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.
Dobson’s hard work paid off. By 1977 he was pulling in as much as $24,000 to $36,000 during weekend seminars, which he called “Focus on the Family.” He directed these earnings into a nonprofit tax-exempt organization that he and his wife organized. “We didn’t even know what to call this new organization,” Peb Jackson, one of the early members of Focus, told biographer Rolf Zettersten, “so we finally settled on the same name Jim was using for his seminars: Focus on the Family. I wish I could say today that we had a long-range plan for the ministry, but all we wanted to do was get Jim’s weekend seminars on a nonprofit footing.”
Between the hospital, university, seminars, and books, Dobson hardly had time to focus on his own family. His father, in a thoughtful letter, reminded him that his children were “growing up in the wickedest section of a world much farther gone into moral decline than the world into which you were born.” Dobson knew something would have to go and found himself at a crossroads. Did he want to keep the prestigious berth at the hospital and university, with the regular paychecks, intellectual stimulation, and large support staff? Or should he continue in his self-anointed role as the defender of family values and crusader against the amoral culture? If he left the medical and academic world, he’d still have the book royalties. Prestige really wasn’t an issue either because he was getting plenty of ego strokes on the lecture circuit. Dobson opted for Focus on the Family.
Chicagoland, 1978. Snow poured out of a leaden sky. Inside the television studio of Phil Donahue, guests were getting fitted with microphones for a show on corporal punishment. Donahue owned afternoon television: He was the silver-haired king of gab, basking under the television lights, which careered off his glossy mane and white teeth. “Doctor D.,” going thin on top, a little overweight from too many burgers wolfed down between meetings, was seated on stage among several other guests who’d been flown in for the roundtable discussion. The television lights that flattered Donahue did horrible things to studio guests over the age of 16: Wrinkles widened into canyons, faces flattened and fattened. By now Dobson had some television experience of his own and may have hoped that one of the cameramen wasn’t going to sneak around back for a rear shot. He didn’t want to be there, but Donahue had turned on the charm and Dobson had relented. From the get-go, he could sense a setup. Donahue gave his anti-spanking guests the first crack at the microphone. “Children are people, and people are not to be hit,” one panelist said. Dobson tried to make a counter-argument, but Donahue cut him off. “The whole nation saw me not being able to articulate my point of view,” Dobson would later tell Dale Buss. He vowed to avoid interviews he couldn’t control, especially interviews with the mainstream media, which, as he saw it, twisted his words into a sound bite or took his comments entirely out of context.
Following the Donahue interview, Dobson drove to the studio of an advertising rep and recorded a “trial run” of a Focus on the Family radio program. “That was the beginning of the entire ministry,” Dobson told Buss. “What I saw as a disaster, in my frustration, was the beginning of what is going on today.” Radio was the medium that would allow Dobson to use his greatest asset—his voice—and at the same time give him complete control over what was said.
Dobson discovered that he didn’t need the secular press. With the publication of his books, as well as a wildly popular video that was marketed to churches, Dobson’s listener audience began to grow. The growth brought donations needed to buy more radio time. Dobson and his associates hired more staff. They leased more office space, bigger buildings, and warehouses, and eventually built their own headquarters, first in Arcadia and then in Pomona, both suburbs of Los Angeles.
He revealed himself to be a meticulous and demanding boss, controlling every aspect of the ministry. Although he didn’t leave a trail of bodies, he did leave bruises, writes Christianity Today’s Tim Stafford. To some of his close associates, he seemed as strong-willed as the children he wrote about. Employees who disagreed with him did so at their own peril. A former medical school colleague, Mike Williamson, told Stafford, “I realized that the only way we would work together was if I let him be the pilot of the ship. When we went to the airport, he would say, ‘You get the bags. I’ll get the car.’” Another old friend attributed Dobson’s overbearing manner to the fact that he was an only child. “You don’t have to share clothes. You don’t have hand-me-downs. You get your own way,” he told the Christianity Today correspondent.
In no time, it seemed, Dobson morphed from the genial psychologist to a general on the political battlefield. In 1977, he watched in disgust as President Carter authorized the International Women’s Conference in Houston and appointed some of the country’s most “radical feminists” to run the event, including Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, and Betty Freidan. “The conclusions from the White House event were entirely predictable—support for the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion for any reason or no reason, special rights for gays and lesbians, and universal daycare provided by the government,” a contemptuous Dobson told Buss. Two years later, when Carter formed a White House conference on the family, Dobson galvanized his supporters and got himself a speaking invitation. He asked his listeners to write to the conference’s organizer, and 80,000 letters poured in. He was soon on a plane to Washington.
In D.C., he met with eight other prominent Christians and formed the Family Research Council, a lobbying organization that would push the conservative agenda. Simultaneous with the founding of the lobbying arm, Focus executives turned their attention to creating statewide family policy councils—local engines driving grassroots work. As Dobson explained it, he helped found the Family Research Council “to end the boycott of conservative academics in government.” But former Focus executive Gil Alexander-Moegerle has offered a different take: Dobson was simply bored. “My sense of him in 1979 was that he had grown weary of helping parents with their bed-wetting, sibling-whacking, slow-learning, discipline-needing children,” Alexander-Moegerle writes. “He seemed somewhat like the mother of three preschoolers who wanted a break; not to abandon parenthood completely, mind you, just to add something to it that injected a new vitality into life.… And the feeling of power and control one gets pressing the flesh in the hallways of Congress and speaking to presidents in the Oval Office is revitalizing by any standard.”