And on the Eighth Day, Dr. Dobson Created Himself

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.

July 2006

Bundy reeled off some “facts” about his background. He said he came from a fine Christian home and had swell siblings, and parents who didn’t smoke, drink, or abuse him sexually or physically. (In truth, Bundy actually never knew his biological father and for much of his childhood and adolescence believed his mother was actually his older sister.) Bundy told Dobson he became a pornography addict at an early age, drawn first to girlie magazines in the supermarket and then moving on to more hard-core stuff. The images, particularly those of sexualized violence, fueled his fantasies, creating a “separate entity” inside of him. He kept craving something harder and harder, eventually reaching a “jumping-off point” where he wondered if actually performing some of the violent sexual acts himself would fulfill his need. “Do you remember what pushed you over that edge? Do you remember the decision to go for it?

Do you remember where you decided to throw caution to the wind?” asked Dobson.

“It’s a very difficult thing to describe,” Bundy responded. “The sensation of reaching that point where I knew that something had snapped. That I knew that I couldn’t control it anymore.” He said it took him a couple of years to overcome his inhibitions, but one day, with the help of alcohol, he committed his first murder.

“What was the emotional effect on you?” Dobson asked.

“It’s very difficult to talk about. It was like coming out of some kind of a horrible trance or dream. I can only liken it to have being possessed by something so awful and so alien. To wake up and realize what I had done, and with a clear mind and all my essential moral and ethical feelings intact at that moment, absolutely horrified that I was capable of doing something like that. There is just absolutely no way to describe first the brutal urge to do that kind of thing. And then, once it has been more or less satisfied and recedes—relieved, spent—basically I became myself again. Basically I was a normal person.”

As Bundy talked, he often closed his eyes. At other moments, he seemed hyper-vigilant, looking quickly about the room when a door slammed or a phone rang. Dobson watched Bundy with such intensity that he seemed to forget that the cameras were rolling. The Nazarene Christian was looking at what he believed that man, any and every man, including himself, could become without discipline and organized faith.

When the interview was over, Dobson made his way outside. A circuslike atmosphere had developed on the outskirts of the prison. People were firing off Roman candles and carrying signs that said, “Hey Ted, you’re dead” and “Tuesday is Fry Day.” Dobson was revolted by the ghoulish antics. “That made me a little sick at my stomach,” he said. Then, the man who opposed all forms of abortion added, “It is still an awesome thing to take a human life, even when it must be done in circumstances like this, and it must be done with a certain dignity.”

Dobson received an enormous amount of criticism from journalists, psychologists, and criminologists who alleged that he was simply being used by Bundy. Some critics suggested that Dobson had done the Bundy interview to make money. Though the ministry could have indeed reaped hundreds of thousands of dollars from the exclusive interview, it eventually gave away copies of the videotaped session for a suggested donation of $25, which covered production costs and $600,000 worth of donations to anti-pornography organizations. “It’s interesting that I come off bad in comparison with a man who killed 28 women and children. I mean, I need a new press agent, I suppose, under those circumstances,” he said ruefully. The negative stories only hardened his indifferent attitude toward the media. “I say what I believe and let the chips fall where they may,” he told Buss.

Dobson refocused on the ministry. With crime and taxes increasing in California, Dobson and his board of directors began scouting for a new headquarters. After considering several cities, they decided on Colorado Springs, which offered lots of sunshine, stupendous views of the Rocky Mountains, and plenty of cheap land. In September 1991, caravans of Focus employees began migrating east.

Today, Dobson’s organization so dominates Colorado Springs that the two have become synonymous. The city, which has been called the “ground zero” of the Christian Revolution and the “Vatican” of the Religious Right, has become a mecca for more than 100 evangelical organizations. Every year, 260,000 people make the pilgrimage to the Springs hoping to glimpse the man they consider a family friend. And every election season, candidates, both state and national, genuflect at Focus on the Family’s brick citadel on the hill, hoping for a campaign boost. Dobson’s pronouncements from the political pulpit have grown more combative, more divisive, and more frequent. Hate mail and death threats are piling up. He often travels with four bodyguards, including a retired Delta Force commando; his kids have worn bulletproof vests. Though the battle is largely one that Dobson’s initiated, associates say he’s the one who feels embattled. But Dobson, who counts Winston Churchill among his heroes, is a student of history and knows wars don’t last forever. “We’re still losing some battles, but we’re winning more than ever before,” he said on a recent broadcast. Three times, he referred to a great invisible pendulum that was swinging back in their direction, and he said, “Can anyone hear the creaking?”

Eileen Welsome’s most recent book, The General and the Jaguar: Pershing’s Hunt for Pancho Villa, was published this June.