Hilde Løvdal Stephens is Visiting Associate Professor of English at the University of Southeastern Norway. In her new book, Family Matters: James Dobson and Focus on the Family’s Crusade for the Christian Home, Stephens traces the history and influence of Dobson’s famous organization from the early 1980s to the present, with attention to all of its implications for gender, race, culture, and politics, among other areas.
ECM: Who’s James Dobson, and why is he so focused on the family?
HLS: James Dobson is a family expert, author, radio personality, and the founder of Focus on the Family (1977), Family Talk (2010), and a number of other ministries that deal with family matters. At the height of this career, Dobson presided over a massive ministry that reached millions of families. He also exerted more indirect influence over the broader evangelical movement, serving as a promoter and gatekeeper of evangelical ideas.
Dobson was one of many concerned with the family in the aftermath of the 1960s, but his academic background gave him extra pause when he saw what was happening. A son of Nazarene preachers, Dobson decided not to pursue the ministerial track and gained a PhD in child development from the University of Southern California instead. He worked in academia a few years, working on children with intellectual developmental issues as well as a marital counselor.
ECM: Officially, conservative evangelicals’ preoccupation with sexuality stems from their belief that sex is the glue that binds heterosexual marriages, which create families, which form the building blocks of society. Do you accept that account, or do you think there is something else at work?
HLS: That is very much a part of the rationale, although what came first is a matter of the chicken or the egg. The two are closely tied together. I find myself in agreement with much of what Sara Moslener writes in her book Virgin Nation, which chronicles the longer history of such beliefs in America.
Dobson used theorists from earlier eras when conservatives had voiced concern over lax sexual mores and gender roles in flux. Dobson seems to have been especially enamored with the work by J.D. Unwin (1895–1936), a British anthropologist. Unwin’s book Sex and Culture proposed that controlling sex was the organizing principle that kept civilized societies together. Unwin’s theories started to circulate among Southern California conservatives after one of his addresses was republished by a SoCal activist concerned about the 1960s sexual revolution.
But even though such ideas have been common in American history, there are also historically specific considerations. In Dobson’s case, he repeatedly turned to this kind of rhetoric in way that borrowed rhetoric of sex and civilization common in the Cold War context as described by Elaine Tyler May. At times, Dobson uses the very words of the Cold War era, comparing sex to the hydrogen bomb and warning of the devastating effects sex outside heterosexual marriage can have on society.
But then again, you cannot remove any conversation of sex and civilization in America without considering race. In the 1970s, Dobson was trained by Paul Popenoe, a pioneer in the eugenicist marital counseling movement who urged white middle class people to marry, stay married, and have children not just for the sake of personal happiness but also to preserve Western civilization.
ECM: Critics saw Dobson’s endorsement of gender complementarity as a patriarchal effort to control and dominate women. On the contrary, he claimed to stand in defense of women. Who persuades you?
HLS: I don’t think the story is about Dobson controlling and duping women into certain roles. Many conservative women undoubtedly saw their way of life as under threat from the feminist movement as well as the changing economic reality of American families. Instead, it is more useful to see the support of gender complementarianism as an issue tied in with broader issues important to conservatives, such as the role of the state when it comes to child-care. Moreover, it’s important to remember that Dobson was acutely aware of how much he relied on keeping his audience happy.
I think it’s underestimated how often women were pushing for gender complementarianism. Books like Emily S. Johnson’s This Is Our Message: Women’s Leadership in the New Christian Right have rightfully pointed out the key role women played in shaping the movement. Women’s contribution is also key to Dobson’s success. Dobson started his career as family expert together with Joyce Landorf and never shied away from having women as guests in his broadcast and praised the work of women like Phyllis Schlafly, Beverly LaHaye, and later on Kay Coles James.