Dobson spiritual empire wields political clout

First of three parts on key evangelical leaders

Boston Globe/October 9, 2005
By Brian MacQuarrie

Colorado Springs -- The bullet hole just inside the headquarters of Focus on the Family is carefully preserved, a reminder of that 1996 day when a gunman held four employees hostage at the nerve center of James C. Dobson's evangelical empire. According to a sign near the bullet hole, the power of prayer helped end that standoff.

In those days, Dobson was known primarily as a folksy child psychologist, an avuncular figure with a popular radio show who used a heavy helping of Christian morality to flavor his advice on child-rearing.

Today, prayer is only part of what Dobson is dispersing through radio, books, and a panoply of other media as he takes his fight for family values from the shadow of Pikes Peak to the halls of Congress and the steps of the Supreme Court.

To Dobson, the stakes could not be higher.

''Two starkly contrasting worldviews predominate today's moral and cultural debate," Dobson said in an e-mail response to questions from The Boston Globe. ''One side defends the traditional values that have made this nation great for more than 225 years; the other works to chisel away at that foundation."

Dobson stands in the vanguard of a crusade by evangelical Christians to place their agenda at the forefront of public debate over presidential and congressional elections, judicial appointments, gay marriage, and the ''life issues" of abortion, euthanasia, and embryonic stem-cell research. Dobson, 69, is arguably the dominant ideologist of the movement.

His influence is so considerable among conservatives that, before President Bush nominated Harriet E. Miers for the Supreme Court, White House adviser Karl Rove reportedly called Dobson with private assurances about Miers's judicial philosophy.

Other key figures range from Richard Land, the politically connected Washington lobbyist of the Southern Baptist Convention, to Rick Warren, an evangelical pastor who has built an enormous following both at his Southern California mega-church and through his best-selling book, ''The Purpose Driven Life."

Some are deeply involved in politics, others simply preach a message that reinforces conservative values. With the pending retirement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a key swing vote on the bench, these and other conservative leaders see their best chance in decades to steer American culture firmly to the right.

In addition to his support for Miers, Dobson backed Judge John G. Roberts Jr., the president's nominee to fill the chief justice position that opened upon the death of William H. Rehnquist.

In the last few years, Dobson marshaled enormous resources of media, money, and mailing lists in preparation for these high-court vacancies, which he calls ''a watershed moment in American history."

In his view, Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, has caused the ''biggest holocaust in world history"; the Supreme Court is guilty of ''judicial tyranny" that threatens religious liberties; wide approval for gay marriage would send the nation ''hurtling toward Gomorrah"; and the federal judiciary is a despotic oligarchy that represents ''the last playground of the liberal left."

Millions of people who have turned to Dobson for family advice apparently are willing to accept his political counsel as well. The share of white evangelical Protestants who voted for Bush increased to 78 percent in 2004, a sharp increase from 68 percent in 2000. Dobson is credited by many observers as playing a critical role in their mobilization.

''I'm going to promote the values I think are best for our country, and of course I hope that laws that reflect them are enacted," said Dobson, who rarely grants in-person interviews. ''Isn't that how a democracy operates?"

To Dobson, Focus on the Family is a God-ordained ministry. To his critics, including the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Dobson is a dangerous demagogue.

''He smiles, he's articulate, he has some quality advice about child rearing," said Lynn, a minister in the United Church of Christ, whose leaders have endorsed gay marriage. ''But on some of these big political questions, he's extremely far to the right, and people ought to recognize that before they start walking down the road with him."

In one lightning-rod example, Dobson used a radio broadcast in August to compare the ethics of embryonic stem-cell research to Nazi medical experiments on prisoners.

''There is no question that the beliefs of conservative Christians are under attack," Dobson told the Globe. ''Any conviction founded on religious faith is vilified; any stand on absolute truth is denigrated as old-fashioned at best, or reminiscent of the Taliban at worst; any view out of lockstep with the left's agenda is met with anything but tolerance and acceptance."

Last year, Focus on the Family and its politically oriented affiliate, Focus on the Family Action, worked to register voters nationwide. The effort included a mailing to 1.3 million supporters of the ministry who were not registered, a get-out-the-vote mailing to 13,000 Hispanic churches, and a mailing of 5 million letters, e-mails, and postcards just before the election.

In eight battleground states, 150,000 supporters received letters about senators from their states who had blocked a vote on a constitutional amendment against gay marriage. The letters said that the senators, who were seeking reelection, had ''planned to vote against the idea that every child ought to have a mom and a dad."

Despite the prominent political role he played, Dobson dismissed the notion that he is a presidential kingmaker. ''It's clear that there is a growing awareness among conservative Christians that it's time to stand up and be counted in the marketplace of ideas," Dobson said. ''I'm just one of them who happens to have a public platform through which to communicate what we believe."

Many others have a different perception. As Ralph Neas, president of the liberal group People for the American Way, has said: ''There is no question that James Dobson is the most powerful and most influential voice on the religious right." Land, of the Southern Baptist Convention, described Dobson as ''the most respected and influential person in evangelical Christendom."

Dobson said his goal has remained the same since he launched Focus on the Family in 1977: To nurture and protect the family. ''I became convinced that the family was unraveling," said Dobson, who left a comfortable job as a professor at the University of Southern California School of Medicine to start Focus in a two-room office in Arcadia, Calif.

Brett Clifton, a Brown University political scientist who has studied Dobson, said Dobson decided to leave academia because he ''was just disgusted, realizing that there really wasn't any type of advice for people who want to sustain traditional families and traditional values. In his mind, there was all this gobbledygook," instead of advice ''to address what parents were facing through a biblically inspired manner. I think he knew there was a niche out there."

Dobson was raised by a Nazarene preacher who spent hours praying on his knees every day. Strict interpreters of Scripture, Nazarenes advocate a lifestyle that discourages alcohol, tobacco, and premarital sex. Husbands are recognized as the head of the household, and adolescent social situations such as dances are closely monitored.

Dobson's book ''Dare to Discipline," which was published in 1970 and condoned spanking in its criticism of permissive parenting, has sold more than 3 million copies. Thirty-five years later, the phenomenal growth of the ''ministry," as Dobson describes Focus on the Family, has given him the opportunity to move beyond tips about rebellious teenagers to influencing a broad swath of the American electorate.

From an 81-acre campus with a spectacular view of the Rockies, where Focus on the Family relocated in 1993, Dobson sits at the top of a humming dispensary of advice and activism. Four spacious brick buildings give the site the look of an office park. The organization, which has its own ZIP code, distributes 4 million pieces of mail from its headquarters each month. Books, brochures, DVDs, and pamphlets are available on subjects as varied as ''Why ADHD Doesn't Mean Disaster" to ''Healing the Hurt in Your Marriage." The products are distributed in exchange for a voluntary donation.

Each of the organization's 1,400 employees must have an active religious life. Some 150 phone attendants answer a total of 5,000 phone calls a day, 90 percent of which pertain to a family concern that is addressed through printed, audio, or video materials. The remaining 10 percent involve ''counseling issues," such as teenage substance abuse or gambling in the family, said Paul Hetrick, the Focus vice president for media relations. For these calls, Focus employees offer advice over the telephone, by letter, or direct the caller to other help.

About 2 percent of the calls are so serious, involving such emergencies as suicide or child abuse, that they are handled by state-licensed counselors who work part time at Focus in addition to their private practices, Hetrick said. There is no charge for the advice or phone calls.

''I get to come alongside them in their pain," said Maureen Romine, a phone attendant, as she reached for a midafternoon call. After confirming an order for a $34 DVD dealing with evolution, Romine told the caller: ''Thank you so much. We bless you."

A sense of spiritual mission pervades the campus, much as it did in 1996 when Dobson credited the power of prayer with helping end the hostage crisis after a six-hour standoff. The gunman had taken the hostages to protest the size of his state disability payments after a construction accident at Focus.

In addition to Dobson's publishing efforts, which include a weekly column in more than 500 newspapers, his radio show reaches nearly 2 million listeners daily. Focus also maintains a mailing list of 2.5 million names, which ministry officials say are not distributed to political parties or any other organization. In 1983, Dobson helped found the Family Research Council, a Washington-based group that aggressively pursues a ''family values" agenda.

The Focus complex includes a state-of-the-art welcome center that is toured by 250,000 visitors a year. A sculpture of Dobson's late father, on his knees praying, dominates one room. ''You hear a Christian emphasis, and that is so important for today's families," said Evie Souders, 60, during a tour of the facility. Dobson ''affirms the fact that you have to make choices that go against the flow of our society."

Dobson's advance into the political limelight has been a measured, incremental journey whose turning point occurred at a 2003 rally in Montgomery, Ala. There, in 100-degree temperatures, Dobson joined the state's chief justice, Roy Moore, to protest a federal judge's order to remove a sculpture of the Ten Commandments from the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court. Moore later was removed from office by the state's judicial ethics committee for his defiance and is now running for governor of Alabama.

The sweltering rally attracted 10,000 people, Hetrick said. ''There was something about that moment, something about that crowd, that impressed itself on Dr. Dobson," Hetrick recalled. ''It said to Dr. Dobson that they were looking for leadership, for someone to resist what was happening. He came away from that thinking that he wanted to make a difference."

As a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, Focus on the Family relies on tax-deductible donations and is prohibited from engaging in partisan politics. When Dobson endorses a candidate, as he did last year with President Bush, he emphasizes that the endorsement is personal and does not announce such support on his radio program or in his Focus publications. To expand its political influence, the organization last year created a spinoff entity, called Focus on the Family Action, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit whose donations are not tax-deductible and is freer to engage in lobbying and voter registration. The new group staged rallies in states with close Senate races, where audience members were encouraged to ''vote their values."

''GOP leaders are smart to pay attention to what he says. He's so respected within the conservative Christian circles," said Clifton, assistant director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy & American Institutions at Brown University. ''He's not seen as somebody who's going to compromise those positions for political expediency."

Following Bush's reelection, Dobson made clear that the religious right expected payback. If not, Republicans could expect to be punished at the ballot box. The Senate agreement on judicial filibusters, for example, was described by Dobson as ''a complete bailout and betrayal by a cabal of Republicans," seven of whom brokered a deal with Democratic moderates to avoid a vote on whether to ban filibusters in judicial appointments.

''This 'compromise' didn't fix what was broken -- nothing of significance has changed, and 214 years of Senate tradition and basic fairness have been trampled," Dobson said via e-mail.

Dobson has targeted several ''red-state" Democratic senators for defeat in 2006, including Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, and Bill Nelson of Florida. Dobson played a big role in the 2004 defeat of Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the former minority leader, who helped block a Constitutional amendment to define marriage as only the union of a man and a woman. Last year, Dobson attended several rallies against gay marriage in South Dakota and addressed about 70,000 people, or 10 percent of the state's population.

Dobson made Daschle's defeat a keystone of his effort to elect senators who would approve conservative justices to the Supreme Court. Dobson fell short in his bid to topple Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, a moderate Republican who was expected to head the Judiciary Committee and said in his victory speech that judges determined to overturn Roe v. Wade would be difficult to confirm.

Dobson's fury at that statement resulted in a flood of angry telephone calls from his supporters to the Senate. Specter backed off, announced he would support the president's choices, and was elected committee chairman.

In these and other ways, Dobson had served notice that he would not hesitate to wield his political clout like a hammer.

''Do conservative Christians have less of a right to participate in the democratic process than do secularists?" Dobson asked. ''I might remind my liberal critics that we enjoy a representative form of government. Each of us, even those who hold traditional values, is entitled by constitutional decree to participate in policy formation."

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