James Dobson

The religious right’s new kingmaker.

Although the notion that the religious right’s “moral values” determined the 2004 election has been roundly debunked (for example, here and here), perception is reality in politics—and the indelible perception in Washington is now that George W. Bush owes his evangelical Christian base big-time.

One corollary to this idea is that no one helped Bush win more than Dr. James Dobson. Forget Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who in their dotage have marginalized themselves with gaffes (this week Robertson referred to potential Supreme Court nominee Miguel Estrada as “Erik Estrada”). Forget Ralph Reed, now enriching himself as a lobbyist-operative, leaving the Christian Coalition a shell of its former self. Forget Gary Bauer, now known chiefly as a failed presidential candidate who tumbled off a stage while flipping pancakes. Dobson is now America’s most influential evangelical leader, with a following reportedly greater than that of either Falwell or Robertson at his peak.

Dobson earned the title. He proselytized hard for Bush this last year, organizing huge stadium rallies and using his radio program to warn his 7 million American listeners that not to vote would be a sin. Dobson may have delivered Bush his victories in Ohio and Florida.

He’s already leveraging his new power. When a thank-you call came from the White House, Dobson issued the staffer a blunt warning that Bush “needs to be more aggressive” about pressing the religious right’s pro-life, anti-gay rights agenda, or it would “pay a price in four years.” And when the pro-choice Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter made conciliatory noises about appointing moderates to the Supreme Court, Dobson launched a fevered campaign to prevent him from assuming the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which until then he had been expected to inherit. Dobson is now a Republican kingmaker.

Surprisingly, though, this isn’t a role he’s traditionally sought or relished. An absolutist disgusted by the compromises of politics, he sneers at those who place “self-preservation and power ahead of moral principle.” He has always kept his distance from Washington. Unlike Reed, a canny strategist above all, Dobson has talked about bringing down the GOP if it fails him. Yet as the gay-marriage movement surged this year, Dobson’s moral outrage over the direction of American culture went supernova, asserting in his recent book Marriage Under Fire that Western civilization hangs in the balance. But now Dobson faces a difficult trial. He must decide which he hates more, Washington politics or cultural apocalypse.

Dobson’s clout emanates from Focus on the Family, a Colorado Springs-based ministry he founded that is awesome in scope: publishing books and magazines, disseminating Dobson’s weekly newspaper column to more than 500  papers, and airing radio shows—including Dobson’s own—that reach people in 115 countries every week, from Japan to Botswana and in languages from Spanish to Zulu. The ministry receives so much mail it has its own ZIP code.

His rise began in 1977, when as an unknown pediatric psychologist in California he published Dare to Discipline, a denunciation of permissive parenting that tried to rehabilitate the practice of spanking. The book sold 2 million copies. Dobson then cranked out a string of follow-up Christian self-help books, with titles like Straight Talk to Men and What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women.

What made Dobson’s books successful wasn’t, as you might think, bilious jeremiads about modernity, but rather their highly practical advice about daily challenges from midlife crises to sibling rivalry. In these books and elsewhere, Dobson can sound like a perfectly sensible, if conservative, pop psychologist, not too different from Dr. Phil. On his Web site, he replies to a query about a marriage stuck in the doldrums. Instead of haranguing the questioner about the covenant of marriage, Dobson concedes that “[a]dults still love the thrill of the chase, the lure of the unattainable, the excitement of the new and boredom with the old. Immature impulses are controlled and minimized in a committed relationship, of course, but they never fully disappear.”

Possessed of a friendly, fatherly manner, Dobson can even play the part of genial cornball. A passage in Straight Talk to Men, for instance, meant to show Dobson’s sympathy for ordinary families, recounts what he calls “the day we now refer to as ‘Black Sunday.’ ” On that gruesome morning, it turns out, the Dobsons woke up late for church, spilled some milk at breakfast and—Lord have mercy!—lost their tempers after a Dobson child got his church clothes dirty. “At least one spanking was delivered, as I recall, and another three or four were promised. Yes, it was a day to be remembered (or forgotten),” Dobson writes. The lament sounds like something you’d hear from the hyper-geeky and ultra-devout Ned Flanders of The Simpsons.

Initially, Dobson indeed focused on the family, keeping his distance (as many evangelicals customarily did) from the political arena’s dirty deal-making. But as his following grew, he warmed to politics. In 1983 he established the Family Research Council as his political arm in Washington, although he had his friend Gary Bauer enter the Gomorrah of Washington so Dobson could concentrate on his ministry in Colorado. Then, in the late 1990s Dobson began to grow disenchanted with Republican leaders in Congress for not pushing the Christian social agenda harder. In the 2000 campaign his tepid support of Bush may have helped dampen turnout among evangelical voters, a disappointment Karl Rove dwelled on for four years.

It was the gay-marriage debate that finally hurled Dobson into politics wholeheartedly. The subject of homosexuality seems to exert a special power over him, and he has devoted much idiosyncratic thought to it. When discussing gays he spares no detail, no matter how prurient. In Bringing Up Boys, he gleefully reprints a letter he received from  a 13-year-old boy who describes wiggling his naked body in front of the mirror to “make my genitals bounce up and down” and admits to having “tried more than once to suck my own penis (to be frank).” Dobson believes that such adolescents suffer from what he calls “pre-homosexuality,” a formative stage which results from having a weak father figure. Dobson further contends that homosexuality, especially in such an early stage, can be “cured.” His ministry runs a program called Love Won Out that seeks to convert “ex-gays” to heterosexuality. (Alas, the program’s director, a self-proclaimed “ex-gay” himself, was spotted at a gay bar in 2000, an episode Dobson downplayed as “a momentary setback.”)

To Dobson, gay marriage is a looming catastrophe of epic proportions. He has compared the recent steps toward gay marriage to Pearl Harbor and likens the battle against it to D-Day. While Dobson maintains that he’d prefer to stay out of politics, he has said that “the attack and assault on marriage is so distressing that I just feel like I can’t remain silent.” Earlier this year, Dobson started a new offshoot of Focus on the Family called Focus on the Family Action,which he used to campaign openly for Bush. And during the campaign he joined Ralph Reed and born-again Watergate conspirator Charles Colson in regular conference calls with Karl Rove and other senior White House officials.

With Bush’s election, Dobson has won a major battle. But success brings its own perils. It’s quite possible that Dobson, his hopes having been raised, will find them dashed. After all, Republican strategists will surely realize that too strong an anti-gay stand could further alienate moderates and independents (groups that John Kerry actually won this year).Dobson himself predicted future disappointment during an appearance on ABC’s This Week last Sunday. Asked whether Bush would fail evangelicals, Dobson replied, “I’m sure he will fail us. He doesn’t dance to our tune.” If that’s true, and Dobson believes his words about putting principle ahead of power, then his new bond with the GOP may already be in jeopardy.

Perhaps more damaging is the possibility that Dobson gets what he wants. Maybe the GOP will establish an anti-abortion Supreme Court, overturn Roe v. Wade, stamp out gay rights, ban stem-cell research forever, and shut down MTV and cancel The Bachelor. Voters may not be so pleased with the Republican Party after that. Despite the qualms they showed about gay marriage this year, there’s no reason to think they want anything like Dobson’s Utopia, and they could see a replay of, say, 1998, when the perception that angry culture warriors were running the GOP damaged the party at the polls. In one of his books, Dobson has written of the gay-rights movement that “[e]vil has a way of overreaching.” So does the far right.