we direct their Christian growth by demonstration. We introduce them to Jesus through our behavior, actions, love—and as time goes on, as we encourage them to follow us as we follow Christ, their behavior becomes patterned after ours, and they draw even closer to Christ as they learn to follow him for themselves. That’s how you train your children in the way they’re to go, as it’s put in the Proverbs. You teach them to love God, love his Law, love Jesus, love their neighbors, and submit to their parents—not in the subservient, slave-like way our culture defines submission, but in the accommodating, harmonious way the scriptures do.
Dobson doesn’t teach that. It puts children far too much on an equal level with their parents. Which they are, in Christ; but Dobson’s philosophy isn’t based on theology. It’s based on pragmatism. It is useful to make ourselves into gods to our children. We can justify it by saying we are modeling God to them; we point to the greater God and say he ought to be worshiped, whereas we’re just to be obeyed and honored and all that. We make parental authority the foundation of their faith. Not grace. Not Jesus.
Thanks to Dobson, we have three generations—that of my parents, that of people my age, and that of parents in their early 20s who are just discovering Dobson—who think our kids are gonna come out all right because pagans don’t paddle, and we do. But look at the track record—at my generation and those younger. Christian-reared kids, disciplined under Dobson’s instruction, aren’t any more Christian than pagan kids. Some of us stayed with Jesus; some left. Those that are left are largely indistinguishable, in behavior and devotion, from pagans. You can only tell the difference by our music and T-shirts. If that.
Upbringing is not the deciding factor as to whether or not we follow Jesus. God is. God brings people to himself regardless of their sucky upbringing. Putting your hopes into Dobson’s child-rearing methods for the future salvation of your kid, is the worship of a false god. But that’s the very reason why people follow Dobson: They fear their kids might otherwise grow up pagan.
Okay, now take the rotten theology behind Dobson’s psychology, and apply it to the national culture. There we have the problem with Dobson’s politics. According to him, the reason the United States and the rest of the world is so
Again, it’s not about discipling the culture—as Jesus actually calls us to do. When he told us to make disciples out of every nation, it meant we’re to explain Jesus’s teachings, not just to individuals, but to the public at large. He wants us to stand up and say, “This isn’t right; this isn’t wise; repent.” And to demonstrate rightness with our personal examples, and to invite others to follow us as we follow Christ.
But Dobson isn’t satisfied with that. Like his parenting style, he wants to mandate behavior. He wants to rile up Christians to vote for Christian-friendly politicians, in the hopes that they’ll alter the laws of our country and make people behave.
To some degree, there’s also a naïve assumption on his part that any politician, even the Christian-friendly ones (or Christian Right-friendly ones), are pursuing Jesus rather than power. After all, those folks have been given many, many years of power, and in exchange what have they done for the two hot-button Christian Right issues of abortion and homosexuality? Not a bloody thing. But they will try to make sure women don’t get equal pay, or that the poor don’t get help in healthcare.
The Christian Left is largely defined by how they want government to deal with woeful human conditions. And the Christian Right is largely defined by how they want government to ban sin. So this puts Dobson clearly in the Christian Right camp. He’s homophobic, pornophobic, and apoballophobic (which is the fear of abortion). He’s not unsympathetic to the Christian Left’s issues—he’s bothered, as all Christians are, about child abuse and abandonment, poverty, and malnutrition. But those things are not the focus of his politics. He expects the church to do something about that, not the government. Though it’s awfully hard for churches to pitch in, when you keep asking church members to fund your conservative lobby, instead of local social services.
And now we get to the letter. Here’s the slippery slope it presents. If you’ve paid attention to the news, you’ll notice things didn’t quite turn out like this.
- In 2009, four justices stepped down from the Supreme Court, and Obama replaced them all with ACLU-approved liberals, swinging the balance of the court from conservative to liberal.
- In 2010, the Supreme Court declared gay marriage a constitutional right, and Obama—despite being against gay marriage at the time—was powerless to stop them.
- Anti-gay or homophobic groups were repressed by law. Elementary schools taught children homosexuality was normal. Gays adopted children, got married, demanded their HMOs pay for their artificial insemination, and joined the military or got jobs as counselors.
- Churches were forced to hire gay ministers, perform gay weddings, and weren’t allowed to teach homosexuality is wrong. They couldn’t use school buildings or have campus ministries. The bible was banned; the Supreme Court declared it and most Christian books hate speech, killing the Christian publishing industry. Oh, and no Pledge of Allegiance either.
- Obama signed laws that gave us free healthcare, but with impossibly long lines, and euthanasia for 80-somethings. He also allowed women to have all the abortions they want (and somehow they get through the lines), and doctors and nurses are forced to provide them.
- The Supreme Court handed down decisions that allow porn on every magazine rack, and that outlaw guns and home schooling.
- Taxes went crazy and impoverished everyone. The deficit shot up. Unions took over companies. The Fairness Doctrine was re-instituted and killed conservative radio.
- Obama pulled us out of Iraq, and al-Qaeda began recruiting like crazy. Russia figured Obama was a wimp and decided to re-take all their former Soviet republics. Latin America went Communist. Iran nuked Israel.
- And finally, George W. Bush’s papers were released to the public, and his administration was prosecuted for criminal activity.
Despite Dobson’s fevered, paranoid dreams, he’s been saying such things would happen since before Bill Clinton became president. I know; I read ’em in his literature. Few of their worries took shape in the Clinton years. Abortions actually went down. See, once you have sex education in schools, kids learn about birth control, and have fewer surprise pregnancies. But once Republicans take office, they stop teaching kids such things. Sometimes they don’t even teach abstinence; they refuse to talk about sex altogether. So kids try to figure this stuff out on their own, and don’t, and get pregnant.
This letter was an utter scare tactic, meant to make Christians afraid we’d lose our every freedom under an Obama presidency. And though not everyone reads Dobson, enough Christians think like him—or listen to pastors who listen to Dobson—to believe Obama would simply fill this nation with gay people and dead fetuses.
But what most annoyed me about the letter wasn’t even the fear tactics or irrationality. It’s how James Dobson so indifferently takes the Lord’s name in vain.
Dobson warned our guns would be taken away. In what way does the right to bear arms have anything to do with Jesus’s teachings? He taught to love one’s enemies, to not resist an evildoer, for Peter to put away his sword, and so forth. Don’t get me wrong; I have no problem with guns. Neither, actually, does Obama; he hasn’t pushed for, or signed, a single gun-control law. Target shooting is fun. Legalized hunting thins the herd so wild animals don’t starve. Defending loved ones from dangerous criminals is sometimes necessary (though I prefer something non-lethal, for I prefer the criminal go to prison than hell). But how is the right to bear arms a Christian position? It’s not. It’s entirely secular.
The letter complains the Fairness Doctrine, once back, will force radio and TV to give equal time to liberals. This, he claims, will kill conservative radio. I’m not sure how; liberals don’t go to the radio for their marching orders, so nobody will be listening to the liberal shows, same as now. But either way, where does Jesus fit into this equation? Is a radio preacher’s show inherently conservative or something? Hm. Loving the poor and needy, the single mother and fatherless kids, visiting the prisoners… and a Kingdom that we’re supposed to give everything to, and be entirely dependent upon? Hm. Maybe that can be the liberal show.
What about unions? How is the idea of unions dominating business an un-Christian thing? Un-capitalist, maybe, but un-Christian? How about taxes?—didn’t Jesus tell Peter we must pay our taxes? High carbon emission standards—since God made us responsible for our planet, shouldn’t we have such things?
See, many of these issues Dobson worried about are either not biblical issues at all, or the bible can easily be used to support the other side. That‘s because what we do see is a conservative agenda—carefully disguised to look like a Christian one.
James Dobson wanted the Republican Party and a conservative agenda to succeed. To do so, he had no trouble creating baseless fictitious accusations. Or, as the King James Version phrases it, “bearing false witness.” Under the guise of defending Jesus and Christianity, he included items which have nothing to do with Jesus and Christianity. But the reason he wrote the letter, he claims, is because of the significant implications for Christians. As if guns are Christian, and unions are not.
Pretending to support Jesus when you’re actually supporting Republicanism is, obviously, hypocrisy. It’s meant to lead Christians astray. Because if you can convince them to put their hope in the Party rather than the Lord, now we’re talking idolatry.
And when the party fails them—as it did in 2008, when John McCain lost the election—you create the conditions for a hysterical panic. That’s what we saw immediately after that election, as folk were convinced an Obama presidency meant the devil took over America. Because if the Republican Party is Lord (or, as many whitewash their idolatry, “the Lord’s instrument”), and the Republican Party loses, where’s your hope? What do you do with your faith? Where’s your god now?