How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical America Are Winning the Culture War

The Jesus Machine
How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical America Are
Winning the Culture War
By Dan Gilgoff
St. Martin’s Press
New York, 2007

“The average person in the establishment is not aware of what
Dobson is saying to five or ten million people every week,” said
Richard Viguerie, the conservative activist who pioneered the
use of direct mail for the Republican Party in the sixties and
seventies. “That has served us beautifully.”

The Jesus Machine is a tough read, my friends, for anyone in this
country who believes in the separation of church and state. Tough, but
absolutely necessary.

As a case study in patience, ingenuity, flexibility and political
movement building, this book can’t be beat. The rough read part comes in
every time you get jerked back to reality about what the Christian Right
wants to impose on this country, and how deeply and uncompromisingly
convinced its members are about the sacredness of the mission. Slamming
back and forth between being repulsed by their vision for America and in
awe of – and trying to learn from – their inarguably successful
strategies makes for a difficult experience.

Dan Gilgoff, a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report, outlines the
piece-by-piece construction of the Christian Right infrastructure,
entering the story through recounting the rise of the powerful James
Dobson and branching off to detail other parts of the movement. Dobson
serves as a lodestone throughout, the soothing presence that reassures
evangelicals that their move into political action is really a moral,
God-driven mission and not truly partaking of dirty secular politics at
all.

 

And back when Dobson started his radio show in the late 1970’s, it
certainly seemed an apolitical venture. Gilgoff points out that the
turbulent 1960’s “gave the evangelical movement a culture to define
itself against,” and Dobson, a professor at UCLA with a strong Christian
upbringing, early on tapped into the unease of listeners that “presented
him with the opportunity to win their trust and to help instill in them
an orthodox Christian worldview that rejected the reigning
postmodernism.” The founding of Focus on the Family by all accounts was
not based on political calculation, but on the need Dobson identified in
his largely female audience to find advice on child-rearing, straying
spouses, addicted family members and all the other personal issues that
suddenly seemed destabilized by the re-examination of cultural roles.
Indeed, the radio host appears to have resisted – and still does – any
inference that Focus on the Family is primarily a political machine,
pointing to the bulk of its active correspondence with listeners still
addressing the private realm of personal conduct, private adversity and
Bible-based spiritual clarification.

As the popularity of his radio show exploded, along with sidelines of
books and videos, he quickly integrated successful business advisors
into his network and hired “correspondents” who helped Focus on the
Family retain its customized, personal approach to listeners who
contacted the organization for counsel. His insistence on quick response
to those seeking advice led to an archiving of his broadcasts and
numerous writings so that listeners who called or wrote in were able to
have their problems addressed by Focus counselors who could access an
immediate database on Dobson’s views. This reliance on amassing data
extended to compiling of extremely valuable contact information on the
listeners themselves, and it wouldn’t take long for more politically
motivated religious leaders on the Christian Right to eye both the model
and the data with envy.

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