James Dobson’s detractors responded with glee to his announced resignation as chair of the board of directors of Focus on the Family. The reaction of his supporters was muted.
Dobson’s decision probably means less than his detractors hope, more than his supporters fear and trouble for both groups.
The gay blogosphere sparkled with celebration about the news and spewed with condemnation of Dobson. Some implied that Focus on the Family’s financial problems resulted from the funding it spent to defeat Proposition 8, a California ballot initiative that restricted marriage to those of the opposite sex.
Other liberals were gleeful about an unexpected opportunity to remind their core supporters why they are needed when Democrats control the White House and Congress.
Neil G. Giuliano, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, said that Dobson had “used his expansive, well-funded media platform to promote defamatory and false information about the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.”
GLAAD’s leaders urged their supporters to remember what Dobson had done and urged the media not to “allow Dobson to turn today’s news into yet another media platform for him to advance his intolerant divisive attacks on gay and lesbian Americans and their families.”
Kathryn Kolbert, president of People for the American Way, warned, “James Dobson may be stepping down, but he’s not stepping off the field.”
Noting his ability to raise funds, the size of his radio audience and the wrongness of his positions, she said, “Regardless of where Dobson appears on the organizational chart, he and Focus on the Family will continue their assault on Americans’ liberties.”
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said he expected no moderation from Focus on the Family.
“For years, FOF has been the leading voice of religious extremism and intolerance in America. It has led the attack on the legal rights of gay and lesbian Americans, worked assiduously to undermine reproductive rights, assaulted the religious neutrality of public schools and labored to replace science with far-right, fundamentalist dogma,” said Lynn. “For that reason, I vow that Americans United will continue to strongly oppose the agenda of Dobson and Focus on the Family no matter what title he uses.”
A few of Dobson’s supporters rushed to grab hold of his mantle.
The largely invisible Gary Bauer, president of American Values, reminded conservative Christians that Dobson was his long-time friend and colleague.
“It has been my privilege to see Dr. Dobson in action many times, working to organize on behalf of the values we all hold dear and to be a voice for those who need a champion,” said Bauer.
Alan Sears, president of the Alliance Defense Fund, thanked Dobson for his “tireless service.”
Even less visible than Bauer, Sears, too, claimed a kinship with Dobson: “I have had the privilege of not only serving with Dr. James Dobson over the past 25 years, but have the honor to calling (sic) him my friend as well.”
But aside from a few conservative Christians speaking in honored tones about Dobson, most of the always loquacious Christian Right leaders have said nothing publicly so far.
They and their followers may in fact be speechless about the loss of another leader, especially one who had the credibility and ability to circle up the conservative forces.
Conservative Christians are no doubt concerned about the future of their movement. They have witnessed a seismic shift away from the founding fathers of the Christian Right. Jerry Falwell died almost two years ago. Adrian Rogers, the three-term president of the Southern Baptist Convention, died in 2005. Jerry Vines and Paige Patterson, two other SBC presidents, have diminished influence. Pat Robertson, Chuck Colson and Tim LaHaye have become shells of their former selves.
While Dobson will remain a force through his continued radio broadcast and political activism, it is clear that the movement has no apparent heir, no entrepreneurial leader, no charismatic preacher. The troubled waters ahead may be more treacherous than they anticipate.
Nevertheless, the left would make a mistake to misread Dobson’s decision as a shift among evangelical and conservative Christians away from their core issues. Some commentators with little real connectivity continue the lame claim that younger evangelicals are broadening the moral agenda and lessening their support for the old loyalties. Don’t believe it.
Of course, the American-left leaders need Dobson as a demon against whom to activate donors. Without Dobson at the helm and with Barack Obama in the White House, fund raising will be tough for them.
In a way, Dobson’s beginning move away from leadership is bad news for the left and the right, both of whom need Dobson, but for very different reasons.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.