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.
ECM: How integral was Dobson to the development of evangelical purity culture?
HLS: Dobson was pivotal. His bestselling parenting manual Dare to Discipline from 1970 introduced the idea of a purity ritual that became formalized in the 1990s with the rise of purity balls. As he wrote Dare to Discipline, he shared his plan to give his daughter a piece of jewelry to remind her to keep herself pure until marriage. This in turn supposedly inspired parents and pastors to develop similar rituals. One of them was Randy Wilson, founder of the purity ball movement. Inspired by what he heard from FoF, Wilson launched the purity ball as a way to promote sexual purity and complementarian gender roles.
ECM: How would you characterize his record on race?
HLS: The short answer is “mixed, at best.” There was a well-intended desire to be more inclusive. The Focus on the Family broadcast invited black preachers and activists to the studio at least since the early 1980s. In 1982, for instance, civil rights activist John Perkins was invited to the radio broadcast and Focus on the Family magazine published an excerpt of his book. Perkins, however, seems to have been a challenge for FoF, wary as it was of the liberalism of other civil rights activists. Dobson had from the beginning of his career warned against civil rights groups as among many that were on a mission to take down America and he openly supported the FBI’s campaign to contain left-wing activism in any shape or form. Over the years, black conservatives like E.V. Hill, Rosie Grier, and not least Tony Perkins would represent black evangelicals who embraced theology and values similar to those of white evangelicalism.
Focus on the Family heartily supported the turn to racial reconciliation in the 1990s. This movement fit well with Dobson’s emphasis on individual solutions to social problems. Indeed, the inner city was often presented as a place that could be “reached” by white evangelicals who could present a message of hope to bleak, urban neighborhoods.
Into the 2000s, as same-sex marriage became more of a threat, FoF shifted the way they talked about interracial marriage. Dobson had for long warned against interracial marriage for cultural issues and concern with any children, but Focus on the Family, at least younger representatives of the ministry, started to hail interracial marriage as a mark of true Christianity.
ECM: Dobson’s animus toward the LGBT community is well documented, and the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated his Family Research Council a “hate group.” Most conservative evangelicals would likely join Dobson in objecting to that characterization, likely on “religious freedom” grounds. Do you think it’s fair?
HLS: I think it’s fair to at least label some parts of Dobson and FoF’s work as driven by hate, if we use it in the meaning of “intense dislike.” But I think it might be equally useful to describe it as driven by fear. There might be a thin line there between hate and fear and they might bleed into each other—and for those who are on the receiving end of some of the more horrendous statements from Dobson and FoF, it doesn’t really matter which you label it. The crucial point here is that Dobson and FoF see themselves driven by love and compassion. The question is, however, whether those on the receiving end experience the attention from FoF as such.
ECM: Did Dobson’s audience take his word as gospel? Did his listener-readers have any qualms with the family he imagined?
HLS: They certainly made themselves heard if they were offended! It’s clear from very early on that mothers working outside the home was a hot potato for Dobson and the ministry. Indeed, in the early 1980s, FoF published disclaimers following articles on working mothers that emphasized that Dobson believed a mother should stay home to raise her children. But at the same time, the ministry was quick to note that Dobson believed it was ultimately up for the woman to decide for herself. Into the 1990s, it was clear that the family model Dobson preferred with a mother at home was getting less common among his audience, and the talk of motherhood as the true calling for women became less emphatic. On several occasions, there are traces of women directly challenging Dobson on his ideas on at-home motherhood. In the mid-1990s, FoF admitted that no matter what they said about motherhood, they’d receive massive backlash from their audience.
ECM: Dobson has claimed at various points that he holds no particular commitment to the Republican Party, but rather will back whatever candidate stands on the right side of “the moral issues of the day.” In 2016, he backed the Republican nominee, Donald Trump. Thoughts?
HLS: Dobson’s initial support of Trump had more to do with who he ran against than what he represented. Hillary Clinton was to him and others the very epitome of the post-1960s liberalism and feminism they believed were a threat to society. Dobson was clearly troubled by Trump’s moral integrity and initially supported Ted Cruz’s candidacy. He, after all, seemed like a better fit for evangelicals. But Dobson famously stated that he believed Trump had become a Christian after meeting with televangelist Paula White. The family expert encouraged evangelicals to be patient with Trump and described him as a “baby Christian” learning the ways of Christian faith and culture. With time, Dobson has become a vocal supporter of the Trump administration, hosting among others Stephen Strang, author of God and Donald Trump, to discuss whether or how God is using Trump to promote Christian values. And not least, Dobson has been to the White House several times and become convinced about Trump being the best for the country, despite not being the perfect candidate.
Trump has after all delivered on an issue that Dobson holds high: he has put conservative judges on the Supreme Court and in federal courts across the country. Dobson’s concern is not the four or eight years that Trump will be president but the next four or eight decades to come. Conservative judges are key to achieve the future Dobson wants for the country.
A similar thing happened with FoF and its public policy group. They were also deeply concerned with Trump’s candidacy but have since come around to the Trump administration. In particular, they have embraced Vice President Mike Pence as their own. Pence visited FoF in connection with its 40th anniversary in 2017 and has since visited the FoF broadcast.
ECM: Now that the Christian Right has lost some important battles (like that over same-sex marriage) and now that it has compromised its moral authority (through association with Trump), what does the future hold for its public engagement? Has the “family values” frame run its course?
HLS: The concept of family values continues to be important. The loss in the same-sex marriage debate has not lowered the sense of urgency, to the contrary. As the 2020 presidential election approaches, Focus on the Family is pushing abortion as a key issue. The transgender issue is another big topic, in addition to the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights. In the 2000s, national and international adoption was a key matter for many evangelicals, as it was a way to live up to biblical mandate to care for orphans and a way to approach political and social issues with individual solutions. In the past couple of years, FoF’s public policy arm has urged parents to protest the Drag Queen Story Hour, which now is under scrutiny in states like Missouri.
The Christian Right might have lost the little trust they had (if any) among the broader public, but many right-wing evangelicals seem to define themselves as an embattled minority in search of legal protection to live out their faith at home, in church, at work, and in school. Gone is the day of claiming to represent a moral or silent majority. This knowledge that they represent a minority makes it perhaps even more urgent for the Christian Right to use the courts to defend their values and way of life.