Some Thoughts on James Dobson

Dad

My grandparents’ house in Montville (Taylortown), New Jersey, 1972.  My Dad is on the left.  I am standing by the car in the back.  The woman is my mother’s cousin.

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.

7 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on James Dobson

  1. I sincerely appreciate this post John. I was raised by the Dobson playbook. When I reached an appropriate age, and in lieu of “the talk,” I was handed Dobson’s “Preparing for Adolescence,” which was followed by a trip away with my dad. We actually wrote a letter about it to the editor of Focus on the Family magazine in the early 80s which they published. Both my Messiah education and life experience led me to greatly question both Dobson’s politics and theology. In my own teaching of popular culture to high school kids, I use his publication Plugged In as an undesirable example of how people of faith should respond to film. I am very much not raising my own kids the same way as i was raised. I am, however, still appreciative of him, particularly in certain aspects of my marriage. Although my wife and I are very much equal partners, I never considered marrying anyone whom I did not love, and with whom I did not want to spend my life. In other words, I sincerely believe he helped lay a solid foundation for my marriage. I appreciate the opportunity to reflect on this, put differences aside, and remember my own historical training which taught me that people and history are indeed complex.

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  2. For most of the roughly twenty years we raised our six children a staple was “Adventures in Odyssey” the radio drama/comedy produced by Focus on the Family. Dobson was absolutely essential in getting that going and sticking with it.
    It still is being produced. The faith portrayed in those drama was not judgmental. It often struck me that it was a lot more palpable and grace based than Dobson was becoming and became. My kids weren’t nerds, and they enjoyed these shows. When we used to lose electric power, a frequent occurrence on our farm, we often entertained one another with our own “Odyssey” trivia contests.
    That show was one really good thing that Dobson was behind in my opinion.

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  3. I liked the old photograph! It reminds me of an old Polaroid type from that period.

    As far as James Dobson, I never listened much to his broadcast or read his books but know that a lot of good flowed from his ministry. In one particular church we attended, a struggling wife with an indolent, shiftless husband contacted Focus on the Family and received valuable assistance. The local church would have helped her and the children, but at the time she was too embarrassed to share her problems with those who knew her well. Dobson’s ministry afforded her the anonymity she needed at the time.

    I have certain disagreements with Dr. Dobson and they are far different than those of .Dr. Fea, yet with that in mind Proverbs 14:4 is applicable here. “Where no oxen are, the crib is clean, but much increase is by the strength of the ox.”

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  4. One time many years ago I heard him talking about the increase in domestic violence arrests. He attributed it to liberal college professors, as if scholars are violent wife beaters. Of course, the real reason is that in generations past it was legal to beat one’s wife.

    It exemplifies though how Dobson was a leader in demonizing intellectual/liberal thought, which is why I think few people have done more harm to the country than him.

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  5. It sounds like you agree that it’s possible for a minister to do a little good while also doing a lot of harm. I’m reminded of all those evangelical leaders caught up in sex scandals with their congregants–they did a good job most of the time with the generic congregation…. it’s just those few times they went astray with a handful of people that really harmed individuals.

    I heard a lot of Focus on the Family stuff on the radio and in our house growing up. All I remember Dobson doing for us was confirming the conservative theological biases my parents wanted to believe while steering us quietly towards the Republican party.

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  6. I need to say an amen on that. We did turn to Dobson early on, but my wife and I were both careful to review statements from any evangelical leader. He was a softening influence on the already harsh.

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