Saturday, February 28, 2009

Dobson steps down: How I will remember him

Dr. James Dobson (72 years old) announced yesterday that he's stepping down as chairman of Focus on the Family. In an odd twist of fate, my 12 year old daughter asked me about him just yesterday, based on charges made against him in a book she's reading about feminism. To her, his name had become synonymous with repression of women and obstruction of justice for reproductive rights. When I explained that he was the founder of Focus on the Family, she squinted her eyes.

Isn't Focus on the Family that group opposed to gay marriage?

"Yes, it is," I told her.

I saw her wheels turn.

So Dr. Dobson and Focus on the Family go together?

"Yes they do," I said.

She paused and suddenly her eyes lit up in surprise at her own thoughts: Mom, do you mean to say that Dr. Dobson and Focus on the Family are the same people who created the Odyssey tapes?

When I said yes, a look of utter astonishment passed over her face. Caitrin's first brush with complexity. How can the tapes she loved as a child come from a group she's supposed to oppose?

She asked me, "How is that possible?" I was happy to explain. After all, back when Jon and I lived in a tiny condo, having as many kids as the Lord would give us, on one income, while homeschooling, Focus on the Family's daily radio broadcast featuring Dr. Dobson (hosted by Mike Trout) filled the airwaves of my kitchen every single morning with laughter, good advice, companionship in my lonely task. We didn't have the Internet back then. Getting out to a library was a herculean effort for a young mother of three, four, five kids. Radio was a savior - a way to connect to ideas and resources in my own family room.

For ten years, I listened to Dobson's daily program and got much support and help in my tasks as a stay-at-home mom. I heard programs on homeschooling, Creative Memories photo albums, how to handle toddlers, ways to find joy in ordinary life, tips for keeping your marriage healthy, how to live on one income, decorating for Christmas on a budget, dealing with in-laws, recovering from an abusive childhood. I heard lectures given by some of the biggest Christian writers and speakers all without having to leave home to go to a big conference in another city. I felt encouraged in my daily life: I could do this, it wasn't too hard, I could be close to my children and keep my family together.

Despite the controversy over Dr. Dobson's approach to discipline (to spank or not to spank), I found him consistently on the side of the child when he'd unfold his real actions on behalf of children. I remember one time reading that he had hardly ever spanked his own two children at all. His motto that has guided me for my entire 21 years of parenting is to "get behind the eyes of the child" before you make any discipline decisions. He went on to say that if you can see the world the way the child sees it, you'll know whether or not you are dealing with a strong will or simple childishness. So while Dobson is known for the wooden spoon (and believe me, I condemn that thing and all its various incarnations, used by parents with far less compassion, empathic imagination and emotional insight than James Dobson), in my experience, he was the voice that reminded me again and again to understand and know my children, to build their self-esteem.

There was a point at which I remember thinking that if he died, I'd fly to Colorado Springs to be at his funeral. His presence in my life had become so crucial, I knew I'd want to grieve his passing with fellow fans.

I've loved Dr. Dobson.

Unfortunately, that love of the man slowly ebbed over the last decade and has turned to a loss of respect. While doling out distinctly Christian advice about families (and really, I didn't take too well to the messages on submission and headship at all), Dobson became enamored of the political process and the possibility of shaping policy through the muscle he'd developed in the family ministry. I was on board for the anti-abortion agenda, but I've never supported his position on gay marriage or prayer in the schools. Yet the courting of morally questionable Republicans (whose own families were hardly models of the kind of health and spirituality Focus intended to cultivate) and his increasingly shrill reaction to those in opposition made me withdraw support from Focus on the Family.

The nail in the coffin for me came when Mike Trout confessed to an emotional affair. It wasn't his affair that drove me away, but rather how Focus handled it. I have loved Mike Trout's participation on the radio show. It occurred to me that if Mike couldn't be rehabilitated by Focus on the Family, what hope was there for the rest of us? What pathway to healing and restoration is there if failure means being expunged?

So I shared some of this with Caitrin, as she tried to put together the picture she'd gleaned from her book with the one I expressed from my heart. She loved the Odyssey tape series and realized that there is more to the story of Focus on the Family than "Dobson=evil for women and gays." Though admittedly, I oppose their agenda openly now.

It doesn't surprise me that Dr. Dobson is both stepping down as the leader, while continuing the radio program. The trouble is, Dobson doesn't speak at all for the Gen X'ers. He doesn't speak to the Millenials. His fans are my age and older. Focus on the Family, the organization so large with so much mail that it has its own zip code, may be riding off into a Rocky Mountain sunset. It may, in fact, be time.

25 comments:

Drew Tatusko said...

That's pretty much it. A once helpful child psychologist who threw all his chips in, including his soul, into a right-wing political agenda. Now his legacy is there. Sad.

julieunplugged said...

Yep. You got it. I have lost the fondness I ever had for him and see him now as the opposition. I will add: some of the advice I so cherished didn't work out so well either in the practical living it out way. I wish I had known to be financially independent early on.

margaretm said...

This pretty well sums it up. I love the opportunity this gave you to discuss the "gray" with Caitrin. That's the kind of focus on the family I'm talking about!

Bilbo said...

I appreciate the tone of this entry Julie. I don't have a lot of "recent" fond memories of Dobson even though I was a big fan during the early years of my marriage when I read all his book and listened to his radio show daily. My wife and I even made a pilgrimage to see the impressive Protestant Vatican headquarters in Colorado Springs. I parted ways with Dobson's ministry after I made the shift to becoming a card carrying Egalitarian and entrenched myself in Christian Feminist writings. My wife never caught the Christian Feminist bug so you can imagine the tension this created in my marriage. Dobson may have been the most influential Christian leader of the past 30 years and many of his followers have found solace, practical guidance and a sense of community reading his books and listening to his daily radio broadcasts. However,imo, he has more than any single Christian leader continually stoked the fires of the culture wars and influenced a way too common knee jerk reaction between the mainstream Christian subculture and the broader culture at large. Dobson has solidified his legacy for years to come but hope his general attitude towards the culture and political views are not passed onto the next generation. I'll leave it at that...

Kansas Bob said...

You have captured the tension so well Julie between his call to family ministry and his involvement in politics.. your thoughts so resonate with mine.

I linked back here and excerpted a few of your thoughts at my place. People need to hear what you are saying.

Carrie said...

Dobson was central to my life as a homeschooling mom of young children, as well. So much of what you said resonates with me. Including the disenchantment with many of his professed methods of child rearing. Oh, how I wish I knew then what I think I know know. ;-) I agree with Drew, however, that it's sad he'll be remembered for his political agenda rather than the work he did with family and child-rearing. (I always suspected his own methods were gentler than they came across in some of his writings.)

Bilbo said...

A lot of people seem to have become disenchanted with Dobson's emphasis on politics while still holding up his contributions to the family. While I don't want to assert or suggest that Dobson's ministry didn't do much good in regards to the family, I do personally believe that his books and videos did much to reinforce a kind of "Patriarchial" that does undermine healthy relationships between the sexes. Of course, if patriarchy is what one believes is God's model, than Dobson, more than anyone, provides the kind of affirmation that many people seek which is one of the reasons why I think he was so popular. But, from my perspective his one shoe fits all approach,in the name of God, to marriage didn't do the trick for me.

Makeesha said...

well said. It *is indeed* a shame that his legacy didn't just remain with child psychology. Sans the spanking pov, he has wonderful ideas and insight into parenting. In fact, he's one of the more balanced Christian conservatives in the domain of child rearing....esp. with older children. It's sad that now that he has more time he's going to devote it to radical political extremism and activism for the religious right.

There is much I don't like about Dobson's rhetoric - his idolotry of the nuclear family, his patriarchal tone, his authoritarian approach - but let's face it, the dude's an old conservative evangelical, what more should I expect? ;)

I love that you worked with your daughter on the nuances of human relationships - it's a rare thing to find a person who is all "good" or all "bad" - living in that tension is a sign of great maturity - you've given your daughter a great gift.

julieunplugged said...

Bill, I totally agree about the patriarchal model. I hated it when he'd interview Wayne Grudem and my most anger-inducing quote of his was "Hey don't ask me why men lead. Take it up with God. It was his idea!"

I remember throwing a muffin at the radio, I think. :)

So yes, I think he has been a part of that evangelical subculture that has promoted the idea of headship to the detriment of too many marriages. In fact, a little known dirty secret is, in fact, how many of the proponents of that kind of marriage have wound up in abuse, affairs and divorce only 15-20 years later...

Bilbo said...

Julie,

I probably should have thrown a muffin at the radio instead of hurling statistics and quotes from Christian leaning feminists at the Dobson and Gary Smalley video series I attended. I probably would have gotten more bang for my buck...but...the often unpleasant experience of being the odd man out was valuable because it opened my eyes to religious "group think" and religious ideology. It was painful at the time but, in hindsight, an important needed part of my journey which has landed me in a place that I can call my own.

Kansas Bob said...

It took me a long time away from fundamentalism to see Dobson's connection to complementarianism.. gotta wonder how much of that junk I still embrace at a subconscious level.

Living the Biblios said...

I think Dobson's stance on gay marriage is the biblical stance-- one man and one woman.

That said, his shrill attitude has turned away many and frustrated folks like myself.

But give Dobson credit. He wasn't afraid to step in the fray and fight the good fight. Who of us has his passion for righteousness in the culture and family?

Finally, the one comment about complimentarians and their affairs, divorces, etc. is a cheap shot. Such action doesn't precede from the view.

julieunplugged said...

Biblios, thanks for posting. Not a cheap shot. Based on immersion in that world and culture for 20+ years and particular attention to the category of abusiveness in marriage. I'm not just making it up for the sake of a put down.

As far as jumping into the fray - I long admired Dobson's willingness to be political. What turned me off was his inability to nuance his positions and his embracing of figures whose lifestyles and choices contradict his espoused values.

I've always been pro-gay marriage as I think it is not up to Christians to define for the whole of society what rights they have (particularly when we are talking about adults making choices - Christianity is not the yardstick for laws in our pluralistic society).

Dobson is entitled to his viewpoint, but his expression of it over the years has turned into a level of hostility unbecoming to someone who claims to follow Christ.

SUSAN said...

Julie, you have expressed how I felt/feel about James Dobson. I remember reading, after my first child turned two, "The Strong-Willed Child". Like you, I listened to his radio broadcast religiously, along with Elisabeth Elliot's program, and felt encouraged in my mother/wife role.

Susan

Kacie said...

Yeah, I agree with your tone here as well. I grew up as an Mk and heard Dobson and Odyssey. Some of what he said about parenting and families I still appreciate despite not remaining quite as conservative in my own opinions, but the gentle Dr. Dobson of my youth is very different from the abrasive political activist I heard this year. I was disappointed, and very glad last week when the news came out that he had stepped down.

Euphrates said...

Wow, thank you. (I just stumbled across your blog through the Creativa website, so I'm a little late to the party.)

James Dobson was SO central to so much of who and what my first marriage was all about... Just as Christianity holds a much cherished part of my heart, as part of how I became who I am (even though I'm no longer Christian), James Dobson and Focus on the Family do as well, for the same reasons (though I, like you, diverged from his message a while ago). It's *extremely* hard to explain that to people who didn't live it, though.

Maudie- Liberal Church Secretary said...

Found your site by Divine appointment. Have been extremely ashamed of what the Religious Right has turned in to. The last days Apostate church may be showing its face, however church has been evil much of history. Yet, Jesus Bride shall somehow come out victorious. As a retired church secretary who unfortunately had an abortion some 40 years ago, it would be nice not to have "abortion" in the headlines only to be used by politicians & clergy for their own gain. Am Currently working on new website just for the 50 million women who have suffered this situation to let them know we are precious as Gold to God..and for those who can only see sin in others and not their own, they will be "corrected" by God in some way, for whom He "loveth he correcteth - Proverbs 3:12 I love it when the truth comes out. There's a Scripture for that too! So glad to have found others like myself. I was beginning to think I was all alone.

David said...

The really interesting thing is that Focus on the Family has gone completely away from any type of public policy involvement, and they are going down the tubes (partly because of that) for that very reason. They are all white bread and vanilla. Do you not think someone in our society should have to courage to stand up for biblical principles in our society? If a person believes in the Bible, then they will be against so-called "gay marriage." Gay marriage isn't biblical. If you're for it, fine, but why be so judgmental against someone like Dobson who is just pointing out that it is not a biblical concept?

And about Mike Trout, to clarify, he didn't just have an emotional affair. He had an affair, divorced his wife, and married the lady he had an affair with. That's what really happened. Had he broken up with the lady he was having an affair with and gone back to his wife, he would have remained working at FOF.

Steve said...

I, too am disappointed in the action of Dr. Dobson's. Remember, when you expect Jesus Christ out of a man, you will always be disappointed. Every human being is guilty of sin, and even though our relationship with Jesus Christ is evident, we all sin. God forgives, people have a little more problem with it, especially when it is a person you held in very high esteem. He still is a truly Godly man that has helped millions through Focus and his books. But once again, another christian leader falls. God always has a plan for each and everyone of us, no matter how much we screw up... we reap what we sow...

Robert said...

"It wasn't his affair that drove me away, but rather how Focus handled it. I have loved Mike Trout's participation on the radio show. It occurred to me that if Mike couldn't be rehabilitated by Focus on the Family, what hope was there for the rest of us?"

This was an interesting statement. I know nothing more than Mike resigned. Do you have different credible information? As far as his reconciliation with Focus, that is between the Lord and his involved followers. I am not so sure Mike and Focus people aren't on good terms.

Placing faith in a man made organization, whether a standard setter like Focus or any other (including presidents) will always let us down. Our standard is Christ. We cannot go wrong (although there will be suffering for identifying with the standard) if we focus on imitating His example. He didn't judge people for their lack of moral character, but always said "go and sin no more." The sin is not important, whether it is lusting after one of your own sex or another, or greed or deception any other sin..... The Pharisees hardened their hearts in PRIDE, another sin, and received a heavy dose of Christ's perfect teachings. If you believe in the creeds of the scriptures, yes, there is some grey, but there are non-disputable conclusive dos and don'ts to protect US from OURSELVES. So, the grey keeps us on our toes, but most of life's enduring challenges are "won" when we love, serve one another and pray for one another. I don't rejoice when anyone falls, even the most reprobate offender I know. But I sure can pray for them. And we can all pray for James Dobson. Perhaps he is facing a bit of discipline himself. But I will take heed lest I fall and believe this is the safest place to be for all of us.

victorychristian said...

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” _ Theodore Roosevelt

victorychristian said...

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” - Theodore Roosevelt. I think this says it well. Dobson has done so much good. Sounds like sour grapes to me.

victorychristian said...

Most important: You need to line up your opinions with what God says in His Word - not the current politically correct ideas. Truth is unchanging. If ye continue in my Word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. - Jesus; John 8:31-32.

TheoRogee said...

I'm late to this party, but ... I well remember hearing Dobson on his program the day after the 2004 election. He positively gloated about Bush's win and crowed, "They OWE us!" That was a turning point for me, as it was obvious this man had sold out for a mess of political pottage. As others have said, it's not just his positions on social issues, but his vilifications of those who oppose his views that is not only off-putting but un-Christlike. The good news is that his petulant posturings have little appeal for the younger generations.

S. Bailey said...

I have never heard or seen anything of Dr. Dobson that I disapproved of. If he has involved himself in politics, it's because our country is in such sad shape that if the Chrisitans DON'T get involoved, this world is going to 'hades' in a handbasket. I appreciate Dr. Dobson and what he stands for and I hope he will keep telling the TRUTH, regardless of what the liberals are trying to shove down our throats.