It used to be common for ministers to neglect their wives (ministers used to be mostly men in most denominations) and children while they were out doing “the Lord’s work.” James Dobson taught a generation of evangelical men that attending to the need of their wives and children was the Lord’s work, their first responsibility.
Dobson was a professor of Pediatrics at the medical school at USC before he began his career as an author and lecturer, and eventually founder and head of Focus on the Family ministries. His first book Dare to Discipline came out in 1970. In it he advocated gentle but firm and consistent discipline in raising children. He taught a generation of evangelicals the importance of nurturing self esteem in children. He taught that the goal of raising children is to prepare them to be independent and to make responsible decisions.
When the song “Cats in the Cradle” came out, Dr. Dobson heartily endorsed it. That song and Dr. Dobon’s teachings taught us to take time to be involved in our children’s lives–or at least to feel guilty when we neglected to do so.
One of Dobson’s other popular books was What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women. In it he encouraged men to be responsible, considerate, thoughtful, and romantic. In addition to Dobson’s books, Focus on the Family ministries has produced video series, magazines, conferences, and a high quality talk-show format radio program.
Dr. Dobson bristles when he is referred to in the media as Rev. Dobson. Although he speaks in churches, he is not ordained and has no formal theological training. That–the lack of theological training–is one thing Dobson has in common with Oprah Winfrey, and also with a man he has recently criticized, senator Barack Obama.
Faith and theology are two different things. Faith means trusting in God, keeping one’s commitment, being confident in the ultimate triumph of God’s will, continually depending on the mercy of God in awareness of one’s shortcomings. Theology is the systematic articulation of the content and meaning of one’s faith. One may have a strong faith and a weak theology. I assume that Dr. Dobson and senator Obama each have a strong faith.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back in the 1970s Dobson and the directors of Focus on the Family decided that teaching in the churches and on the airwaves was not enough. The family was under attack from powerful cultural forces, so Dobson decided to fight back and to enter the cultural wars. He became associated with other leaders in the religious right, Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy (both of whom have lately gone to their eternal rewards) along with others.
Dobson has been a staunch opponent of pornography, “radical feminism,” abortion, and “the radical homosexual agenda.” Dobson also sees the military as modeling positive family values and considers a strong national defense to be a pro-family issue. Likewise, he sees keeping taxes low, keeping business free of onerous regulations, and debunking the “myth” of global warming as pro-family issues. Dobson has always been surrounded by successful professionals: university and professional coaches, colonels, business executives, and physicians.
Barack Obama got his experience in grass roots organizing with a different clientèle. Naturally, his experience has led him to see different sides of the problems facing American families.
The alliance between Dobson and other conservative evangelicals helped elect George W. Bush president twice. To be precise, I might say their votes got him close enough to allow the election to be decided by the courts–but regardless, Bush’s policies and Dobson’s politics mirror each other perfectly.
Senator McCain has not been conservative enough for Dobson, so he announced he might sit this election out–at least as far as the presidential vote. Voting for a democrat was out of the question. Senator Obama has been appealing to people of faith and to moderate conservatives. The right wing doesn’t believe him, doesn’t trust him.
Obama says faith will have a role in his presidency, but that doesn’t mean the imposition of any particular religious interpretation on the nation. He illustrated by referring to laws in the book of Leviticus that no one follows today. He was not ridiculing Scripture but pointing to the difficulties in interpretation and the need for a historical awareness. On the historical matter, he was right. The commandments in the book of Leviticus were given to Israel as part of God’s covenant with them and as part of their law while living in the Land of Israel.
The commandments never were given to Gentiles or Christians as such. One can find expressions of universal principles in these laws, such as “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But one also finds laws against blending two kinds of fabric in a single garment, for example. An individual is free to follow his or her conscience in the choice of fabrics, even free to meditate on the spiritual meaning–for example, one’s heart should not contain a mixture of contradictory motives–but it would be divisive to try to make it the law of the land.
I don’t see Obama’s remarks as being a “fruitcake interpretation.” I see his comments as being in line with sound principles of biblical interpretation and the American heritage of freedom of conscience, speech, and religion.
C. S. Lewis, who was an expert on literature, once remarked that when Sigmund Freud ventured into literary criticism he was “quite ignorant.” Lewis said he should have stuck to what he knew best, curing neurotics. Maybe it’s time for Dr. Dobson to get back to doing what he knows best: teaching parents how to raise children with self esteem and teaching husbands and wives how to understand each other. Maybe it’s time for him to retire from politics.