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.
The country’s most powerful evangelical Christian bursts through a door at the rear of his Colorado Springs radio studio. James Clayton Dobson is moving fast, head down, manila folder under his arm, a businessman hurrying from one meeting to the next. Suddenly, he seems to remember there’s a live audience on the other side of the glass, and he waves. Every hand shoots up, including mine. Dobson celebrated his 70th birthday this April, but he’s in better shape than ever due to his morning workout—60 to 70 minutes of treadmill and weightlifting—and no junk food.
His ministry is also healthy, raking in approximately $140 million a year. His recent book, Marriage Under Fire—like his 35 other volumes—is selling well. The family’s doing fine, too, especially his son, Ryan, a surfer, skateboarder, skydiver, lover of mosh pits and hip-hop music, who has moved back to the Springs with his second wife. Despite all these blessings, Dobson seems preoccupied as he settles before a dangling microphone. “I’m really pushing it,” he murmurs distractedly, squaring his papers and running a hand over a thick, gold-colored book that appears to be a Bible.
The radio studio, which is furnished with bookshelves and fireplace to resemble a cozy study, is the core of Focus on the Family, the ministry that Dobson started 29 years ago with a few pieces of battered furniture and a heart made heavy by what he perceived as the country’s moral free fall. Today, his behemoth ministry, based at the foot of the Rockies, reaches more than 220 million people around the globe through its radio and television programs, magazines, books, videos, audio recordings, and a powerful website that offers webzines, podcasts, music, and even movie reviews. He rarely gives interviews to the mainstream media and declined to be interviewed for this story. (Written questions e-mailed to a Focus on the Family press representative also went unanswered.)
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.”
As the furor mounted, Dobson went on his radio show and divulged the contents of the Rove call, explaining that Rove had released him from any pledge of confidentiality. Dobson told his listeners that Rove had shared with him Harriet’s conservative credentials, as well as the fact that a number of other conservative candidates had taken themselves off the short list because they didn’t want to be subjected to the acrimonious confirmation process. To the relief of everyone, including Dobson, who was beginning to have second thoughts about Miers after learning of a speech she gave that was pro-feminist and pro-abortion in tone, Miers withdrew her name.
In her place, Bush nominated Samuel Alito, a Princeton grad with a J.D. from Yale and federal appeals court judge. A devout Catholic, Alito was the polar opposite of Dobson’s so-called “tyrannical judges” who dictated social policy from the bench and threatened the very fabric of the nation. Alito was a strict constitutionalist who didn’t think all religious symbols in the public square should be banned. Even more promising, he had issued an anti-abortion ruling. Alito was exactly the kind of candidate that Dobson wanted on the High Court. Focus’ political arm went into warp speed, drumming up massive support for Alito. Though the candidate got nicked a bit during the confirmation process (which caused his wife to burst into tears and flee the room in front of dozens of television cameras), Democrats had neither the will nor the numbers to mount a credible fight against the likes of Dobson.
Alito’s confirmation fulfilled his lifelong ambition to “warm a seat on the Supreme Court,” and was further evidence of Dobson’s reach. One of the first things Alito did when he took his warm seat was dash off a thank-you note to the folks in Colorado Springs. “This is just a short note to express my heartfelt thanks to you and the entire staff at Focus on the Family for your help and support during the past few, challenging months,” he wrote. “As long as I serve on the Supreme Court, I will keep in mind the trust that has been placed in me.”
On his March 1 radio program, Dobson read the note in its entirety. Sitting next to him in the radio studio was Minnery, who had been heavily involved in the Alito campaign. Though the two men knew it wasn’t polite to gloat, they could barely contain their glee. Referring to the two new justices, Dobson said, “We do not yet know how these men will vote, but every indication is that they get it.”
A country preacher, long and thin as a summer shadow, stood at the front of a church with his arms outstretched, quietly inviting those who wanted to pray to come forward and join him. He was James Dobson Sr., a 6-foot-4-inch giant, with gentle eyes and a face made gaunt from ministering to impoverished rural flocks. Little Jimmy Dobson, who had his father’s light-colored hair, stepped from his mother’s side and joined the procession moving toward the altar. Weeping and crying, the 3-year-old boy knelt and asked Jesus to forgive his sins and instantly felt the overwhelming presence of God. “Imagine the king of the universe, creator of all heaven and earth, caring about an insignificant kid barely out of toddlerhood! It makes no sense, but I know it happened,” Dobson would later say.
The spiritual awakening bound him ever more tightly to his father, who gave up a promising career as an artist to become a man of the cloth. Dobson loved his father so passionately he once told a reporter that just thinking about him when he was a little boy could move him to tears. “He would never have been able to write a book, not because he couldn’t write it, but because his assessment of himself was so low he couldn’t have risked putting an idea out there emotionally, with the possibility of having it rejected,” Dobson told Tim Stafford, who wrote a piece on Dobson in 1988 for Christianity Today entitled “His Father’s Son.”
The Dobsons were members of the Nazarene Church, a denomination of evangelical Christianity that believes human beings are inherently evil but can be saved if they repent and put their faith in Jesus Christ. Followers believe fervently in Judgment Day, when the Lord will return to the earth, the dead will be raised, and the faithful will be reunited with their loved ones in Heaven. Nazarenes believe that after a person has had an initial born-again experience, the Holy Spirit will seek to perform a second work of grace called “entire sanctification” or “baptism with the Holy Spirit,” which purges all sin. Gil Alexander-Moegerle, a former Focus executive and once one of Dobson’s most trusted advisors, writes in his 1997 book James Dobson’s War on America that this “Holiness” principle is key to understanding Dobson’s worldview: “James Dobson believes that he has been entirely sanctified, morally perfected, that he does not and cannot sin. Now you know why he and moralists like him make a life of condemning what he believes to be the sins of others. He is perfect.”
With his born-again experience, James Dobson was on his way to fulfilling a family prophecy: His great-grandfather had told the family that he received a message from God informing him that four generations of his family would rise up and serve the Lord. Dobson’s father often spent three to four hours a day on his knees; the child attempted to pray before he learned to talk. Being the son of an itinerant, evangelical preacher was hard on young Dobson, an only child. While his parents spread the gospel, the boy often was left with relatives. Sensing his son’s loneliness, Dobson’s dad bought a house in Bethany, Oklahoma, and for the next 11 years his wife, Myrtle, looked after their child while he traveled from farm to church, sowing God’s word.
In the Dobson household there were “a million rules,” the son would later write, “regulations and prohibitions for almost every imaginable situation.” He was chewed out for using the expression “Hot dog!” and forbidden from uttering “darn,” “geez,” or “dad-gummit” because they were considered shorthand swear words. Yet Dobson was a rambunctious and mischievous kid. He loved roughhousing with his father; one of their favorite games was kick fighting. The elder Dobson would encourage the boy to kick him in the shins, blocking the blows with the bottom of his feet. “Jimbo,” or “Bo,” as his father called him, would fight back like a tiger, prompting his dad to “tap” him on the shins with his toe. “We would end up laughing hysterically, despite the bumps and bruises on my legs,” Dobson writes in Bringing Up Boys.
Once, as Dobson writes in The New Strong-Willed Child, Jimbo provoked a fight between a pug bulldog and a “sweet, passive Scottie named Baby” by throwing a tennis ball toward Baby: “The bulldog went straight for Baby’s throat and hung on. It was an awful scene. Neighbors came running from everywhere as the Scottie screamed in terror. It took ten minutes and a garden hose for the adults to pry loose the bulldog’s grip. By then Baby was almost dead. He spent two weeks in the animal hospital, and I spent two weeks in the doghouse. I was hated by the entire town.”
Myrtle Dobson was an amiable and social woman, but she didn’t hesitate to whack her son with a shoe or belt when she felt it was required. Consequently, Dobson writes, he learned at an early age to stay out of striking distance when he back-talked to his mother. One day he made the mistake of mouthing off when she was only four feet away and heard a 16-pound girdle whistling through the air. “The intended blow caught me across the chest, followed by a multitude of straps and buckles wrapping themselves around my midsection.” The girdle incident did not dampen his defiance, however. One evening, after Dobson’s mother forbid him from going to a dance, the recalcitrant teenager told her that he was going anyway; she picked up the telephone and called her husband. “I need you,” she said.
“What happened in the next few days shocked me down to my toes,” writes Dobson. His father canceled the next four years’ worth of speaking engagements, put the Oklahoma house up for sale, and took a pastor’s job in San Benito, Texas, a small town near the Mexican border. Dobson had two years of high school left, and when he started classes he found himself the target of a couple of bullies. Rather than turn the other cheek, Dobson wheeled around and threw his schoolbooks in the face of one annoying youth. “By the time he could see me again I was on top of him,” Dobson writes. Dobson also tried a little bullying himself, targeting a boy whom he sized up as a “sissy.” But the boy gave him such a thrashing that Dobson concluded bullying wasn’t for him.
In the fall of 1954, Dobson entered Pasadena College, a Christian liberal arts school in California now known as Point Loma Nazarene University. He was 6 feet 2 inches tall, with blond hair and a crew cut, and a formidable tennis player. Dobson’s classmates would remember him having a sharp tongue and a short temper. He hung out with the “in crowd,” writes one biographer, ignoring minor rules and regulations. Then he met Shirley Deere, a lovely woman with Jackie Kennedy’s poise and the first lady’s taste for beautiful clothes. Dobson was smitten and they began a courtship that included church service and dinner on the first date. There was no goodnight kiss at the end of the evening. Dobson didn’t even try to hold Shirley’s hand until the third date.
When he graduated from college, Uncle Sam was ready to shape him into a soldier and ship him off to a Cold War outpost. Instead, Dobson joined the National Guard and enrolled in graduate school at the University of Southern California. In August of 1960, he married Shirley. His father, a little stooped and heavier now, presided over the ceremony. James and Shirley Dobson set up house in a cramped apartment. To pay the bills, both husband and wife taught elementary school, with Dobson devoting weekends to working on his master’s degree. Their first child, a daughter, Danae, was born in the mid-’60s. Less than six years later, they adopted an infant son, whom they named Ryan.
Shirley, who loved flowers, candlelight, and family life, worked hard to make holidays special. On Valentine’s Day, she wrapped her gifts in red paper, spread a red tablecloth over the dinner table, and served spaghetti with red meat sauce, red Jell-O, and pink cupcakes. Dobson scarfed down whatever Shirley cooked, but other aspects of family life left him queasy. While changing Danae’s diapers, he stuffed cotton balls in his nostrils. After a hard day at the office, he didn’t like the kids crawling all over him when he walked through the door, so the family instituted a rule, giving Dad 30 minutes to unwind, read the paper, or watch the news before the fun could begin. Ryan was a handful. He couldn’t seem to concentrate, did poorly in school, and was diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder. A fifth member of the household, a stubborn little dachshund named Sigmund Freud, added to the chaos. When “Siggie” refused to go to bed one night, Dobson got out a belt and whacked him. The dog bared its teeth and Dobson gave it a second whack. “What developed next is impossible to describe,” writes Dobson in The New Strong-Willed Child. “That tiny dog and I had the most vicious fight ever staged between man and beast. I fought him up one wall and down the other, with both of us scratching and clawing and growling. I am still embarrassed by the memory of the entire scene.”
“Shirls” didn’t have Siggy’s rebellious temperament and usually deferred to her husband when it came to important decisions. And that’s exactly the way it should be, Dobson writes in Bringing Up Boys. “Because it is the privilege and blessing of women to bear children,” he observes, “they are inclined toward predictability, stability, security, caution, and steadiness. Most of them value friendships and family above accomplishments or opportunities. That is why they often dislike change and resist moving from one city to another. The female temperament lends itself to nurturance, caring, sensitivity, tenderness, and compassion.”
Though friendships and family are enough for women, according to Dobson’s worldview, he wasn’t about to settle for that. He rose through the ranks of academia, joining the staff of Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles in 1966, receiving a Ph.D. in child development from USC in 1967, and landing a prestigious position as an associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the USC School of Medicine in 1969. The hospital and university jobs left him one free day a week, and he began dabbling in the public-speaking field. He talked at church gatherings, PTA meetings, and any other forum that would have him. In his own way, he was following in his father’s footsteps, spreading the gospel not as an ordained minister but as a psychologist.
Shirley and James Dobson found themselves trying to raise a family in the modern-day Gomorrah of Los Angeles. It was the late ’60s and all around them were signs of societal decay: riots, assassinations, mass protest marches, drugs, hippies, free love, and abortion on demand. Dobson was deeply dismayed and vowed to do something about it. “I was watching everything I cared about being mocked and vilified, and it gave me this passion to do something to protect and preserve it. It came right out of that revolutionary period in American history,” he told biographer Dale Buss.
With the ranks of potheads and peaceniks swelling, Dobson declared that it was time to bring back the paddle. In his first book, Dare to Discipline, published in 1970, he tells parents it’s OK to spank their little ones as long as it’s done in a loving, careful environment. The best place to spank a child is on the buttocks, he writes, recommending a “neutral object,” such as a switch or a paddle. The physical discipline can begin with a thump to the fingers “just enough to sting” when the toddler is 18 months old, and it should stop by the time the child is 10 or 12. Teens should never be spanked, he advises, because it provokes great resentment and doesn’t work anyway. The book also contains several important caveats to the would-be spanker: Parents who find that they actually “enjoy” spanking their children should probably not do it, and parents who have been abused themselves should stay away from the practice.
Dobson’s book struck a chord with Americans who longed for stability and order. Dare to Discipline became a bestseller (4.5 million copies have been sold to date) and started Dobson on his road as author. He began cranking out books with the rapidity of a John Updike or a Joyce Carol Oates. Though his books lacked the novelists’ literary flair, they had a sympathetic tone and mixed common-sense advice with personal anecdotes, psychology, and scripture. In 1974, Dobson’s second book, Hide or Seek, was published. What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew about Women hit the bookstores next. And a few years later, The Strong-Willed Child, which repackaged some of his spanking notions, made its debut.
Some children who were on the receiving end of spankings still resent him. Writing about The Strong-Willed Child on Amazon.com, a Florida woman said that the Dobson-inspired spankings administered by her mother created scars that have lasted a lifetime. “I have spent my entire adulthood attempting to re-parent myself and overcome the psychological damage my mother created,” she writes. “My mother admitted to me several years ago that had she known spanking would have produced the long-term effects I live with and destroyed our relationship, she would not have followed Mr. Dobson’s advice. Unfortunately, her timing was too late.”
James Dobson has always been conscious of his image. He won’t allow photographers to shoot him from the right side—where the hairline is in rapid retreat—and has been known to halt interviews midsentence if a photographer breaks the rule. James Dobson’s official portraits, book jacket photos, and website images all present a similar profile: chin raised and mouth smiling just enough to reveal a nice row of uppers. Only his voice seems to have aged and is filled now with a grandfatherly crackle, but in Dobson’s line of work, that’s a plus. Pitched slightly on the high side, it sounds like a scratchy vinyl record. Audible in the twang are the plains of Oklahoma and the sagebrush country of Texas, and between the words are tiny pauses that suggest humility and vulnerability.
Although the homespun delivery seems completely natural now, Dobson worked hard to perfect his speaking style, learning to keep the pauses and stumbles in so he would appear more spontaneous, listening for an audience’s coughing and restlessness that signaled he hadn’t yet grabbed his listeners. Tears, writes Gil Alexander-Moegerle, were the yardstick by which Dobson judged a speech successful. “Jim would sometimes pray before a speech, ‘Lord, do it again.’ What he meant by this prayer was that the previous time he had given this particular speech a wave of emotion had hit him and his audience, resulting in such deep feelings that tears flowed.”
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.”
Dobson was invited to join a secretive organization called the Council for National Policy, a coalition of powerful Republicans who want to cut taxes, shrink the government, and make the United States into a more God-fearing nation. Founded in 1981, the still-active CNP membership included some of the biggest names on the Religious Right, ardent gun-rights supporters, billionaires, Beltway strategists, politicians, fund-raising gurus, and a sprinkling of ex-John Birchers. In the invitation-only club, members are instructed to not talk about the meetings nor reveal the names of their colleagues. Recent speakers have included Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and W. himself, according to the watchdog group Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “From the beginning,” the group writes, “ the CNP sought to merge two strains of far-right thought: the theocratic Religious Right with the low-tax, anti-government wing of the GOP. The theory was that the Religious Right would provide the grassroots activism and the muscle. The other faction would put up the money.”
For the next 14 years, Dobson attended the meetings of the Council for National Policy religiously and hobnobbed with some of the powerful Republican operatives that Hillary Clinton would one day claim were part of the “vast, right-wing conspiracy” who were trying to bring down her husband. He became a regular fixture on blue-ribbon panels dealing with family issues. He cemented friendships with powerful conservatives such as Edwin Meese, U.S. attorney general under President Reagan and a member of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. In the mid-’80s, Meese asked Dobson to serve on a blue-ribbon commission on pornography. For the next 14 months, the preacher’s boy from the heartland immersed himself in the world of hard-core porn.
Times Square was Beelzebub’s turf in the mid-’80s. Buildings bathed in the red glow of XXX signs, blocks of “adult bookstores,” and businesses offering sex aids and cellophane-wrapped magazines. Deciding they needed to sample their subject matter firsthand, members of the Meese Commission descended into the belly of the beast. Commission member James Dobson, middle-aged and beefy, ducked into one of the adult bookstores, which in other cities might offer visitors a private cubicle and 90 seconds of pornographic video. But in Times Square the fare was more, well, sumptuous: Customers pushed coins into a slot and a screen rolled up revealing an orgy. “Everything that is possible for heterosexuals, homosexuals, or lesbians to do was demonstrated a few feet from the viewers,” Dobson later wrote. “The booths from which these videos or live performers are viewed become filthy beyond description as the day progresses. Police investigators testified before our Commission that the stench is unbearable and that the floor becomes sticky with semen, urine, and saliva. Holes in the walls between the booths are often provided to permit male homosexuals to service one another.”
It would be an understatement to say such spectacles were a mind-warping experience for Dobson, who had been switched, paddled, and pummeled for sassing back and forbidden from saying “geez”—a man whose courtship with his wife included passing notes in soda bottles. He was also exposed to other disturbing images: photographs of children molested and killed by pedophiles, videos depicting women being raped, slashed, and dismembered. Describing what he saw, Dobson wrote: “The offerings today feature beribboned 18- to 20-year-old women whose genitalia have been shaved to make them look like little girls, and men giving enemas or whippings to one another, and metal bars to hold a woman’s legs apart, and 3-foot rubber penises and photographs of women sipping ejaculate from champagne glasses. In one shop, which our staff visited on Times Square, there were 46 films for sale, which depicted women having intercourse or performing oral sex with different animals…pigs, dogs, donkeys, and horses. This is the world of pornography today, and I believe the public would rise up in wrath to condemn it if they knew of its prominence.”
The panel completed its work and issued its findings in July 1986, with Dobson penning an impassioned commentary that argued for more law enforcement to stop the flow of obscene and violent material. Few people managed to plow through the 2,000-page Meese report, but one man who read it from cover to cover was serial killer Ted Bundy, who was awaiting execution on Florida’s death row. Bundy contacted Dobson in December 1986 and told him there might come a time when he would want to make a statement about his past.
On Jan. 23, 1989, only hours before Bundy was strapped into “Old Sparky,” the time came. Dobson and a camera crew were ushered into a prison cafeteria where the serial killer waited, dressed in a peach-colored T-shirt and looking rather natty, considering. Bundy was lean and handsome, with blue eyes and dark, curly hair just beginning to gray at the temples. Though Dobson was only 10 years older, he seemed like a member of a different generation. His glasses appeared as heavy as manhole covers, and his gray hair was arranged in an intricate comb-over, which appeared to be so firmly anchored that it could have sustained hurricane winds. As soon as the cameras started rolling, Dobson went straight to the heart of the matter: “Ted, how did it happen? Take me back. What are the antecedents of the behavior that we’ve seen? So much grief, so much sorrow, so much pain for so many people. Where did it start? How did this moment come about?”
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.