Saturday, May 30, 2009

James Dobson and Big Business-Friendly Christianity

This is a follow-up to the previous post about James Dobson’s despondency with a Democratic Washington.

As a “small-D” democrat, I think James Dobson’s input is as important as anyone else’s, AND I think he is dead wrong when he starts talking politics. I don’t think he should shut up, but if he is in retreat, it is probably good news for everybody. I hope it means the political movement he has helped to lead will break up and that his former followers will begin to approach politics from a different perspective. To some extent, I think that exactly what’s happening with younger evangelicals.

After the last post, the question was raised about whether I'm guilty of a double standard for calling Dobson a “Republican soldier” while not calling out folks like Jim Wallis or Rick Warren for their political activism. My first reaction is, Hey, if you give me enough time, I’ll probably write inflammatory posts about everybody!

Seriously though:

--Rick Warren’s political views are less clear to me than Dobson’s. And he doesn’t say crazy things, as far as I know. He also seems to have a sort of thoughtful uncertainty going on, which I like and respect.

--As for Jim Wallis, I generally agree with what he says about politics and with his actions (Call to Renewal, Consistent Ethic of Life, Mobilization to End Poverty, etc). He’s definitely a leftie. But I don’t think he compromises anything about his faith in order to be an activist.

Politics—especially electoral politics—is all about alliances and coalitions. When we’re a member of a coalition, such as a political party, we need to ask ourselves, “Am I ignoring anything I believe in in order to go along with the group?”

I think Dobson and the religious right are compromising most of the "social gospel" in their alliance with big business within the Republican Party. I think folks like Dobson went in with good intentions, but over the years the alliance shaped their faith into a stripped-down, finger-pointing Christianity that is pleasantly convenient for big business. Ask yourself this: 

Would Fox News, the Chamber of Commerce, or Halliburton’s Board of Directors be uncomfortable with anything that Dobson preaches?

If the answer is no, then it must be a very narrow and selective Christianity he's preaching. 

And what do you know, that's exactly what we find! From what I gather, Dobson is pretty orthodox about what I would call the supernatural parts of the faith (the identify of Jesus, the Resurrection, etc). All good. But in Dobson's view, how does this radical, blow-your-mind, faith affect how we should interact with the rest of the world? Well, he's really heavy on sexual issues and abortion and light on everything else. Kind of a weird take on following Jesus in today's world, if you ask me.

To illustrate Dobson's narrow view of the social implications of Christian belief, let's look at two things.

1. "Letter from 2012 in Obama's America"  Focus on the Family released this 16-page fantasy in October 2008 to mobilize evangelical support for Republican candidates in the run-up to the election. (Thanks to Mason for linking to it in a previous comment!)

First of all, I'll admit I couldn't read all of it. When I got to page six and he was still talking about gay sex, I gave up. So then I decided to look at the frequency of certain words in the letter. (You can do this by pressing CTRL or Apple key + F and then typing in a word.) Here's what I found:

  • "Sex" (or some derivative of the word) appears 54 times
  • "Abortion" appears 13 times
  • "Pornography" appears 7 times.
  • "War" or "Peace" appears 7 times. Combined.
  • "Poor" or "Poverty" appears 5 times. Combined. And two of those are used mockingly to attack an imagined response by Obama to future terrorist attacks.
  • "Disease" appears 2 times. Both in footnotes. he wrote this letter trying to describe how bad things could get under Democratic Party dominance. He wanted to stir fellow Christians to political action. And he cast homosexuality as the great scourge of 2012. Not cancer, AIDS, water scarcity, war, poverty, hunger, climate change, or authoritarianism. But homosexuality. Why in the world should that be the major focus of Christian activism, Dr. Dobson?

2. Focus On The Family's website  At FOTF's website, if you click on the "Social Issues" tab to see what they're focused on, you'll find these issues:

  • "Abstinence"
  • "Bioethics and Sanctity of Life" -- subtopics are Abortion, Euthanasia, and Stem Cell Research
  • "Education" -- First sentence says, "American public schools have become a frontline in efforts by gay activists to indoctrinate our children to believe dangerous and misleading messages about homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgender identify issues." That's apparently the most important issue with education right now.
  • "Gambling" -- The only completely nonsexual social issue they list!
  • "Law and the Courts" -- largely about gay marriage and abortion
  • "Marriage and Family" -- largely about gay marriage
  • "Pornography"
  • "Sexual Identity"
Sexual morality is tremendously important, but not so important that it should be Christians' main focus in society and our face to the world. To make it so is to be, I think, intentionally narrow.

So why have Dobson and the religious right so narrowed their social focus? In part, it's because they've become reliable "Republican soldiers," as I said before. They've been playing on big business' team for so long that they've adopted big business positions. They've had to adjust their faith accordingly to remove the cognitive dissonance of being Christians who--for example--campaign against minimum wage increases and nuclear arms reductions. As I heard a pastor say on the Sunday before the 2004 elections, "You know, the economy, foreign policy, all that stuff, God's not real interested in that." He then delivered a sermon about abortion and homosexuality that quoted recent Republican talking points, but he said he couldn't tell us who to vote for. Wink, wink.


Becky said...

Great post! I think you've outdone yourself. That 2012 newsletter is a rich, rich document, and I think completely proves your point.

If you can make it to page 11, after he talks about gay sex a lot, and then abortion, porn, gun ownership (?), and the axis of evil, he has a little tiny paragraph on health care policy. The bad faith of that paragraph is staggering. He says: "The new Congress under President Obama passed a nationalized 'single provider' health care system, in which the U.S. government is the provider of all health care in the United States." (From your mouth to God's ear, James Dobson.) But then he says that with healthcare more scarce, many elderly people "think their 'duty' is to go home to die." What exactly does he think the current state of affairs is in this country? Aren't enough people already going home to die?His willful blindness and distortion is un-Christian, and I can only see the conclusion that he really has become a total toolbox for the right. Not to be inflammatory.

Better Than Machines said...

Thanks Becky. Kudos to you for reading the whole 2012 letter! That takes stamina. Your right, some of what he describes would actually be pretty wonderful... like a single-payer national health system, which would have prevented the deaths in those stories you link to.

Amy said...

Hey! Thanks for this. I admit, I couldn't read the 2012 letter either. I also realized that since this shift in Dobson and FOTF really took a national stage, I've spent most of that time living overseas. I think I was aware of what was going on, but not in such detail. So thanks for this post--one of your better, I think!

I agree that Wallis and Warren come across as much more reasoned and less reactionary. And both are known for their advocacy of a social gospel. But I think Warren, though he articulates it better and not so dogmatically, would maybe agree with Dobson on abortion issues and alot of the sexual ones as well. So maybe it's the packaging?

Two questions: this is probably lingo that I just don't know as well, but why does "big business" care about the sexual politics stuff? Or is that just used as a distraction to keep conservatives from thinking about other social issues?

Also, you make a great point about asking yourself, "Am I ignoring anything I believe to go along with the group?" This is something I grapple with, with either party. But I don't want to be apolitical either, cause that seems like a copout.

I'm just curious about what, if anything, you feel you have to ignore. I don't know if your blog is the forum you want for that, so if not, email me! ;)

Better Than Machines said...

I don't think big corporations and their representatives care about the sexual stuff in itself. They just care about keeping people arguing over stuff that won't affect their big corporations and fortunes. That is why we spend so much time debating things that have nothing or very little to do with money and resources: homosexuality, prayer in school, English as the "official language," flag lapel pins, whether or not we are "a Christian nation," and so on. My point is that if these issues receded and people focused more on quality-of-life issues instead, we would begin to see dramatic reform to "the system" and a major turn to the left. We would sacrifice the possibility of endless wealth for the few to gain health and security for everyone. But as long as we're arguing about Tom Cruise and Lindsay Lohan, we will not have the focus and organization it takes to do that. This is an admittedly quick and dirty rundown of the argument, but it's essentially true.

As for the other question--Which of my beliefs might I be sacrificing to go along with the group?--I think about this a lot. I don't want to become a mirror-image on the left of those I'm blogging about on the right. I think one way to keep this in the front of the mind is to frequently remind yourself what it is that you do not like about the party you align with. Here's some of what that looks like with me:

I disagree with the most rabidly pro-choice activists in the party. Folks who might wear "I'm proud of my abortion" t-shirts and oppose any imaginable limit on abortion rights. The abortion issue is complex, and I don't have all the answers, but I know these people are wrong. And I think this group has too much power in the party.

I disagree with folks who are militantly anti-Christian and believe that that struggle is inseparable from the struggle for social and economic justice. When I started the Christian Democrats club in college, it wasn't just Christians I had to convince. At first, some lefties on campus didn't really trust that I could be a real Democrat while being a Christian.

Both of those are also caricatures that the Right uses to bash the Left. But I've travelled in these circles long enough to know that there's some truth to it.

But if those are areas where I think some in the party go too far, I disagree with my party most where it doesn't go far enough. Too often Democrats are only marginally better than Republicans, to the point where you almost want to say, "What's the point?" Democratic presidents have propped up right-wing dictators and crushed people's movements in third-world countries just as Republican presidents have. Democratic congressmen bow to banks and credit card companies less than Republicans do, but they still bow. Whichever party is in charge, there's seldom any discussion about drastically scaling back military spending and directing that money toward social needs. So there are time when I feel like my energy in electoral politics would be better spent in another, more radical party. (I think that's a "thoughtful uncertainty" that progressives should maintain--whether to work within the Democratic party or support a better party. More on that later.)

So there you have it--some of my beliefs that I try to make sure I'm not ignoring while I align with other Democrats.