James Dobson, leader of what?

01dobsonAs you would imagine, I've been doing a lot of thinking about the Rocky Mountain News the past week, especially once the final word came down on the shutdown of the newspaper where I worked during most of the 1980s. I still have lots of friends out there and, of course, that is also the paper that the Divine Ms. MZ Hemingway grew up reading, as well. Lots of memories. Then the announcement came out that Dr. James Dobson was taking another step away from the controls at Focus on the Family, which called to mind an especially powerful memory from my Rocky days.

There was a stretch in the 1980s when Colorado Springs -- really quick -- turned into "Wheaton of the West," a phrase I used in a column early on that I really wish I had copyrighted. Every month or so, some new group arrived at the base of Pikes Peak. Try to imagine what would have happened if Campus Crusade for Christ had settled there, too.

Anyway, I'm sitting at my desk one day and a member of the business-page staff walked up and asked: "Hey, there's some organization moving to Colorado Springs called Focus on the Family. Is that worth a brief?"

I almost fell out of my chair. I told her that this might be one of the biggest Colorado news stories of the late 20th century.

The response: No way. You see, none of the editors had ever heard of Focus on the Family. That was a niche radio show and published empire that was not on their radar screen.

Well, Dobson showed up and things changed. These days, most journalists have even realized that he is not an ordained minister!

Now, the mainstream media is trying to describe why it is so important that Dobson is -- kind of -- moving away from center stage in American political and cultural life. The best lede is at the Washington Post:

James Dobson, a child psychologist who became a leader of the religious right, announced yesterday he was stepping down as board chairman of Focus on the Family, the megaministry he and his wife started 32 years ago.

Dobson, 72, had ceded the position of president and chief executive six years ago, and there have been ongoing discussions among the organization's leadership about how to keep the Colorado Springs-based ministry and its popular radio show relevant to younger evangelicals. Dobson had already pulled back from most administrative duties, although he will continue to host the show, which reaches 1.5 million Americans daily, and write a newsletter that goes to 1.6 million people each month.

Note the emphasis on the "megaministry." Now, compare that with the Los Angeles Times lede, which way overstates the situation:

James Dobson is stepping down as chairman of Focus on the Family, the conservative religious group announced Friday -- a change that comes as the political movement Dobson has long embodied has been torn by questions over its direction and priorities.

Now wait a minute. Dobson embodies a "political" movement? What would that be? The religious right? Maybe, not not really. There are too many generals in front of that army for that to be true. Moral and cultural conservatism? No way. Traditional Catholics and Orthodox Jews out there. Raise your hands if Dobson ever spoke for you. Ditto for you charismatics and lots of you Southern Baptists.

If Dobson embodied anything, it was Focus on the Family, an organization that has waded into moral and cultural issues and frequently into politics. However, it must be emphasized that it began as a ministry truly rooted in marriage and family issues and, once upon a time, Focus materials were used in a wide range of sanctuaries -- from old, mainline Protestant churches to evangelical megachurches to some Catholic parishes. His influence grew larger, as the years went by, but his reach also became more narrow.

jamescdobsonjpgThere is no way that Dobson was the leader of the religious right, let alone of the world of moral and cultural conservatism. He was powerful, but not that powerful.

This sets up the main problem that I had with the MSM Dobson coverage, which is this idea that the white "evangelical (whatever that means) vote (whatever that is)" is somehow splintering and that social and moral issues are losing their power. It is true that the Democrats have made some gains among conservative religious believers, but those gains have been small and the Democratic establishment has also allowed some culturally conservative candidates to run in key corners of the Sunbelt. It's also true that many evangelicals are interested in a broader range of issues these days (a trend I started seeing in the mid-1980s, as more evangelicals began to work with Catholic activists).

But look at this language from the Los Angeles Times, which cannot seem to grasp that evangelicals can pursue a broader agenda without giving up 2,000 years of Christian doctrine on basic moral issues.

We are told that Dobson's move:

... comes as U.S. evangelicals are reconsidering their movement's tie to the Republican Party and to wedge issues like same-sex marriage that Dobson has long emphasized.

"It's very symbolic, the handing off of evangelical leadership to the next generation, whoever that may be," said the Rev. Joel Hunter, senior pastor of Northland church in Orlando, Fla.

Dobson initially opposed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for president but grudgingly backed the eventual nominee against Democrat Barack Obama, whom Dobson sharply criticized. Other evangelical leaders, such as Hunter, who offered the benediction at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, have been less confrontational with Obama and are shifting their focus to issues like global warming and combating poverty.

Who agrees with that assessment? Primarily voices on the religious left. Ask Hunter if he is "shifting his focus" away from the sanctity of human life. Ask him if his emphasis on the environment is actually part of his beliefs on the right to life. Please, ask.

It is certainly accurate to say that Dobson's retirement is a symbolic moment. But it's a symbolic moment for Focus on the Family and its supporters, not for some mythical, united evangelical movement that has never existed. And if reporters are actually interested in the political implications of traditional faith, then that's a subject much, much, much broader than the life and work of Dobson.

Come on, do your homework, people.

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