They'll know we are Christians by Dobson's love

dobsonU.S. News & World Report senior editor Dan Gilgoff received an interesting phone call yesterday. Focus on the Family founder James Dobson called him to chat about prospective presidential candidates, including former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson:

"Everyone knows he's conservative and has come out strongly for the things that the pro-family movement stands for," Dobson said of Thompson. "[But] I don't think he's a Christian; at least that's my impression," Dobson added, saying that such an impression would make it difficult for Thompson to connect with the Republican Party's conservative Christian base and win the GOP nomination.

Mark Corallo, a spokesman for Thompson, took issue with Dobson's characterization of the former Tennessee senator. "Thompson is indeed a Christian," he said. "He was baptized into the Church of Christ."

In a follow-up phone conversation, Focus on the Family spokesman Gary Schneeberger stood by Dobson's claim. He said that, while Dobson didn't believe Thompson to be a member of a non-Christian faith, Dobson nevertheless "has never known Thompson to be a committed Christian -- someone who talks openly about his faith."

"We use that word -- Christian -- to refer to people who are evangelical Christians," Schneeberger added. "Dr. Dobson wasn't expressing a personal opinion about his reaction to a Thompson candidacy; he was trying to 'read the tea leaves' about such a possibility."

The follow-up conversation helps illuminate Dobson's statement. I also think it's worth highlighting that what we're seeing here are classic distinctions in how various Protestants define Christian.

Whether they admit it or not, many Americans adopt a view similar to that held by Dobson: Christianity is mainly about behavior and feelings. Christians of all stripes -- as well as folks who don't define themselves as religious -- tend to judge Christians' fidelity to their faith (and adherents of other religions) by their actions. Many of them incorporate personal testimonies into the equation as a means of speaking to behavioral change or a change of feelings. I bet that many readers are nodding their head and saying, "And what's the big deal about this?"

Well, this view is extremely different from that held by other believers, myself included. In my church body we don't really speak of personal behaviors or statements -- as Dobson seems to have done -- to determine someone's religious status. Instead we point to whether they've been baptized.

Now I'm aware that this is a very contentious issue and ours is not the place to debate which view is correct. And I'm fully aware I'm giving short shrift to the theological issues. I just think it's interesting to see the two views so succinctly highlighted in a mainstream media article.

Look again. Dobson says he doesn't get the "impression" that Thompson is Christian and that he hasn't known him to be "committed" or talk "openly about his faith." Thompson's response? His spokesman points to his baptism. I think Gilgoff has written enough about evangelicals and other religious folks to see the difference and it's good for other reporters to note the distinction as well.

I commend Gilgoff for calling back for clarification about the matter. I'm thinking we may get further clarification about whether Dobson and his kind think only evangelicals are Christian but it's clear that Gilgoff knew he needed to get a better picture than the one unveiled in the first phone call.

And Gilgoff worked hard to point out that Dobson was talking about earthly prospects more than heavenly ones. Gilgoff says Dobson was referring to whether Thomspon's religious views would help him in securing a nomination. I think it would have been easy for Gilgoff to turn this into a religious referendum. While he certainly led the story with the juicy parts, he provided good context, I think.

Here's how he described the circumstances of the interview with Dobson:

Dobson's phone call to U.S. News senior editor Dan Gilgoff Tuesday was unsolicited. It marked Gilgoff's first discussion with Dobson in over two years, since the magazine's political writer began work on The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical America are Winning the Culture War, published this month by St. Martin's Press. Dobson had agreed to answer only written questions for the book.

I'm not more interested in how this interview between reporter and source came about than I am about other interviews. I mean, I would love it if reporters routinely explained how they came across each person to interview in a story. "I called Jerry Falwell because I wanted spice up a boring story," or "Rather than find out the views of actual proponents of initiative X, I went with people I already knew who I felt confident would return my phone call within a half hour," or "I only interviewed people present at the press conference," etc. Heck, I'm thinking such a rule should be required for all stories featuring Marshall Wittman, Larry Sabato and Norm Ornstein.

But why is Gilgoff writing about himself in the third person? It's so Bob Dole! The disclosure is obviously necessary, but was this the only way to handle it? I also think it could have been a bit more clear. He calls himself both the senior editor and political writer for the magazine, for instance. But way to pitch your own book in your own story! I kid. Gilgoff is a talented reporter and writer, so I'm looking forward to hearing more about the book.

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