On a warm day last May, about three hundred people gathered on the steps of the Colorado state Capitol. Dressed in rumpled shorts, T-shirts, and sandals, they flopped down on the green grass, swilled their water, unbuckled their fanny packs, and adjusted their camcorders. Several people held signs emblazoned with messages so mild they could have been written by a middle-school librarian: “Help Schools Teach Respect for All,” “Don’t Write Prejudice into Our Constitution,” and “Yes on Domestic Partnerships.” These were the only visible signs of their crusade.
They had come to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Colorado’s Amendment 2, an anti-gay-rights measure narrowly approved by voters in 1992, and to support a domestic partnership referendum that will be on the state ballot in November. If approved, that measure will give same-sex couples many of the legal rights of their married counterparts. Forces pushing the referendum include a coalition of moderate religious clergy; socially liberal attorneys who honed their skills in the Amendment 2 fight; moderate Republicans such as Sean Duffy, a former member of Governor Owens’ staff; and Tim Gill, the politically active gay multimillionaire who made his fortune in the software business. And if you ask James Clayton Dobson, all of them—from the fanny-packers to the financiers—are part of a great amoral army that threatens to destroy Western civilization.
More from our James and the Giant Jihad Issue
- Cairn Youth Program Educates Teens About Environmental Stewardship
- Sesen Skin Body Wellness Is Your One-Stop Shop for Holistic Skincare
- Colorado Bookshelf: Wild Together: My Adventures With Loki The Wolfdog
- Canterris Canned Vinos Are Tasty Enough to Wow a Wine Pro
- Would You Be Lonely Without Me? Paints Painful Portrait of Life (and Death) Before Roe v. Wade
- First Timer’s Guide: South Lake Tahoe, California
- What Will It Take to Attract Women to Jobs in Construction and Transportation?
The most powerful evangelical Christian in America, James Dobson is the founder of Focus on the Family. From his headquarters in Colorado Springs, his genial, grandfatherly radio-show voice reaches 220 million people around the globe. He has helped unseat United States senators, shaped the U.S. Supreme Court, and been an invaluable ally and advisor to President Ronald Reagan and Presidents George Herbert Bush and George W. Bush. For the past 30 years, Dobson has been battling to save the world from sinners, the secular media, radical feminists, and the rest of the Left. Defending marriage from attacks by “homosexual activists” is now his most important crusade.
“A revolution of striking proportions now looms before us,” Dobson writes in his recent book, Marriage Under Fire. “I do not recall a time when the institution of marriage faced such danger, or when the forces arrayed against it were more formidable or determined.” If homosexuals succeed in getting legal recognition for same-sex unions, he warns, the world will be plunged into chaos. In Dobson’s worldview, politicians who don’t stand up to these radicals are no different from liver-lillied appeasers such as Neville Chamberlain, who let Hitler’s army goose-step through Austria and Czechoslovakia: “Today, more than six decades later and on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, we find ourselves in a terrible battle of a different sort, but one that also threatens the very existence of our society. It is a battle for the very soul of the nation.”
With President Bush advocating a new amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would define marriage as the union of one man and one woman, Dobson’s assessment may not be entirely hyperbolic. This much, though, is certain: The November referendum here in Dobson’s adopted home state is shaping up to be a battle that will either solidify or shake his own almighty grasp of the nation’s religious right. “Focus on the Family cannot afford a loss in their backyard,” says Eric Sondermann, a Denver political analyst. “The flip side of that is, if you’re not going to fight in your backyard, where are you going to fight?”
At Dobson’s side are swelling ranks of evangelical crusaders: organizations like the Rocky Mountain Family Council and Coloradans for Marriage; men of God like Ted Haggard, pastor of Colorado Springs’ New Life Church; a man of car sales, Will Perkins, a former automotive dealer and front man for Amendment 2; and dozens of politicians indebted to Dobson for his support. However, Dobson’s most impressive—and most controversial—resource is his political action arm. While he may pray to God for miracles, when it comes to his politics, Dobson, the only son of a preacher, puts his faith in the $38 million high-tech political machine that he himself has built. In the name of Jesus, it’s as relentless as the Terminator.
In the 1970s, Colorado Springs was a typical Western town. Republicans dominated local politics, but if anything they were libertarian in their outlook and tended to have a live-and-let-live attitude toward the oddballs drawn to the area by the fabulous views and outdoor sports. In the early 1980s, the city grew quickly, fueled in part by the “Star Wars” spending showered on area military installations by President Reagan. Developers followed, lured by changes in the tax code and easy money from the S&Ls, including the Silverado Savings and Loan, which had George W. Bush’s brother, Neil, on the board and was shuttered in a scandal that cost taxpayers an estimated $1 billion. Then a recession hit. Suddenly there were too many houses and too few buyers. The Springs, remembers Kae Rader, a vice president of the nonpartisan El Pomar Foundation, got the reputation of being the “foreclosure capital” of the country.
In an effort to restart the economy, the Chamber of Commerce, Economic Development Forum, and business leaders sought out new employers, preferring companies that would not pollute their lovely surroundings. Soon, flashy new buildings of high-tech firms sprouted up along the I-25 corridor and nonprofits moved into less conspicuous buildings tucked in the foothills or in the older section of town. The city’s fathers knocked on the door of James Dobson, who had a burgeoning ministry in Southern California and was already thinking about moving.
The son of a traveling Nazarene preacher, Dobson had done well for himself. He graduated from Point Loma Nazarene University in Pasadena, California, did a stint in the National Guard, married his college sweetheart, and became the father of two children. While Shirley stayed home to tend to daughter, Danae, and their adopted son, Ryan, Dobson worked on his doctorate in child psychology at the University of Southern California. He joined the staff of Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles and obtained a prestigious appointment as an associate clinical professor of pediatrics at USC School of Medicine. In his spare time, he began giving informal talks at church gatherings and PTA meetings about how to raise children. In 1970, he incorporated those ideas into a book. Dare to Discipline reassured parents it was OK to spank their kids and included specific instructions on when to start spanking the kids, where to spank them, how to spank them, and what to spank them with. It became a bestseller. His next three books—Hide or Seek, What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women, and The Strong-Willed Child—also sold well and Dobson became a sought-after talent on the speaking circuit. He began giving seminars entitled “Focus on the Family,” pulling in as much $24,000 to $36,000 in a weekend. He deposited these earnings into a nonprofit tax-exempt organization that he and his wife organized and named after the seminars. His audience grew and so did his ministry. He left his comfortable berth in academia to pursue public speaking and writing full-time. Following a humiliating appearance on the Phil Donahue Show, Dobson concentrated instead on establishing his own radio and television programs, where he could get his message out, undiluted and unfiltered by the mainstream media. His ministry, then located in the Los Angeles suburbs, grew quickly. Focus built a new headquarters, outgrew it, and built another. In 1991, with crime and taxes on the rise, Dobson left California, settling his blossoming Focus on the Family empire in Colorado Springs, where the El Pomar Foundation had offered him an economic development grant of $4 million for the purchase of land and start-up costs.
Immediately the ministry jumped into the bruising battle over Amendment 2, which barred municipalities from enacting laws protecting gays from discrimination. Although a district judge subsequently ruled the amendment unconstitutional, setting the stage for a costly legal battle that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Coloradans quickly felt the economic impact of their vote. Conventions were canceled. Film projects moved elsewhere. Gay activists threw Celestial Seasonings tea in the Hudson River. Critics dubbed Dobson’s ministry, “Focus on Everybody Else’s Family.”
While the fight raged, the nonprofit’s new headquarters, located on a windswept chunk of land north of town, was built. When it was finished, the Almighty himself might have looked down and pronounced it good: It was shaped like a cross.
Each year, thousands of people tour the Focus headquarters. Although Dobson likes to tell journalists none of the buildings on the campus are named after him, the complex could well be called “Song of Myself.” His fastidious demeanor and Midwestern tastes are reflected in every square inch of the ministry, from the scrubbed floors to the help-yourself coffee bar to the reception area that resembles a Holiday Inn. Hallways are filled with bric-a-brac and trophies and plaques commemorating Dobson’s achievements, his honorary degrees, his cozy one-on-one meetings with U.S. presidents. Covering the walls are photos of his ancestors, a plain-looking clan who resemble refugees from the Dust Bowl, squinting into the sun of an earlier century. In the “Welcome Center,” guests can plunk down in an auditorium and watch a video recapping birthday greetings to Dobson from Presidents Reagan, George Herbert Bush and Bush II. When the tape is finished, they can catch more of Dobson on a television monitor, explaining to Larry King how homosexuals are bent upon destroying the institution of marriage.
At the rear of the visitor’s center is a shrine-like room devoted to Dobson’s father, James Dobson Sr. Preserved behind glass in one corner is the red Christmas coat that the elder Dobson wore during the holidays. On the lower level there’s a play area for kids, a soda fountain, and a corkscrew slide. While the kids eat their ice cream cones, parents can go to the bookstore and browse through Dobson’s books, tapes, or CDs, or volumes written by like-minded authors. Prominently displayed are two flattering biographies: Family Man: The Biography of Dr. James Dobson, by freelance journalist Dale Buss, and Paul J. Batura’s Gadzooks! The Highly Practical Life and Leadership Principles of Dr. James Dobson. Sightseers who time their visits just right might glimpse Dobson in his first-floor radio studio, chatting amiably with a guest, or observe him in his second-floor television studio, hair combed and tie straight, waiting for a link-up to a network program.
For security reasons, employees are forbidden from disclosing where “Doctor D.” actually works, but Paul Batura lovingly describes his boss’s suite: Dobson’s west-facing windows offer a commanding view of Pikes Peak and the Air Force Academy. Adjoining his office is a study and library, filled with a long wooden table and chairs, and a door leading to his wife’s office and a small kitchen. Dobson’s bookshelves contain more than three dozen Bibles and a series of books written by Winston Churchill. A large portrait of Churchill hangs over one of the two couches, and scattered about are other mementos of Great Britain’s wartime savior. One of Churchill’s famous sayings, ”We will never, never, never, never, never give up,” could well be Dobson’s own.
Cyberspace is the newest tool in the ministry’s long-running culture war. During President Carter’s administration, Dobson orchestrated a letter-writing campaign to wrangle a seat on a White House blue-ribbon panel. With the Internet, Dobson has learned he can greatly amplify his message and more easily achieve his goals. Focus has begun dumping millions of donor dollars into its Internet operations. For the fiscal year 2004 to 2005, the nonprofit spent approximately $7.4 million for Internet content and maintenance, an increase of nearly $2 million over the previous year.
The strategy sessions, the campaign planning, take place in private offices that are not on the tour. Dobson uses all the parts of his multimedia machine to get his message out: Radio, television, newsletters, magazines, faxes, and e-mails, which ricochet from website to website, and eventually percolate up to the mainstream media, until, it seems, nothing is more important in America than abortion, tyrannical judges, sexual abstinence, the morning-after pill, condoms, stem cell research, school prayer, billionaire George Soros, The Da Vinci Code, the Krispy Kreme in Indiana that wouldn’t give a free doughnut to the kid who got an “A” in Bible class, or thwarting domestic partnership referendums and attempts to legalize same-sex marriage.
The ministry’s software gurus have constructed a sophisticated website—www.family.org—which peels open like the leaves of an artichoke to articles, books, radio shows, and position papers. There are links to Focus’ corporate outreach programs; links to its political arm; links to affiliates in other states; links to international offices; links for potential donors; and links to sub-ministries aimed at children, teens, families, adults, pregnant women, Spanish-speaking constituents, and homosexuals who want to become heterosexual.
The machinery is exquisitely synchronized and efficient. Take the proposed federal marriage amendment, which recently failed to muster the two-thirds vote in the U.S. Senate that would take it one step closer to becoming enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. Day after day, the ministry flooded the airwaves and Internet with news releases and faxes. The message ping-ponged through the Internet, picking up authority and urgency as it bounced from the websites of Dobson’s allies. (Tony Perkins and the Family Research Council, which was once part of Focus, were almost as enthusiastic as Dobson’s outfit in producing ads and e-mail campaigns.) By the time the issue reached the talking heads, it had developed “legs.” Dobson asked his listeners to contact their elected officials and local media, supplying them with phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and sample letters that would be faxed directly into the in-boxes of the politicians. His Christian soldiers filled in the blanks and sent off the letters. The politicians in Washington found themselves neck deep in ‘constituent’ mail. President Bush endorsed the idea of adding a marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Dobson’s followers have been known to overwhelm switchboards on Capitol Hill and clog the computers of whoever happens to be the target of the day. In an e-mail to Michael Huttner, whose Denver organization, ProgressNow.org, has been critical of Dobson’s agenda, one of Dobson’s listeners wrote, “YOUR’E GOING TO BE SHIT PIE … when Jimmy Dobson finishes with you.”
Waging a culture war requires money and strategy. In the spring of 2004, Dobson took a rib from his ministry and fashioned it into an organization called Focus on the Family Action. During the 2004 election season, Focus Action contributed financially to the successful campaigns of several Senate candidates with socially conservative views, staged mass rallies in various states, fired off a blitzkrieg of mail and e-mail, sponsored an initiative designed to get conservative voters to the polls, and helped defeat Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, replacing him with John Thune, a National Rifle Association favorite and former lobbyist. The defeat of Daschle, who once had his phone number changed after being bombarded with Focus callers, was especially gratifying to Dobson, who was incensed at Daschle’s efforts to block President Bush’s judicial nominees.
One of Focus Action’s most successful get-out-the vote strategies in 2004 targeted the marriage issue. Shortly before the presidential election, Dobson and other members of the Arlington Group, a coalition of conservatives and evangelical Christians, hatched a plan to put defense-of-marriage amendments on the ballot in 11 states. (Eventually 13 states had it on their ballots.) Chaired by Dobson himself, the Arlington Group is an exclusive, invitation-only club that hosts closed meetings that are off limits to the media and the public. The members are a veritable Who’s Who of the political and religious Right: Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation, Stuart Epperson of Salem Communications Corporation, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, the Rev. Don Wildmon of the American Family Association, and Ted Haggard of Colorado Springs’ New Life Church and president of the National Association of Evangelicals. “Early on,” Paul Weyrich writes on his website, “the group agreed to work on the marriage issue. Indeed the effort to put marriage on the ballot in eleven states emanated from the Arlington Group. And the resources to go full-tilt in Ohio were raised from participants in the group.”
The Institute on Money in State Politics, a nonpartisan organization that tracks money in state campaigns, reported that members of the Arlington Group poured a total of nearly $2 million into the states with marriage amendments on the ballot, including roughly $1.2 million in Ohio, a battleground state that was key to Bush’s 2004 victory. Focus Action, the institute wrote, contributed $255,600 in cash or in-kind services and helped organize the ballot committees. Dobson’s sidekick, Tom Minnery, one of the ministry’s vice presidents, was nearly always listed as an officer on Focus on the Family’s marriage amendment committees.
The Family Research Council, formerly part of Focus, poured $376,400 into committees in Michigan. Elsa Prince Broekhuizen, a board member of both Focus and the Family Research Council, was listed as one of the top 10 individual donors, contributing $75,000 to the Michigan marriage campaign. (Elsa and her first husband, Edgar Prince, who owned a Michigan auto parts manufacturing company, had donated $5 million to help construct Focus’ Welcome Center.) Gay and lesbian groups dumped an almost equal amount of money into the campaigns, but voters approved the marriage measures by a three-to-one margin in some cases. What’s more, the gay issue galvanized the Republican base and, to hear Dobson tell it, gave Bush a second term in the White House. “I am among those who believe the President would not have won re-election,” Dobson said, “if it had not been for the power of this issue to drive conservative voters to the polls.”
The Arlington Group and Focus Action kept up the fight in 2005. In Kansas, Focus on the Family gave $23,000 for a marriage amendment that was on the ballot and passed with 70 percent of the voters. (The Arlington Group was active in Texas, where a similar measure was approved.)
By the spring of this year, Dobson was using Focus Action as a club to get Samuel Alito confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court. According to Tom Minnery, a “pro-Alito coalition” asked Focus Action to launch a “pre-emptive media campaign.” The political arm was only too happy to oblige and developed a “massive but carefully crafted campaign.” Focus Action took out ads in major newspapers and on radio stations. “But we didn’t stop there,” writes Tom Minnery. “We also alerted hundreds of thousands of people by e-mail and hundreds of thousands more by phone.” Focus also mustered its statewide affiliates for grassroots work. In Nebraska and South Dakota, those affiliates, in turn, enlisted hundreds of people to make phone calls to their elected reps. And in Arkansas, Focus’ state affiliate funded a 36-city, 5,000-mile tour of Arkansas in which supporters called for the confirmation of Alito.
The Democrats were flattened. Among the first to wave the white flag were several Democratic senators from red states whom Focus had threatened with destruction this November. The targeted senators included Kent Conrad of North Dakota; Robert Byrd of West Virginia; Bill Nelson of Florida; Ben Nelson of Nebraska; Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico; and Mark Dayton of Minnesota. Senator Conrad surrendered. Senator Nelson of Nebraska caved next, actually calling Focus to discuss the Alito nomination. “He then made an early announcement—against the express admonition of his Democratic leader, Harry Reid—that he would be voting in favor of Judge Alito,” an exultant Minnery wrote. Senator Byrd also hoisted the white flag, announcing on the floor of the Senate he had received “reams of mail” from his constituents. “Senator Byrd is being responsive,” Minnery said. “I appreciate that about him, because he has not always been responsive. But here again, it’s the people in the home states who have spoken loudly, who are paying attention, who know what’s going on and have taken the time to call the senator. That is what has changed his mind.”
Democratic Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota, who was not on the original hit list also capitulated, and Dobson’s pleased field marshal, Minnery, said the decision was no doubt spurred by all the messages from “average people.” He continued, “That, undoubtedly, is what changed Tim Johnson’s mind in South Dakota. He knows that before long he’s going to face the voters. And he doesn’t want to happen to him what happened to his former colleague, Sen. Tom Daschle, who stood against marriage, who stood against conservative federal judges and now has a different address after having been defeated by those same voters last year.” Of the six targeted senators, New Mexico’s Jeff Bingaman, Florida’s Bill Nelson, and Mark Dayton of Minnesota voted against Alito. The newly appointed Supreme Court Justice wrote Dobson a thank-you note.
James Dobson almost certainly knows the verse from Matthew 22:21 by heart: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Several liberal nonprofits, including Michael Huttner’s Denver-based ProgressNow.org, have filed complaints alleging that Dobson is violating Caesar’s rules, or rather, the Internal Revenue Service’s regulations.
Focus on the Family, which rakes in about $140 million a year, is classified by the IRS as a tax-exempt organization, or 501(c)(3). That means it pays no federal income taxes, no state income taxes, no property taxes. (A county official says Focus’ property tax bill for last year alone would have amounted to $1.1 million.) Donors can also deduct contributions from their own income taxes. This can be a terrific tax break for especially generous supporters, such as the unidentified benefactor disclosed on Focus’ most recent tax return who gave the ministry approximately $2.9 million.
In exchange for these tax breaks, Focus must comply with IRS rules. One of those rules states that 501(c)(3)s are “absolutely prohibited” from directly or indirectly participating in political campaigns for elective offices. This means that they can’t contribute financially to campaigns, nor are they allowed to make public statements for or against a candidate. However, the IRS does allow nonprofits like Focus to influence the nomination and confirmation process of judicial nominees, including those headed for the U.S. Supreme Court, as long as these efforts don’t make up a “substantial part” of the ministry’s activities.
Focus Action is classified as a 501(c)(4). Like its mother organization, it also has tax-exempt status and pays no federal or state income taxes, and no property taxes. Unlike with the parent, Focus Action donors cannot deduct their contributions from their own income taxes. In exchange, though, Focus Action has more freedom to engage in politics. While organizations like Focus Action can’t participate indirectly or directly in races for elective offices, the rules allow these tax-exempt entities to engage “in some political activities, so long as that is not its primary activity.” As far as judicial nominees, 501(c)(4)s can engage in “unlimited lobbying.” Focus Action describes itself as a “nondenominational, religious, social welfare organization whose express purpose is to spread and propagate the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to provide an educational service to parents and others who are concerned with healthy family living…”
For the 18-month period from April 2, 2004, through Sept. 30, 2005, Focus Action had a total of nearly $38.5 million in gross revenues. Approximately $22.4 million came from Focus itself as reimbursement for the use of “shared employees,” who, according to tax filings, were engaged in “educational activities.” (Focus Action also sent some of the money the other way, returning to its parent roughly $5.9 million for the use of facilities, equipment, and communication channels.)
Were Focus Action employees spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ and providing educational services to parents, or producing political messages to pressure uncooperative politicians? (James Dobson declined to be interviewed for this two-part series, and written questions that 5280 sent to Focus on the Family went unanswered.) What is clear from Focus on the Family and Focus Action filings is that these entities have spent a substantial amount of money on legal fees—a total of approximately $1 million in the last fiscal year. Undoubtedly, these tax attorneys want to make sure the two entities are following IRS guidelines, including the cardinal rule that funds cannot be commingled.
Regardless of the math, Huttner believes that Dobson’s endorsements of political candidates raises questions about whether Focus has violated its tax-exempt status. Although Dobson prefaces his endorsements by saying that he’s speaking as an individual, Huttner says the disclaimer is disingenuous because Dobson is invariably identified in news stories as the head of Focus. “What James Dobson did,” Huttner says, “is he would go around the country and say, ‘I am here at this rally to endorse this candidate. Let me just tell you, while I’m making this speech, I’m doing this as a private individual.’ And of course the next day the papers always reported that James Dobson, the president of Focus on the Family, endorsed so and so. What we want to know is who set up these meetings? Who paid for the airplane flights to go visit these candidates? Who paid for the hotel room? It’s hard for me to imagine that James Dobson called from his home telephone to arrange all the travel and security and airline flights. If he did, great. My thought is, he may have very well used or misused his FOF staff to help schedule and organize these political endorsements.”
Grover Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform, and himself a powerful force within the GOP, has been an ally of Dobson’s. Listening to Norquist talk about Dobson’s influence, one gets a sense of how difficult it is to separate Dobson from Focus on the Family, and Focus on the Family from Focus Action, and, for that matter, all of it from the GOP: “As someone who’s interested in trends, the most important effect he has on politics is not that every once in a while he’ll endorse candidates, although I understand he doesn’t do a lot of that, but he has done some in the past. But the fact is that people who get married and stay married and have kids vote Republican. For every intact family he’s helped create, promote, or prolong, he’s actually created more small “c” conservatives. So the private is public. The personal is political.… If a baseball player said, ‘Write your congressman,’ I’m not sure if people would listen. The level of trust that he has and respect people have for him over time gives him a fairly powerful voice.”
So where does Caesar end and God begin?
Focus on the Family has provided Dobson and his family with a comfortable lifestyle. Dobson has become a wealthy man, primarily through the millions of books that he’s sold. He lives well, although not lavishly, and takes ski trips with his family and occasionally goes abroad. In Colorado Springs, he owns two lovely pieces of real estate: a town home with a market value of roughly $663,000 in Kissing Camels Estates, a gated community that overlooks the spectacular Garden of the Gods, and a $590,000 house that sits on an acre lot within walking distance of the Broadmoor, a five-star resort and hotel.
Despite his wealth and youthful appearance, Dobson has had more than his share of physical ailments, including a heart attack, stroke, and prostate cancer. Eliminating burgers, pizza, doughnuts, and Baskin-Robbins from his diet has slimmed his waistline, improved his overall health, and allowed him to continue working at what employees say is a torrid pace. Proud of his huge appetite for work, Dobson exchanged his briefcase for a box to carry home his nightly paperwork, and later exchanged that for a suitcase on wheels.
Some of his workaholic tendencies have apparently rubbed off on family members, who have also become writers and public speakers. His wife, Shirley, once content to be a stay-at-home mom, has authored or co-authored a number of books. She also heads the National Day of Prayer, which last year was held in the East Room of the White House with George W. and Laura in attendance. Their daughter, Danae, fortyish and unmarried, according to the Dobson biography published last year, has written 22 books, the majority of them aimed at children. Danae’s publishers have included Tyndale House, a company that has also published some of her father’s bestsellers.
Following most closely in Dobson’s footsteps is his son, Ryan, now in his mid-30s, who has established his own nonprofit called KOR Ministries (KOR is Ryan’s hipster spelling of “core.”) An avid surfer and skateboarder, Ryan has been known to fly to Costa Rica to catch a good wave. He’s also divorced, a subject that apparently was taboo around Focus for a while. Recently remarried, Ryan himself has become a sought-after public speaker and is the co-author of three slim volumes about God, which are filled with lots of “dudes” and “cools” and packaged between covers with Gothic designs. (Responding to an e-mailed question about Ryan’s divorce, a KOR Ministries staffer wrote that Ryan didn’t want to break up with his first wife, but was forced to accept the divorce under state law. “While the details of this sad chapter are highly personal to Ryan and his former wife, suffice it to say that the biblical grounds that have permitted him to remarry are consistent with the scriptural understanding of abandonment.”) On a recent podcast, Ryan announced that he and his second wife, Laura, had moved back to Colorado Springs, and that Laura was pregnant. “My parents are doing back flips,” he told his listeners.
Dobson has never drawn a salary from Focus. He derives his income from royalties on books sold through venues such as Barnes & Noble, The Tattered Cover, or Amazon.com. Dobson waives the royalties on any books sold through the ministry’s bookstore or website, which can mean hundreds of thousands of dollars of income for the nonprofit and a hefty tax write-off for Dobson. Focus’ radio, television, and Internet operations act as a huge publicity machine for Dobson’s writings, and Dobson’s personal corporation, James Dobson Inc., pays $5,000 a month to the ministry.
The ministry is also a customer of books written by Dobson and his family. In the last three fiscal years, Focus purchased roughly $1.9 million worth of “books, tapes, etc.” produced by Dobson, Shirley, Danae, and Ryan. (The bulk of the money, approximately $1.6 million, went for books written by Dobson himself.) Similarly, the ministry buys books written by board members and employees. Roughly $1.6 million worth of tapes, CDs, and books written by employees or board members have been purchased in the last three years. Although the Dobsons and Focus employees waive royalties and don’t benefit directly from these purchases, their publishers do make money, which could affect how much money the author will get in future book deals.
Dobson’s creative energy is still high. He’s cranking out new books and revising old ones. In a recent interview with a Colorado Springs reporter, he once again pointed out that none of the Focus buildings is named after him. The ministry isn’t about “empire building,” he said. “The moment it becomes a legacy or a monument to me personally, it becomes ego-driven and worthless.”
Yet empire-building seems to be what Dobson and his nonprofit are doing. Several years ago, the ministry’s board and its top executives began grappling with the question of a successor for James Dobson. In 2005, Jim Daly, who joined the ministry in 1989, was chosen to become the permanent president and CEO of Focus, solving one half of the successor problem. But the ministry’s leaders could find no one who could take James Dobson’s place as the public persona of the ministry. Then they hit upon a daring idea: Why not create a “virtual” James Dobson who could continue as the public face of the ministry long after the flesh-and-blood man was gone?
Scripture has a timeless quality, and Focus executives felt that with a little buffing and polishing, Dobson’s homespun advice could be equally enduring. After all, the underpinnings of Dobson’s war come from his interpretations of the Good Book. Old cassettes and videotapes are being re-edited or redone, and Doctor D. is busy rewriting or updating various passages of his most popular books. “I’ve addressed just about everything relative to the family at this point. I’d hate to see it go the way of all flesh,” he told biographer Dale Buss. With the spirit and words of Dobson forever preserved, perhaps he could remain the ghost in his Holy War machine.
Eileen Welsome’s book, The General and the Jaguar: Pershing’s Hunt for Pancho Villa, was published this June.