Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family ministries and host of its radio program, is leaving the airwaves. For three decades, he has been the scourge of liberals and a trusted resource for conservative Christians; indeed, it seems people view him as either one extreme or the other. I’m that rare case who is ambivalent about him, so if you’re hoping to read either a hagiography or a broadside, you’re about to be disappointed.
1.5 million people listen to Dr. Dobson’s program every weekday, and most Christian stations broadcast it. I cut my ministry teeth on Christian radio and I never worked anywhere that didn’t carry the show. Even a decade ago, when I was just starting, Dobson’s influence could not be overestimated. He has come to be viewed as something of a “kingmaker,” and politicians vie for a nod from him on his program; such a gesture could translate into hundreds of thousands of votes. Because he’s so respected by his listeners, he can marshal that enormous audience to bombard Congress with letters and phone calls. And he can organize a boycott quicker than an ACORN staffer can cook the books for a bordello.
I and my fellow social conservatives owe a great debt to this man. We who grieve over the American holocaust of abortion have a great friend in Jim Dobson. We who view marriage as God’s sacred union of one man and one woman for life – a picture of Christ and the church – have a valued and effective ally in him. We who choose to educate our children at home rather than in public or private schools have found him to be one of our staunchest defenders against NEA propagandists and the paternalistic, intrusive regulatory presence of bureaucratic busybodies.
Other groups would be quick to thank him as well: For example, those who struggle with unwanted same-sex attractions are given no hope from establishment psychiatry, and homosexual activists only tell them that the change they seek is mythical; however, Focus’s Love Won Out conferences have helped thousands see that “myth” become a reality. And he has been an outspoken advocate for parents who feel that ADHD diagnoses and mood-altering medications are being foisted on their sons, boys who were guilty of nothing more than the sometimes-inconvenient-but-altogether-normal behaviors of boyhood.
But just like the rest of us, Dobson has his problems too, one of which is his skin: It’s just far too thin for the path he has chosen. His response to criticism is usually pouty, petty defensiveness. Not a good look for a man in his seventies. I’m just sayin’.
And there’s something disturbing about his tendency to be star-struck by any celebrity remotely connected to Christianity. When Mel Gibson was plugging The Passion of the Christ, Dobson brought him on and practically canonized him as the apostle to Hollywood. Not long after, Gibson was caught driving drunk and during his arrest, he delivered his now-infamous anti-Semitic conspiracy rant.
Just this year, Dobson gave 2009 Miss USA 1st runner-up Carrie Prejean the same treatment: To her credit, she had spoken out against same-sex marriage during the pageant, yet she seemed to have no moral dilemma when it came to posing for some prurient photographs. Dobson praised her for the former and had little to say about the latter, holding her out as a fine example of Christian womanhood who had been martyred by the media. I was still program director at a Christian station at that time, and we were given a choice between airing the Prejean interview or using an alternate show. We aired the alternate, and I’m glad.
But my deepest conflict is over the times that, in my estimation, his patriotic fervor and his ardor for conservative political activism – which are both fine ideals in my book – have appeared almost to rival his zeal for the Gospel. This should never be, and I don’t think it helps the cause of Christ or the cause of conservatism. My few complaints aside, however, James Dobson has advanced both causes in lots of other ways.
Over the past few months, the mainstream media types haven’t hidden their celebratory glee over indications that evangelicals, especially Dobson, are becoming less politically and culturally influential. I personally feel that the celebration is premature; I believe this “trend” that they’re celebrating probably results from the combination of their own wishful thinking and their lack of connection to the America that exists outside of N.Y., L.A., and D.C.
Nevertheless, the celebration is going to continue. Big-time scribblers and talking heads won’t allow reality to interfere with their conclusions. Certainly, the announcement that Dobson will step down in February of 2010 has made the gala even more festive for them, but one thing is for sure: Come March, the media party is going to need a new piñata.