NPR: James Dobson is perhaps the most powerful leader of the Christian Right, more powerful than Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson ever were according to my guest, Dan Gilgoff. He's the author of a new book about Dobson called "The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and evangelical America are winning the culture war." Gilgoff is a senior editor at US News and World Report and has been covering how the Christian Right is influencing current politics, including the Democratic and Republican presidential primary campaigns. We'll talk about that a little later. Gilgoff says James Dobson's organizational empire provides the national armature for the modern-day Christian Right, like the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition had done in earlier decades. Dobson is a child psychologist who, in the 1970's, started the radio show, "Focus on the Family," that dispenses biblically based family advice. It's now on about 2,000 stations in the US. Dobson also took the lead in founding the Family Research Council which Gilgoff describes as the premier lobbying group for the Christian Right. Dan Gilgoff, would you describe the group Dobson founded, Focus on the Family, which has been his home base.
Dan Gilgoff: Sure. Focus on the Family was an organization that was launched by James Dobson as a radio show in 1977. Its first high was as a California show where what he calls "correspondents," women who would answer the phone calls and the letters that were asking about issues about their family -- from an unfaithful husband to kids that were using drugs. Over the last 25 years, the organization has really grown around that dynamic. That is, James Dobson's listeners calling or writing letters or -- these days -- emailing Focus on the Family (he gets 10,000 emails each month) -- asking what James Dobson thinks about family topic "x" and that really explains most of the ministry today.
NPR: So what you describe is, basically, advice shows and advice-oriented operation pertaining to family. You haven't described a political radio show. Does he have a political base through these family-oriented advice operations?
DG: Well, the fact that the political shows are a rarity that Dobson does and the political work of Focus on the Family is a small fraction of its overall work is what gives Dobson unrivalled -- currently and historically -- power within the Christian Right movement. The paradox is that for the most part Dobson doesn't talk politics on air. For the most part, Focus on the Family doesn't engage in outright political advocacy. But to the extent that they do, they do it more effectively and more powerfully than any previous Christian Right leader or organization precisely because they have this relationship with who they call their constituents, their listeners and the people they correspond with, that is totally outside the realm of politics. And so when Dobson or Focus attempt to transfer or parlay that relationship with its constituents -- now its mailing is almost 3 million strong -- it's remarkably effective precisely because it's not a relationship that's based on politics. It's much deeper than that.
NPR: So he's used this mailing list to get out political messages?
DG: Yes. He uses his radio show. It's pretty fascinating. Everytime he does a political radio show he always frames it as being a departure from what he'd rather be doing and almost as an unscheduled interruption into what was previously planned. So for instance a show about talking to your kids about adolescence, about coming of age and human sexuality -- James Dobson will come on air and will say that show has been postponed until the next day because there's an urgent matter that needs to be discussed. So it's always framed as kind of intruding into the other issues he'd rather be talking about, rather be "focusing on the family."
NPR: James Dobson also co-founded a group called the Family Research Council. Talk about that...
DG: The Family Research Council was co-founded by James Dobson in 1983. It was really a small Washington lobbying outfit through the 1980's until Gary Bauer, who was the chief domestic policy advisor for Ronald Reagan, came to the organization in the late 1980's after the Reagan administration was over. He arrived in 1989. That year the Family Research Council was rolled into Focus on the Family because it was really struggling. By the time that Gary Bauer left a decade later -- he left to run for president in the year 2000 -- it had grown to having a $10 million budget, it had over 100 employees. In the wake of the demise of the Christian Coalition in the late 1990's after Ralph Reed's departure in 1996, Family Research Council became the most powerful Christian Right organization in Washington and remains that till today. It's very closely tied to Focus on the Family.
NPR: You say that one of the ways that James Dobson's way of operating compares to, say, Ralph Reed in the days when Reed ran the Christian Coalition is that Reed had befriended each candidate so that the Christian movement would have an ally regardless of who won -- which Republican candidate won. Whereas Dobson took an all-or-nothing strategy. Describe that all-or-nothing strategy.
DG: Ralph Reed was a Republican before he was a born-again Christian. James Dobson is the opposite. He was an evangelical Christian before he became politically active. I talked to Ralph Reed for the book. He owns up to that. He had really been raised through the Republican Party. He had become a leader in the Young Republicans when he was in college. He graduated and was very high up with Grover Norquist and Jack Abramoff -- names we all know well now in that organization. And so his first allegiance was to the Republican Party. A lot of his credibility seemed to go up in smoke in the 1996 election because he was seen to be supporting Bob Dole who was considered a social moderate by a lot of Christian Right activists. They were apoplectic that Ralph Reed, the most powerful Christian activist of his time, was seen to be -- tacitly, at least -- and really behind the scenes pretty strongly endorsing the candidacy of Bob Dole. What happened was, the year after in 1997, Ralph Reed leaves the Christian Coalition and James Dobson comes to Washington in 1998, sits down in the basement with a group of about two dozen House Republicans a lot of whom are very close allies of his, and threatens to leave the Republican Party. He says that, although the Republicans took over four years earlier, in the 1994 Republican "revolution," the Christian Right thought it had very little to show for it. There had been no real curbs on abortion rights passed, the National Endowment for the Arts was still up and running. And so Dobson threatens to leave. And it really ushers in this new era in relations between the Christian Right and the Republican Party, with Dobson at the helm and becoming much less compromising than Ralph Reed was and much more all-or-nothing, you're-with-us-or-against-us approach.
NPR: Another example of what you're saying is in 2004, after President Bush was reelected, he basically gave an ultimatum to the president and to Congressional Republicans about what they needed to do to continue getting the evangelical vote. What did he say?
DG: He said that he viewed... I talked to him a couple of days after the 2004 election. He said that in his mind the 2004 election was really something of a reprieve for the Republican Party. And if they didn't deliver on his issues and on the issues of the Christian Right, two years later and especially four years later -- that is, in the course of the 2006 midterm elections but even more so in 2008 -- Republican presidential primaries and presidential elections -- that evangelical voters would stay home.
NPR: And what did he do to follow up on that ultimatum?
DG: In 2006, he actually came to the defense of Republicans, even though he had previously threatened to leave the party, or to at least encourage evangelicals to stay home. One of the questions raised in the book is, since the Christian Right has tied itself so closely to the Republican Party exclusively, have they painted themselves into a corner? Do they really have an alternative or anywhere else to go?
NPR: What was Dobson's role in helping President Bush get re-elected?
DG: It was very significant. 2004 really saw the first outright presidential endorsement of James Dobson's career and it was for President Bush. But even more significantly, Focus on the Family has developed this national state-based network of organizations called "Family Policy Councils" Focus on the Family doesn't like to refer to them as affiliates because they're independent organizations with separate funding structures and separate boards. But they're very closely tied and are in constant contact with Focus on the Family. If it wasn't for Dobson's affiliation with the groups, they would have had tremendous difficulty getting off the ground. These state-based organizations are really the successors to the Christian Coalition state chapters in the 1990's. Only I argue in the book that the Family Policy Councils attached to Focus are much more effective. Exhibit A of that efficacy is that Ohio in 2004 was, of course, the battleground state that determined the election, was won by President Bush by fewer than 20,000 votes that year. There have been a handful of studies done by academics that it was the uptick in social conservative and particularly evangelical votes in that state that gave it to President Bush. If it wasn't for the constitutional amendment in that state banning same-sex marriage -- that the Focus on the Family state affiliate really had fight tooth and nail to get onto the ballot -- it's likely that John Kerry would have won Ohio. I'm kind of connecting all the dots here, but that effort was largely funded by the group you mentioned earlier, Family Research Council here in Washington, D.C., which poured $2M into the Ohio effort and was able to hire scads of signature collectors to insure that the Constitutional amendment would be on the ballot in Ohio. That really put Bush over the top. In that way, I would argue that Focus on the Family was essential to George W. Bush in his re-election.
NPR: Dobson has said some very provocative things about gay marriage. You quote something that he wrote in a 2003 Focus on the Family newsletter. I'll read that: "Most gays and lesbians don't want to marry each other. That would entangle them in all sorts of legal constraints. Who needs a lifetime commitment to one person! The legalization of homosexual marriage is, for gay activists, merely a stepping stone on the road to eliminating all social restrictions on marriage and sexuality." And then he also said: "This effort is our D-Day, our Gettysburg, our Stalingrad." How did gay marriage become so much the focal point for James Dobson?
DG: The easy answer was the legalization of gay marriage by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in 2003, and enacted in 2004, which really, for Dobson, presented ... put the spectre of gay marriage into reality. That helped rally evangelicals nationwide in a really unprecedented way. It obviously had a huge impact on the 2004 election. But I think the more complex answer is that in the summer of 2003 a group of top Christian Right activists including Dobson met in Washington, D.C. -- or actually in Arlington, VA, right across the river... One of the issues that they were grappling with at that meeting was that the Christian Right had been very successful. At that point the presidency was in George W. Bush's hands, the Congress was controlled by Republicans, there were the first curbs on abortion since Roe v. Wade enacted by Congress. But the downside to that success was that these organizations, including Focus on the Family, had seen their fundraising flatline and in some instances plummet. There seemed to be among the evangelical grassroots a certain complacency that had set in. In the minds of Dobson and those activists who were meeting in 2003, gay marriage was not only something that presented a threat to civilization, to Western civilization, in their minds and signaled the downfall of civilization, but it was also a vehicle by which they could revive their own ailing organizations and some of their fundraising. So that was the beginning of the effort on the part of Dobson to convince a lot of skeptics within the Christian Right who'd said "we'll never be able to pass an amendment to the Constitution -- it's easier to elect a president and that's pretty difficult!" -- he steamrolled over those activists during the ensuing couple of years and turned the effort to pass an amendment to the Constitution into the paramount issue of the Christian Right over the last couple of years.
NPR: There's a kind of secretive group called the Council of National Policy. Dobson is a member of this group. Tell us a little about what their function is.
DG: They're a handful of coalitions of conservative activists, particularly social conservatives like James Dobson, that meet regularly two times a year. The Council for National Policy is one of them. Its cofounders include Tim LaHaye of the popular "Left Behind" series which has sold in the 10's of millions to a mostly evangelical audience. James Dobson is also a member and has been attending since the meetings began in the early 1980's. Interestingly James Dobson -- we talked a little bit about the crusade that he led in 1998 in Washington, D.C. where he really dressed down the Republican Congressional leadership for not delivering on his issues -- he thought that the Council for National Policy over that same time period in the 1990's, perhaps under the sway of Christian Coalition which he saw as way too accomodating to the Republican Party, had lost its spine. So for his 1998 crusade, he started that with a speech at the Council for National Policy meeting that year at Phoenix, Arizona, and he later delivered that speech in the basement of Congress which is when he took the Republicans to task. It really started this entire new era of relations between the Christian Right and the Republican Party because the Congressional leadership at that time knew it had to respond to Dobson, knew it couldn't afford to lose Dobson and his followers. And so in the House a caucus called the "Values Action Team" got off the ground which would be regularly in touch with Dobson and other Christian Right leaders on a weekly basis, and give them a direct pipeline to Congressional Republicans and the Republican leadership. That whole campaign that year started at the Council for National Policy.
NPR: So the Council for National Policy recently held one of its closed meetings and the goal of this meeting was to talk about Republicans running for the presidential nomination. Some of those candidate showed up to address the Council. Who are they favoring now? Who is the leadership of Christian Right favoring now?
DG: It's a real challenge for the Christian Right now because of the three Republican frontrunners, ...McCain, ...Mitt Romney, and ...Giuliani, there's really not a Republican who is an unabashed social conservative or a social conservative who doesn't have an asterisk next their name. They all have major challenges in appealing to the Christian Right constituency. So there's a debate right now going on within the Christian Right and within the Council for National Policy. One of the points of contention is whether to organize among Christian Right leaders behind second tier candidates -- someone like Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, who is a true-blue social conservative -- in an attempt to catapult them into the top tier. Or to take a kind of every man for himself approach, by which each of the leaders of the Christian Right would gravitate toward the candidate of their choice. Interestingly, James Dobson sat down for the first time, one on one, with one of the frontrunners just last month. And that was with Mitt Romney at his Colorado Springs headquarters. So Dobson seems to be appearing to be pondering whether or not he could support Mitt Romney who has a past as a social liberal and who, of course, his Mormonism raises major red flags with the evangelical rank-and-file. But Dobson seemed to be perhaps supporting Romney or joining this plan to perhaps catapult one of the second tier candidates into the top ranks.
NPR: Last week Mitt Romney and Rudolph Giuliani addressed the Conservative Action Committee and during a straw poll at that meeting Romney came in first, Giuliani came in second. At the meeting you were just talking about, the Council for National Policy meeting, Richard Land who heads the lobbying arm of the Southern Baptist Convention said that if Giuliani gets the nomination, evangelicals won't vote. Can you actually envision an election where they wouldn't vote?
DG: One of the most remarkable turnabouts in the evangelical movement over the last thirty years is that -- up until the Moral Majority in the late 1970's -- evangelicals in this country had really withdrawn from public life. And that dates all the way back to the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925 which, for the evangelical movement, even though they really won the case legally, was a huge embarrassment and it really stigmatized evangelicals. So in the last 30 years -- since the rise of Moral Majority and with successor groups like James Dobson's Focus on the Family -- the turnabout has been that evangelicals now vote in higher numbers than almost any other religious tradition including atheists or secular Americans. It would be difficult to envision evangelicals staying home from the polls in 2008. I think some of the interesting spin coming from Christian Right leaders like James Dobson on the 2006 midterm elections is that the Republicans didn't deliver on their promise to enact more legislation against abortion rights, to push for an amendment to the Constitution that would outlaw gay marriage. James Dobson and his allies say that evangelicals were demoralized and stayed home in 2006. But that's not the story that exit polls tell. The story that the exit polls tell is that evangelicals still represented about a quarter of the electorate in 2006 but that Democrats were able to peel off a small percent but a percent that in close elections put them over the top with evangelical votes and the votes of weekly churchgoers. If you've been looking at Ohio, which is a state we've been talking a lot about in this conversation, Sherrod Brown, who was the successful Democratic candidate for the Senate there in 2006, won around 45% of the churchgoing group. If Kerry had done that well in Ohio in 2004 among the same segment of the Ohio population, he'd be in the White House now. So for Democrats, they don't have to move a lot of these votes to make a really big difference among evangelicals and churchgoing Americans.
NPR: A lot of people think that the Democratic victory in the House and the Senate in 2006 signalled that the Christian Right had lost power. Do you see it that way or do you see it differently?
DG: I would actually draw the exact opposite lesson. Everyone after the 2004 election talked about that election as being a "values election." A lot of it, for the Christian Right, was a response to the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts. And the birth of the amendment to the Constitution to ban gay marriages, a real issue in the evangelical movement. But if you look at the exit polls for 2006, that was also a values election. Only the values this time were about Republican corruption in Congress. And in talking to the pollsters for the Democratic National Committee, for instance, when they saw the numbers shift in the two years leading up to the 2006 midterm elections -- they were tracking values and evangelical voters very closely -- when they saw those numbers start to break for them, it was basically after revelations that the former House speaker, Tom DeLay, and accusations and charges against him and corruption -- and after the Mark Foley scandal which occurred just a month or two before the 2006 elections. So in a way, the 2006 midterms and the shift of evangelical and religious votes were a testament to the power of values in churchgoers in elections. It's also important to point out that John Kerry's religious outreach in 2004 was abysmal. Particularly when compared to the machine that Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition, was able to build for President Bush in his reelection in 2004. But John Kerry's religious outreach direction in 2004 spent the next couple of years founding a consulting firm that would help Democratic candidates reach out to evangelical and faith voters. She was signed up by so many of the successful campaigns in 2006, by the successful Democrats, whether it be the Ohio success if the Democrat for governor or the senate, or for Casey in Pennsylvania. So I think the Democrats applied a lot of the lessons of 2004 and the failure of religious outreach that year to 2006. In the places where this new consulting firm -- called "Common Good Strategies" run by Kerry's former outreach director -- was active, those were the states and the races where the Democrats saw the sharpest uptick in evangelical votes and in the votes of religious Americans. I think it's no mistake that right now each of the three Democratic frontrunners for president have serious religious outreach operations up and running at this early stage.
NPR: And what are they emphasizing in those operations?
DG: For Hillary Clinton, who is widely seen as being a secular politician and who is really a boogy-man of the Christian Right, theyre emphasizing her own active involvement in the Methodist Church, and her own faith. In the 2006 reelection effort for Senator Clinton in New York, she had begun donning a crucifix on the campaign trail. A lot of political reporters picked up on it. A lot of bloggers picked up on it and were alleging that this was some type of ploy to temper her liberalism in the eyes of voters by wearing a crucifix. Clinton hired her religious outreach director, who's an evangelical Christian, as one of her first staff hires late last year. I think going forward you'll see a real attempt to showcase her own personal faith, to reach out to evangelicals, and to come across as something of a social moderate. She made headlines a couple of years ago, when talking to an audience of family planning providers, speaking of the need to reduce abortions. I think you're going to hear more of the language from her, going forward.
NPR: What about Barack Obama? Does he have a religious outreach coordinator? What is he emphasizing in that part of his campaign?
DG: He does. He actually just last month from his Senate office the staffer charged with religious outreach to do the same for his campaign. And with Obama -- he has been active particularly in the black churches in Chicago as a community organizer. Those are the institutions through which he did a lot of his work in the last couple of decades. I think he's going to be emphasizing that work. But in talking to his religious outreach director, he's going to be including members of the clergy, religious leaders, and actually forming some of his policy and advertising that fact -- that these are people who are not only being approached for the votes they can promise to deliver, but in the actual formulation of policy which maybe a couple of years ago in the Democratic Party would have raised a lot of eyebrows. Just a couple of years later -- now -- it's seen as kind of essential to casting off the reputation of the party as being a party of secularists.
NPR: There seems to be a split within the Christian Right now on several issues, one of which is global warming. There's a group of people on the Christian Right, including Richard Cizik who's head of the policy wing of the National Association of Evangelicals, who think that environmentalism and global warming are Christian issues. Cizik is one of the leaders of a Christian initiative to stop global warming. Last week James Dobson and several other leaders of the religious right sent a letter to Cizik saying what?
DG: The letter was to the board of the National Association of Evangelicals. It really encouraged the board to silence Richard Cizik, this lobbyist in Washington for the National Association of Evangelicals who's been really forthright in recent years and leading the charge to combat global warming and for evangelicals to view it as a biblical responsibility. To him this is a theological issue -- to combat global warming -- receiving a lot of flak from the Christian Right including James Dobson and other higher upts in Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, and some of the state policy councils. This is just another demonstration of the whole thesis of my book on how Dobson sits atop this Christian Right empire. If you look at the signers of the letter to the board of the National Association of Evangelicals last week urging either the silencing or resignation of Richard Cizik, four of the eight top signatories on that letter are either Focus on the Family executives, including James Dobson, or with Family Research Council, Dobson's proxy in Washington, or one of the state affiliates of Focus on the Family. This is another demonstration of Focus on the Family as representing the old guard of the movement and some of its newer voices, including Richard Cizik and the NAE, going up against a lot of resistance in breaking the mold of social issues exclusively being the province of the Right. That is, the issues of abortion and gay rights in particular.
NPR: Last year Richard Cizik was one of the people who drew up a document on behalf of Christians who want to stop global warming. This is a document that said that stopping global warming is a Christian duty. But James Dobson and others on the Christian Right sent a letter pressuring Richard Cizik to withdraw his name from this document. Cizik did withdraw his name although he continued to speak on behalf of stopping global warming as a Christian duty. Why is James Dobson so opposed to Christians working to stop global warming? It's one thing to not work on it himself, but it's another to try to prevent other Christians from trying to stop global warming. Why does he want to stop that movement?
DG: You're absolutely right. I think that it's emblematic of a fear that the movement is actually gathering steam behind Richard Cizik and some other high-profile evangelicals. Cizik succeeded in getting figures like the leader of the Salvation Army, the "purpose-driven life" pastor, Rick Warren, who has tens of thousands of members of his Saddleback Church in southern California. He got some of the major titans of the evangelical movement onto this document. Dobson fears that in doing that, it threatens to distract in-the-pews evangelicals from what he calls "moral causes" -- which he doesn't consider global warming to be -- which are the hot-button social issues of abortion and same-sex marriage. So he fears that if the evangelical movement gets distracted, in his mind, by issues like global warming and perhaps even other issues like international human rights or Darfur -- to a lesser extent -- they will take their attention off the fight to end abortion, the fight to oppose same-sex marriage. Those issues in his mind -- and to the old guard of the Christian Right -- are paramount.
NPR: If the Christian Right is split over environmentalism, what are some of the other issues splitting the Christian Right now and who are some of the people on the side of these new issues?
DG: Rick Warren... is one of perhaps the biggest names that Richard Cizik succeeded in getting on the evangelical climate initiative. He's a figure who's really been leading on AIDS in Africa, has been trying to get his church, which comprises tens of thousands of members, to adopt communities and villages in countries like Rwanda, to combat illiteracy, AIDS, and poverty. On those issues, Dobson isn't somebody who's been outright opposing that. But his declining to lend his voice to that movement is something that prevents it from getting a lot more traction in the evangelical community. When members of the evangelical community want to get mass traction within the evangelical universe, the gatekeeper they really seek out is Dobson. In some ways, by refusing to lend his name to the branching out of the evangelical movement politically, he is kind of holding up some of this branching out and perhaps with his exiting the scene in the next few years or the next decade, it will expedite what I call the birth of the new New Right. A New Right that is very conservative on social issues but that doesn't limit itself to social issues.
NPR: Where does Sam Brownback fit in? He's a Senator who's trying to get the Republican Party's nomination for president.
DG: I think Senator Brownback is really a poster child for the new New Right. So much of his campaign for the presidency to date has been fixated on the issues of abortion and preserving one woman-one man marriage. At the same time, he was a real leader in prison reform in this country, on speaking out about stopping genocide in Darfur. He's a guy who straddles these worlds. He's very close to Dr. Dobson and is on his show pretty regularly. At the same time, he's in the Rick Warren camp of trying to branch the movement out.
NPR: So by watching his campaign, it's kind of a window on that split? and where it's heading?
DG: Oh, it is. Absolutely. And he's not the only one. The former governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, is another one of the members of what I would call the new New Right -- very conservative and uncompromising on the social issues, talks about them all the time, but also frames education as a values issue, healthcare as a values issue. And so, again, someone who's also close to James Dobson and is on the show regularly, but who's in that other camp as well, looking beyond the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage.
NPR: Let me see if I can sum up some of the points that you've made in this interview. And that is that you think that although the Democrats won in the House and Senate in 2006, the evangelical vote is still very strong, the evangelical right is still very strong. But both Democrats and Republicans are changing a little bit. The Democrats are trying to speak more to the religious vote; at the same time the evangelical right is changing direction a little bit -- at least the leadership is. The younger leaders within it are changing direction a little bit, moving in a little more international direction and environmental direction. That's causing some division in the Christian Right. So you've got change on both sides here?
DG: You do. And there might be more change. Once Dobson exits the scene -- Dobson is in his early 70's right now. He's stepped down from the presidency of Focus on the Family. There are questions about how long he will be able to continue to be active. At some point, of course, he's going to die. Once he exits the scene, it will be difficult for the Christian Right to produce a leader as influential as he is in this day and age because the movement is so decentralized. It is really comprised largely by entrepreneurial, non-denominational, evangelical churches on the local level. It's very difficult to transcend all those denominational lines. Dobson has been able to do it. It's taken him decades to do. So once Dobson leaves the scene, I think the evangelical movement and its branching out into issues like global warming or combating AIDS in Africa will actually take off even more that they have now. Unless the movement could produce a social conservative who is as committed as Dobson is to focusing on hot-button issues, it's just difficult to see how they're going to replicate his power, once he leaves.