The Dobson way
An evangelical leader steps squarely into the political ring
COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. --The biggest portrait in the office of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson--the best-known leader among America's 50 million-strong evangelical Christians--isn't of Jesus Christ. It's of Winston Churchill. "Churchill knew in '41 he could never beat Germany," says Dobson, rising to pull a biography of the master statesman from the bookshelf. "So his hope was to help the British people hang on until the Americans came." Dobson, helmsman of a multimedia empire--his radio show reaches nearly 2 million listeners daily and the volume of constituent mail to his organization requires a separate ZIP code--says it's a role he relates to. "For the last 20 years, all the centers of power have been influenced by a different worldview than what we share as evangelical Christians," he says, mentioning Congress, the judiciary, universities, and Hollywood as examples. "Our strategy has been to let people who see things the way we do know what's at stake and encourage them to hang on until change occurs."
For Dobson, his followers, and many American evangelicals--who made up nearly a quarter of the electorate last Election Day and who voted for President Bush by a factor of almost 4 to 1--change might finally be in the offing. Next week brings the second inauguration of the most religious evangelical president in modern history; he is expected to fill a string of Supreme Court vacancies with strongly conservative voices. And a handful of newly elected senators allied with the evangelical movement have already taken their seats on Capitol Hill.
Evangelicals haven't stood as much chance of molding Washington since they began organizing politically in the wake of Roe v. Wade. "This kind of hope was present after the 2000 election," recalls David Barton, who advised the Republicans on evangelical outreach for the election. "But it's grown from hope to confidence that something will change. It's the strongest emotion of expectation I've seen in decades." Those expectations include new curbs on abortion, a renewed push for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and a more conservative federal judiciary, including the Supreme Court.
And yet, the evangelicals' conservative political leadership is far from euphoric, recalling past disappointment on the heels of Republican victories. "In the past, evangelicals have been, if not shafted by the [Republican] party, then certainly not rewarded," says Georgetown University Prof. Clyde Wilcox, who notes that evangelicals turned out for Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush's first White House run but saw little movement on social issues. "What's different this time is a really concerted effort to trumpet their role in order to get credit and domestic policy."
Unrivaled. Dobson, perhaps more than anyone, will be most credible in leveraging evangelical power at the voting booth. That's partly because, politics aside, he's unrivaled as an evangelical leader. "Given Billy Graham's advanced age," says Richard Land, president of the 16 million-strong Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, "it's James Dobson who's stepped in to fill the void." Unlike Graham, though, Dobson's not a preacher. Over the past 35 years, Dobson, a child psychologist, has published upwards of two dozen books on child rearing and maintaining relationships (including a handful of runaway bestsellers), has hosted a daily radio show carried by 2,000 U.S. stations, and has helped Focus assemble an active mailing list of 2.5 million names. But stepping so squarely into the political ring threatens to alienate some of Dobson's mostly apolitical fans--not to mention Republicans who see the GOP's future as a "big tent."