To millions of conservative Christians, James Dobson and his Focus on the Family ministry have emerged as a life preserver in an American culture, fending off assaults from popular culture and liberals.
“He’s trustworthy, he’s intelligent, he’s well-respected,” said the Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals representing more than 43,000 congregations. “If people would do what Jim Dobson suggests they would live a better life.”
Yet Dobson has also become a lightning rod for criticism by weighing in on major political issues, from stem cell research and abortion to tax credits for families. Last month, Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., called him the “antichrist” and said he was trying to “hijack Christianity” by backing President Bush’s federal appeals court nominees.
Salazar, a Roman Catholic, later backed off the antichrist comment, but stood by his claim that Dobson’s ministry has become an arm of the Republican Party.
Taking aim at the judiciary
Dobson, who insists his organization backs only issues not parties or candidates, isn’t about to back down either. He says the strong rhetoric and emotions are no surprise at a time when there is fierce debate over the actions of the nation’s federal courts, which he describes as a “liberal stronghold.”
“The federal judiciary more and more is making the great moral decisions of our time,” Dobson said during a 75-minute interview with The Associated Press. He ticked off rulings involving abortion, the Pledge of Allegiance and the definition of marriage.
“This Supreme Court has co-opted for itself many of the issues that the American people ought to be making through their elected representatives,” he said. “The decisions that are coming down from the Supreme Court have profound implications for the family and for conservative concepts of morality.”
These are heady times for Dobson, who turned 69 last month and still puts in 12-hour days at the ministry he founded in 1977. The child psychologist reaches an estimated 220 million people in 160 countries through his radio broadcasts and his organization responds to about 10,000 telephone calls, letters and e-mails each day requesting books, recordings and advice on everything from marital strife to eating disorders. The group says its average listener is a mother of two in her 20s to 40s.
Organization officials like to say that 95 percent of what they do is about ministry and outreach. But it is the policy work — which accounts for the rest of the $150 million annual budget — that is drawing so much attention.
Focus on the Family launched a public policy arm a year ago: Some say its emergence and last November’s decision by voters in 11 states to outlaw gay marriage was no fluke.
“One would be foolish to minimize his (Dobson’s) impact,” Haggard said.
Meetings with Bush
Dobson has met with President Bush more than once, though not at the ministry itself. Asked about the relationship between Focus on the Family and the White House, Focus officials said they participate in occasional conference calls.
“It’s not President Bush,” said Tom Minnery, the group’s vice president of public policy. “It’s not even Karl Rove. It’s lower-level people.”
Dobson himself offers restrained praise: He said Bush has always made the right decisions on issues like stem cell research, gay marriage and lower taxes. However, Dobson said he wishes Bush would speak more often and more directly to issues conservative Christians hold dear.
“I think he has kept his campaign promises,” he said. “Has he articulated them the way a lot of us would want him to? No. But I think that’s not in his nature.”
Dobson was in Washington last week for meetings he would not detail, though the battle over Bush’s judicial nominees figured to be a prime topic. Like others, Dobson believes the fight will reach a boiling point over a conservative Supreme Court nominee.
He ridiculed a March ruling that outlawed the death penalty for juvenile criminals in which Justice Anthony Kennedy acknowledged “overwhelming” international opinion against the practice. Dobson said that sort of shift by the court amounts to “grounds for impeachment.”
One side in the culture war
He also noted a growing divide between secular and religious America.
“(The nation) is polarized, no question about that, and I wish it were not that way,” he said. “But we’ve been in a culture war for a long time and it has become more intense in recent years. That’s what people are seeing and sensing and feeling. There is so much at stake now.”
He sees it as a battle for “the hearts and minds of the nation” between traditional values and liberals who believe in bigger government, abortion rights “and some of the more radical perspectives of the feminist movement.”
“The people of the left would say we’re extremist,” he said. “The truth of the matter is there is a tremendous population out there of people who care about their children, they care about their families, they care about their children’s schools, they care about morality.
“They are right now very, very concerned about the intrusion of popular culture into their families, especially into the lives of their children.”
Dobson, a member of the Church of the Nazarene, said his organization exists not to create an empire but for those who are frustrated with the culture’s direction. He says it’s that, rather than his political clout, that most people stop him on the street to talk about.
“What they typically say is, you helped me raise my kids,” he said. “Most of them say you were there when we were going through a really tough time. And some of them cry and some of them hug me. That is the essence of Focus on the Family.”