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A Man of Millions : Broadcaster James Dobson Has Become a Leading Name in Evangelical Circles--and the Politicians Have Noticed

November 02, 1995|LARRY B. STAMMER | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — From his 46-acre Rocky Mountains headquarters, where the air is pure and the alpine panoramas are dazzling, James C. Dobson believes he has a clear view of the gathering cultural storm on the nation's horizon.

From Hollywood in the West to Washington in the East, Dobson sees traditional values and families under assault.

Gratuitous sex and unspeakable violence saturate motion pictures and television. Gangsta rap puts it to music. Politicians vote for distributing condoms in public schools and publicly funded abortions.

"Parents of faith are at war with culture. Their own kids are hearing things and experiencing things that shock the parents," declares Dobson, a child psychologist and founder and president of Focus on the Family, a $100-million-a-year Christian broadcasting and publishing empire.

Dobson's determination to stop what he calls the nation's moral free fall has made him one of the biggest names in Christian evangelical circles in the country.

It has also made him a major player in a resurgent religious right. As next year's presidential election draws near, four potential Republican nominees have made pilgrimages here seeking Dobson's advice and counsel. They want to speak to the man who speaks to millions.

Indeed, if religious broadcaster Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition--with arguably the best organized precinct organization in the country--forms the political shock troops of the religious right, then some see Dobson as a minister of ideology, a defender and definer of biblical morality.

"My job is to do what I think [the Lord is] asking me to do," Dobson told a recent gathering here of the nation's religion news writers. "I don't want to sound prophetic about that or self-aggrandizing, but I did come to say something."

Each week, 3 million to 5 million listeners--about two-thirds of them in their late 20s to early 40s--tune in to Dobson's "Focus on the Family" radio broadcasts for fatherly guidance on everything from disciplining young children (he believes in spankings under certain circumstances) to adolescent rebellion.

Every month his office gets 250,000 letters and phone calls, many of them asking for counseling, prayers for the sick, financial assistance or advice on parenting. In June a record 320,000 calls and letters poured in.

It is little wonder that Christianity Today magazine has called Dobson "the undisputed king of Christian radio." Little wonder, too, that President Clinton--who has stepped up his own public comments about family values--mistakenly referred to Dobson as "Rev. Dobson" even though the broadcaster is not ordained.

Born in Shreveport, La., the only child of a Church of the Nazarene pastor, Dobson didn't set out to become a political lodestone for the religious right.

"I just saw the family unraveling and felt such a need to try to do something about it," Dobson said in explaining why he left his position as associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the USC School of Medicine in 1977.

Dobson, a successful author, persuaded his publisher to advance him $30,000 in lieu of royalties on a book and started a fledgling Focus on the Family broadcast out of a two-room office in Arcadia.

Even Dobson was surprised at the response. "It just exploded," he said. After first moving to larger offices in Pomona, Dobson shifted his entire operation in 1991 to a sprawling new, multistory headquarters here employing 1,300 people--all of them professing Christianity.

"He's not trying to save the world," said a Pasadena father of three young sons. "He's trying to save families!"

For example, in his 1970 book, "Dare to Discipline" (Tyndale Publishing), Dobson advocates spanking children, but only when they deliberately challenge parental authority.

"I am recommending a simple principle: When you are defiantly challenged, win decisively," Dobson wrote. "When the child asks, 'Who's in charge?' tell him. When he mutters, 'Who loves me?' take him in your arms and surround him with affection. Treat him with respect and dignity, and expect the same from him. Then begin to enjoy the sweet benefits of competent parenthood."

Dobson draws no salary from his ministry and pays a portion of air time expenses to reimburse Focus on the Family for publicity that boosts his book sales. When books are specifically offered on the air Dobson waives all royalties.

Mindful of financial scandals that have befallen other broadcast ministries, Focus on the Family makes a point of saying that Dobson has "no limousines or airplanes or condos in Hawaii." Dobson and his wife, Shirley, who is chairwoman of the National Day of Prayer Committee, live in a condo here.

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Critics don't question Dobson's sincerity. Some even applaud his family counseling programs. But they charge that Dobson trades on the credibility and trust he has built with listeners to further a conservative political agenda.

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