When I was 18 years old, I moved out of state for the first time: seduced by California palm trees and an unspoken (and, as it turns out, nonexistent) promise of marriage to a cute, rich boyfriend I’d met months prior at the University of Oregon. I’d always wanted to explore the world a bit, so when my tuition money and the boyfriend’s willingness to live in the Pacific Northwest dried up simultaneously, all that was left to plan, really, was the details.
My stay in L.A. was short-lived and punctuated by misadventures: an edict from the rich boyfriend’s mother that he not see me, sudden homelessness (we’d planned for me to stay with his mother), a two-weeks-too-long two-week stay with my dad’s cousin at a senior citizen community named Leisure World, and getting sweet-talked out of my last $10 by a couple of evangelists called (I kid you not) the Happy Hunters.
It was a dark time, and I leaned heavily on the only stability I had: namely, a secretarial job at a local pastor’s radio ministry. My coworkers were wholesome and, for the most part, cheerful. It was the late ’80s, and two big Christian radio shows were making a splash in the country at the time: the one I worked for and another, family-focused show.
Not having a family of my own, I rarely listened to the other program. For that matter, I rarely listened to our program. But I heard people murmuring about it from time to time. Usually, the murmurs started with “Dr. Dobson says . . . ” I wondered why so many people were willing to have their theology — and, with increasing frequency, their politics — handed to them on a plate. Or, rather, through the airwaves. It was weird. But, you know, different strokes for different folks, and all that.
Cut to the early 1990s: I was now the advertising manager for the publishing house that published what was then Dobson’s most popular book. People practically fell over themselves in their efforts to please him, and that was when he wasn’t even in the room. Coworkers told me how Dobson said I should vote. I felt a bit unnerved, but he was just a talking head on a religious radio show. How far, really, could his influence reach?
I had no idea. Today, of course, Dr. James Dobson is not just a religious leader, social psychologist, and radio commentator, but also a major political player who has George W’s ear; an anti-feminist gay-basher sticking all ten fingers into the public policy pie. He is, for many, the face of the conservative Christian takeover of Republican politics.
The most disturbing aspects of Dobson’s “ministry,” however, are not his politics — although I disagree with his views, I honor and respect his right to have them. Far more frightening are his use of dubious “facts” to support his arguments, his air of smug superiority (a trait passed on to too many of his followers), his efforts toward the enmeshment of church and state, and his cult leader-type grip on many of his radio listeners.
The most recent example of Dobson’s dangerous influence is found in his response to the Mark Foley scandal. In the face of evidence that Rep. Foley sent sexually explicit emails to underage Congressional pages, Dobson doesn’t see the need to protect the boys. Just the opposite, he is playing a political shell game: deflecting criticism of the Republican Party’s handling of Foley’s predatory behavior by pointing the finger at former president Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, a matter whose relevance to the incident at hand is exactly nil.
“We condemn the Foley affair categorically,” said Dobson in his October 6 broadcast of Focus on the Family, “and we also believe that what Mr. Clinton did was one of the most embarrassing and wicked things ever done by a president in power. Let me remind you, sir, that it was not just James Dobson who found the Lewinsky affair reprehensible. More than 140 newspapers called for Clinton’s resignation. But the president didn’t do what Mr. Foley has done in leaving. He stayed in office, and he lied to the grand jury to obscure the facts. As it turns out, Mr. Foley has had illicit sex with no one that we know of, and the whole thing turned out to be what some people are now saying was a — sort of a joke by the boy and some of the other pages.” [Italics mine.]
What strikes me about this as a woman and a mother (besides shock at the offense, bewilderment at Dobson’s logic, and relief that none of my children have served as a page under Foley) is the utter inappropriateness of Dobson’s blame-placing: a twist on the age-old “she asked for it” defense employed by rapists and wife abusers. Blame the child for Foley’s sexual predation! Dobson claims to “focus on the family.” For him to elevate the interests of the Republican Party over the well-being of kids serving in our nation’s capitol — over anyone’s kids — is unfathomable.
Faced with Dobson’s words, I’m driven to speak out against the trajectory of a church that is failing me as a woman; that is failing my — and other women’s — children and families. For years, I’ve felt ambivalent about my association (or lack thereof) with the contemporary church. Today, part of me wants to stand up and shout: “This man doesn’t speak for me — or for my faith!” The other half, the one that shies away from this present incarnation of Christianity, presents Dr. Dobson as Exhibit A in the case against all that is pushing me, and people like me, away. The need for this distancing is unfortunate but unlikely to lessen until Christians begin to switch off radio programs that ignore, twist, and taint the teachings of Jesus, and tune in instead to something that truly focuses on the family: God’s voice in their own consciences and hearts.