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RELIGION : A Force in Conservative Protestant America : Dobson's Influence Based on Family Issues

April 02, 1988|JOHN DART | Times Religion Writer

Though he is neither an ordained minister nor a television personality, James C. Dobson of Arcadia has emerged as one of the most influential voices in conservative Protestant America.

A Christian psychologist to the nation's evangelical families and a frequent Reagan Administration appointee to government panels, Dobson has lately used his clout on radio to fight legislation deemed harmful by the religious right.

Two weeks ago, Congress was bombarded with calls urging legislators not to override President Reagan's veto on the Civil Rights Restoration Act, and Dobson was one of the instigators.

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On three of his daily "Focus on the Family" radio shows--heard over more than 1,200 stations--Dobson urged listeners to protest that the act was, as he put it, "an incredible intrusion into religious liberty."

Because of that and similar outcries from Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, Timothy Robertson of the "700 Club" and other conservatives, Capitol Hill officials said more than 500,000 calls were received by congressional offices on one day alone. A spokesman for Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), who originally voted for the bill and then voted to override the veto, said his office was "inundated by calls from people who believe, incorrectly, that the bill is going to undermine religion."

The measure, which had Catholic and mainline Protestant backing, was passed by the Senate 73 to 24 on March 23 and the House voted for it 292 to 133 the next day, margins large enough to override the veto.

In an interview at his new, $12.2-million ministry headquarters in Pomona, Dobson said Focus on the Family did not get involved in the legislative fight the first time it went through Congress.

"It is really a church-state issue, and I expected the church to defend itself and it didn't," he said. Under the Civil Rights Restoration Act, anti-discrimination standards would be enforced against an entire institution even though only some of its departments received federal funds.

Dobson said civil rights act supporters have not persuaded him that religious bodies that accept federal funds will not be eventually forced to hire alcoholics, transvestites, drug addicts, AIDS patients and homosexuals.

As for congressmen who complained of vitriolic calls, Dobson said, "It's really interesting. The more liberal perspective is entitled to be vitriolic. If you insult homosexuals, or women, or any of their cherished minorities, you are going to get a vitriolic response. Congress hears that.

"Those on the right side of the spectrum are supposed to go about their business and raise their kids, do their work and not become upset when their territory is invaded. . . . For those who called and their calls were disregarded, I just hope they'll remember in November. You've got to translate it into political action."

Dobson said he does not address issues that are not related to the family. "I will not talk about Central America or the new (nuclear arms) treaty we're working on with Russia," he said.

'A Force to Be Reckoned With'

The "pro-family" agenda covers a lot of ground, including strong criticism of the U.S. Supreme Court, said David Crane, issues director at People for the American Way. Though the liberal, Washington-based organization has primarily critiqued the political pronouncements of television evangelists, Crane said, "We've taken Dobson seriously. He's a force to be reckoned with."

Focus on the Family recently launched an attractive, 16-page monthly magazine called Citizen that encourages its more than 60,000 readers to act in the public arena. The main articles in the March issue were headlined "The Unbelievable Beliefs of the ACLU" and "Freedom From Religion, the ACLU's Skewed View of Society" and were not limited to rapping the liberal group for its stance against restraints on pornography.

Yet, as Dobson pointed out, his lay ministry focuses primarily on family matters. That was how he developed a following in the first place.

A former pediatrics faculty member in the USC School of Medicine, Dobson wrote a child development book in 1970 titled, "Dare to Discipline." It has sold more than 2 million copies and still ranks in the top 10 best-selling paperbacks in Christian bookstores, according to Bookstore Journal.

Books Are No. 1 and 2

Two new books he published last year--neither one containing political overtones--rank 1 and 2 on the hard-cover Christian best-seller list, ahead of books by popular evangelicals Charles Colson, Billy Graham and Fullerton pastor Charles Swindoll.

In the No. 1 book, "Parenting Isn't for Cowards," Dobson tells readers that some children are born strong-willed and others are naturally compliant, leading parents to think wrongly that they are either terrible or wonderful in child-raising.

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