I have been a critic of James Dobson for a long time. I hit him pretty hard in my book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. I am no fan of his Christian nationalism, his culture-warrior approach to public life, or his court evangelicalism. My wife and I raised two strong and independent daughters who both describe themselves as feminists in the best sense of the word. Unlike millions of our fellow evangelicals, we did not turn to Dobson for advice on how to raise them. On marriage, we are not complementarians, as Dobson suggests we should be.
You can read my posts about James Dobson here. Almost all of them are critical.
But history is complicated. And Dobson’s influence is much more complex than the story that those of us who want to demonize him often tell.
Back in the early 1980s my father, a general contractor, son of Italian immigrants, and former Marine, converted to evangelical Christianity. My entire family–myself included–soon followed him out of our white ethnic Catholicism and into a non-denominational Bible church. My family’s conversion experience changed the direction of my family’s life. My parents, my brothers, and my sister would be quick to agree with this statement. Those who knew and continue to know our family would say the same thing. I am sure extended family members would also agree. My conversion changed the direction of my life. As I have written elsewhere, I became an academic historian and a better and more thoughtful person because of, not in spite of, my born-again experience.
I think it’s fair to say that my father raised his children, especially his boys (my sister came later), with an iron fist. He was tough on us. He was a stern disciplinarian who could get angry easily. He used corporal punishment on us, but I never thought he was abusive. When he spanked us, we usually deserved it. My Dad is now 77-years-old and I am sure he would agree with everything I just wrote. He was a good Dad, but we also feared him.
When my Dad converted (I was in high school), his life changed. Someone in our new church suggested that he read books by James Dobson. My Dad was never much of a reader, but I remember Dobson’s books sitting next to his chair in our family room. Since my Dad spent a lot of time during the day in his pick-up truck, he would listen to Dobson’s Focus on the Family programs as he drove between jobs. James Dobson helped my Dad become a better father. Though I have never talked about this with my mother, I think she would say that he became a much better husband as well. Our home became more loving, more peaceful, and more God-honoring. We had a long way to go, but we were on the right track.
The point is this: My Dad did not need James Dobson to teach him how to be a masculine, authoritarian, patriarch. He already knew how to do this and he was pretty good at it. Dobson softened him. He raised my younger sister very differently, partly as a result of Dobson’s advice. He learned to love my Mom better because James Dobson spoke into his life through his books and his radio show.
I am sure there are thousands of stories like my Dad’s. Who will tell these stories? Some might say Dobson taught evangelicals how to be patriarchal jerks who represent everything that is wrong with American evangelicalism. And perhaps there is some truth to such a diagnosis. But my mother, my sister, my brothers, and I have never seen it that way.
History is complex.