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The Collective
Thursday, March 29, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Via US News: Dobson Offers Insight on 2008 Republican Hopefuls

Focus on the Family founder James Dobson appeared to throw cold water on a possible presidential bid by former Sen. Fred Thompson while praising former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is also weighing a presidential run, in a phone interview Tuesday.

“Everyone knows he’s conservative and has come out strongly for the things that the pro-family movement stands for,” Dobson said of Thompson. “[But] I don’t think he’s a Christian; at least that’s my impression,” Dobson added, saying that such an impression would make it difficult for Thompson to connect with the Republican Party’s conservative Christian base and win the GOP nomination.

[…]

In a follow-up phone conversation, Focus on the Family spokesman Gary Schneeberger stood by Dobson’s claim. He said that, while Dobson didn’t believe Thompson to be a member of a non-Christian faith, Dobson nevertheless “has never known Thompson to be a committed Christian—someone who talks openly about his faith.”

“We use that word—Christian—to refer to people who are evangelical Christians,” Schneeberger added. “Dr. Dobson wasn’t expressing a personal opinion about his reaction to a Thompson candidacy; he was trying to ‘read the tea leaves’ about such a possibility.”

[…]

While making it clear he was not endorsing any Republican presidential candidate, Dobson, who is considered the most politically powerful evangelical figure in the country, also said that Gingrich was the “brightest guy out there” and “the most articulate politician on the scene today.”

In regards to the US News headline, may I say: Dobson offered insight into Dobson far more than he offered insight into the candidates. Indeed, I would note for someone who is considered a religious leader to casually state one’s “impression” about another’s faith is rather irresponsible and presumptive.

I would further say that while Dobson has the right to support whichever candidate he likes, this is a really good example of the problems some (many?) religious leaders get into when they start trying to be political brokers. By stating who and who isn’t a Christian (by Dobson’s definition, I might add) and linking that to a candidate’s desirability while simultaneously giving support to another candidate who has had questionable moral behavior creates a rather odd synergy.

Dobson clearly fancies himself a key player in Republican politics (if not national politics in general). That he has had influence over time is undeniable, but I think his overall significance is not as great as he (and some of his critics, for that matter) think it is. Now, I think that Dobson’s basic motivation is legitimate: he has particular policy goals and seeks to influence who holds office for the purpose of pursuing those goals. The problem, of course, is that when one pursues such a course in the name of a religious perspective, then one runs a risk of the political choices redounding negatively to one’s religion, as politics never quite lives up to religious moral standards. As such, one can bring attacks upon one’s faith by the political stances one takes. Not only can that make one look like an opportunists, a sycophant and/or a hypocrite, it can bring, by extension, shame (or, at least, serious public questions) about one’s religion.

For example, in this case Dobson comes across as intolerant and overly judgmental of Thompson (which is a general criticism of Christianity in the first place). Further, non-Christians (and Christians) can rightfully ask how Dobson, whose ministry is called Focus on the Family, and whose life work has been to extol the traditional nuclear family, can be as cozy as he has been with Gingrich, who hasn’t exactly done the best job of focusing on his own familial responsibilities.

Note: I am not saying that that disqualifies Gingrich, but rather that it is odd, to put it kindly, that Dobson can publicly criticize Thompson for not being evangelical enough, while giving Newt two “get out of marriage free”/”get out of adultery free” cards (at least in terms of public perception).

For on the one hand, while Dobson has, as I noted, legitimate policy interests, he should place the reputation of his faith above short-term political gains and for some time, Dobson hasn’t (in my opinion) done a very good job on that front (another recent example would be his dismissive attitude in the Mark Foley scandal).

For Dobson to be so smitten with Gingrich is probably as much about the other candidates as it is about Gingrich, who has never struck me as an especially evangelical fellow (and I have paid close attention to his career for some time). However, Romney is a Mormon, Rudy is, well, Rudy, and the rest haven’t got much of a shot. Since Gingrich was willing to do the mea culpa routine on the radio with Dobson a few weeks back coupled with the lack of an alternative, I guess gave Newt the Dobson slot by default.

And really, I am not sure why Dobson, per se, is making such a big deal about how “evangelical” a candidate is. I would argue that we have only had two overtly evangelical Presidents in recent memory: Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush. If we are using that variable our (admittedly small) sample doesn’t tell us much about the presence of evangelicalism in the White House in terms of governance and public policy. And by “evangelical” I mean overt, and repeated, references to ideas like “being born again” and to Jesus Christ specifically, and as part of their public and political philosophy (something Carter and Bush both did as a candidate and as president). Plenty (indeed, all) Presidents have used a great deal of religious language, which was often overtly Christian or could be construed as evangelical.

h/t: OTB

Technorati Tags: James Dobson, Newt Gingrich, Focus on the Family, Fed Thomspon

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Filed under: US Politics, 2008 Campaign, Religion | |

4 Comments

  1. I couldn’t agree more. While some look at faith as something to be talked about (especially in politics) many others consider faith a personal matter.

    Thompson should not be judged by his display of faith but rather his votes and positions on issues. I believe it’s called walking the walk.

    Comment by Steven Plunk — Thursday, March 29, 2007 @ 9:36 am

  2. Dobson Says Fred Thompson Not Real Christian

    Focus on the Family’s James Dobson told U.S. News that Fred Thompson would have a hard time getting the Republican nomination, since he’s not really a Christian.
    “Everyone knows he’s conservative and has come out strongly for th…

    Trackback by Outside The Beltway | OTB — Thursday, March 29, 2007 @ 9:53 am

  3. […] cross-posted from PoliBlog […]

    Pingback by Political Mavens » Dobson on Thompson and Gingrich (Politcs and Religion) — Thursday, March 29, 2007 @ 10:03 am

  4. …I think his overall significance is not as great as he (and some of his critics, for that matter) think it is.

    This is key. I have always wondered the same thing about this guy.

    Does he have an actual apparatus or network of political mobilization? Or do other, more localized, preachers kind of mimic his views?

    My sense is that these churches act more in a more diffuse, Putnam-esque social captial sense.

    I know Dobson has a media apparatus, but are people actually watching him directly?

    There has to have been some mobilization scholars looking at this phenomenon.

    Comment by Ratoe — Thursday, March 29, 2007 @ 10:15 am

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