Interpreting the relevance of the Religious Right
Posted by James McPherson on June 25, 2008
Focus on the Family founder James Dobson this week accused Barack Obama of willfully distorting the Bible and of having a “fruitcake interpretation” of the U.S. Constitution. It became the day’s lead political story for several media organizations. My question–a question I ask myself regularly when I see media coverage choices–why?
Of course I can’t imagine why a supposed audience of 220 million daily worldwide radio listeners pay any attention to Dobson (apparently prompting Christianity Today to call him “the most influential evangelical leader in America”), but they do. Many, it seems, hope he can tell them how to raise their kids. Dobson has a Ph.D. in child development and became famous primarily because of his books and “pro-family” organization. Like most television evangelists, he is at least as good at promoting himself as promoting the Lord. Dobson’s first bestseller was Dare to Discipline, and he became popular largely because he was more pro-discipline than most other family experts of the 1970s. He favors corporal punishment, but only when administered by parents who don’t want to do it but know they must for the greater good. Consider him the neocon of child development.
Dobson has no apparent education or experience in policy making, but because he is perceived to have political influence–mostly because of his political action committee, the Family Research Council–politicians and the media also care what he says. Obama quickly responded, as did his national director of religious affairs (I wonder if Ronald Reagan felt compelled to have one of those), saying Obama was “committed to reaching out to people of faith and standing up for American families.”
Because families is the code word that shows you care, of course. All the best religious conservatives know it. As I’ve written elsewhere:
Conservative Christian organizations also devote much of their energy to attacking the “liberal media,” though for those organizations “liberal” usually refers not to a political view but to the acceptance or promotion of activities deemed antibiblical and morally repugnant such as homosexuality, premarital sex, pornography, drug use, abortion, or violence. Those groups focus mainly on entertainment but sometimes include the news media (which, as discussed, have focused increasingly on entertainment themselves). Much of the focus for Christian groups centers on “protecting the traditional family,” despite the fact that, as one religion professor points out, “this ‘remembered family’ is a fairly recent development, one that came about with the industrialization and concomitant urbanization of America. . . . Previously, women and men had been much more co-workers in the unified task of maintaining a home.” Examples of the profamily emphasis include James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s American Family Coalition, and Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association, which calls itself “America’s largest pro-family action site.” Dobson also founded a think tank/lobbying organization called the Family Research Council, which has editorialized in favor of eliminating government funding of PBS, in part because viewers were “fed up with the liberal bias.” Morality in Media, a religious media watchdog that boasts the slogan “Promoting a Decent Society Through Law,” has accused 60 Minutes and the New York Times of promoting pornography. More recently, with the help of a one-million-dollar Templeton Foundation grant, the Media Research Council spawned the Culture and Media Institute to “focus on the media’s relentless assault on faith, traditional values and personal responsibility.”
Dobson also has expressed dissatisfaction with John McCain, saying he would not vote for him, despite McCain’s efforts to reach out to the religious conservatives that he once unfortunately called (along with religious extremists on the left) “agents of intolerance.” In that 2004 speech, though, he did compliment Dobson, who “has devoted his life to rebuilding America’s families.” (He also managed to use the word “friends” nine times; he seems to use that word more than anyone who isn’t a salesman or a Quaker.)
Apparently both Obama and McCain have expressed a willingness if not a desire to meet with Dobson, but the good doctor will only do so on his own terms, as noted in recent reports. “McCain also has not met with Dobson. A McCain campaign staffer offered Dobson a meeting with McCain recently in Denver … Dobson declined because he prefers that candidates visit the Focus on the Family campus to learn more about the organization.”
This might be the perfect time for both candidates to ignore the Religious Right and stop giving it undue influence. After all, religious conservatives are themselves split by this election. As I noted in the same book mentioned above:
In 2007 prominent social conservatives split their endorsements for a 2008 Republican presidential nominee. Pat Robertson endorsed former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who previously had supported gay rights and abortion rights. Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Moral Majority and the Heritage Foundation, endorsed former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who also had once supported abortion rights and whose Mormon religion was considered a cult by some conservative Christians. Bob Jones III also endorsed Romney. After dropping his own short-lived presidential bid, conservative Kansas Senator Sam Brownback endorsed fellow senator John McCain. The National Right to Life Committee endorsed former Senator and “Law and Order” television actor Fred Thompson.
Another indication that this may be a good time to start ignoring the extremists on either side of religious arguments is a just-released survey of more than 35,000 Americans. It shows that most Americans are both religious and fairly moderate in their religious views. “Most Americans have a non-dogmatic approach to faith,” the Pew Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life reported. “A majority of those who are affiliated with a religion, for instance, do not believe their religion is the only way to salvation. And almost the same number believes that there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their religion.”
Of course, James Dobson would probably say most of those folks were willfully distorting the Bible with fruitcake interpretations.
(Followup notes: The Huffington Post’s Frank Schaeffer suggests that “Dr. Dobson has just handed Obama victory,” while this site offers a side-by-side comparison of what Obama actually said versus what Dobson claims he said.)