James Dobson launched his evangelical empire, Focus on the Family, and became the most influencial Christian in America. He's lectured millions of parents on how to spank their children and advised President George W. Bush on how to spank the Supreme Court. How did the once lonely son of a preacher man rise to such heights? It's no miracle.
There are other prominent evangelical Christians in the United States—Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Rick Warren—yet none of them wields the power that Dobson does. “If you look over the whole field, he certainly remains the most important,” says Dale Buss, author of Family Man, the most comprehensive biography of Dobson to date. Marvin Olasky, who is the editor in chief of the Christian publication World Magazine and the leading architect of the “compassionate conservatism” that President George W. Bush has embraced, says, “In terms of both respect and in terms of audience, I’d probably say that Dobson’s No. 1.”
On his way to the top, Dobson’s cultivated a vast network of conservative friends who now stroll the halls of the U.S. Congress, staff the nation’s think tanks, write for conservative magazines, or have their own ministries, megachurches, and millions of followers. Tom Delay, the U.S. House’s once-formidable majority leader, who is the subject of multiple criminal investigations, has credited Dobson’s video, “Where’s Dad?,” with leading him back to Jesus. Dobson has not only advised two generations of parents on how to raise their kids, he has counseled three U.S. presidents—Ronald Reagan and both Bushes. In the 2004 election, Dobson’s political arm, Focus on the Family Action, was instrumental in turning out the conservative vote that gave Bush a second term and ushered in U.S. senators with socially conservative agendas. Having reached the pinnacle of evangelical Christendom, these should be halcyon days for James Dobson. So, what is the country’s No. 1 evangelical preoccupied with on this snow-spitting afternoon?
Worse yet, a Christian blogger who posted a vicious article criticizing Dobson for supporting legislation in Colorado that would give couples—grandparents and grandchildren, elderly sisters, and even, Heaven forbid, gays and lesbians—some of the legal rights that married people enjoy. Though many in the gay community believe the measure has been a red herring designed to sink their own efforts to get a civil-union bill passed, the blogger apparently disagrees. He lambasted Dr. Dobson, calling the legislation “a drag queen in a conservative blue blazer, button-down shirt, and red tie,” Dobson’s “shack-up honey bill,” and Dobson’s “gay Valentine surprise.”
“I’m used to getting beat up from the radicals, from the left. I deal with that because that goes with the territory,” Dobson says into the microphone. “ I find it difficult to get attacked in such an unfair way by conservatives who claim to follow the cause of Christ. That is very hurtful.”
Seated next to Dobson is Tom Minnery, one of Dobson’s chief political strategists. “The press loves that stuff when Christians are bashing each other,” says Minnery, a fiftysomething former editor of Christianity Today and Gannett correspondent. “Especially if somebody is bashing someone as significant in the culture as you have come to be.”
“I didn’t ask for that significance,” Dobson demurs. “I find myself in a position of visibility, but it’s got its liabilities.”
“It’s tough, it’s tough,” commiserates Minnery.
Toward the end of the show, Dobson mentions that Olasky’s publication, World Magazine, has “hit” them again in an article about convicted felon and former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Dobson promises to address that issue on the following day’s broadcast. “I just want our listeners to understand because my integrity means more to me than my life. And that’s what’s being assaulted here. I’ll just tell you another thing: I’m not going to compromise with the word of God. You can put that in the bank.”
“And we all have put that in the bank,” chimes Minnery.
Dobson concludes the show with a prayer: “Heavenly Father,” he begins, “we’re not superstars. Some people see us that way, but we’re just ordinary people doing our best to serve you…”
Ordinary men and women don’t get phone calls from “Bush’s Brain.” Last October, a day or two before the president nominated his White House counsel, Harriet Miers, to take the place of Sandra Day O’Connor on the U.S. Supreme Court, Bush’s chief adviser, Karl Rove, called Dobson. A month earlier, the president had nominated John G. Roberts to assume William Rehnquist’s slot as chief justice; Roberts had gotten through the confirmation process without the usual Borking. One reason for the smooth sailing was the strong support from Dobson and Focus. Now, Rove figured Miers would be a tougher sell and wanted to make sure Dobson was on board. On the phone, Rove ticked off Miers’ credentials: She was a conservative, evangelical Christian who belonged to a pro-life organization and had challenged the American Bar Association over the abortion issue. Although Rove didn’t talk specifically about how Miers would vote if Roe v. Wade made it to the High Court, a gambler would know where to place his bets.
Dobson put in a couple of phone calls to Texas judges who knew Miers well and came away feeling like she was somebody he could support. But Dobson’s Christian pals, who weren’t privy to the Rove conversation, felt Miers didn’t have the right stuff for the job and were apoplectic when Bush announced his choice. Dobson tried to calm his colleagues in a conference call. Reassuring them that Miers was one of them, he remarked, “Karl had told me something that I probably shouldn’t know.” Predictably, at least one of the conferees leaked the tidbit to the media and all hell broke loose. Focus was deluged with hundreds of inquiries from the press. On Capitol Hill, critics implied Dobson had been given assurances of how Miers would vote on Roe v. Wade, and the Senate Judiciary Committee threatened to subpoena him. “We don’t confirm justices of the Supreme Court on a wink and a nod,” said Vermont’s Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy. Dobson once called Leahy, “God’s-people hater.”