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A Voice That Carries

Millions of people hang on the advice of evangelical psychologist James C. Dobson. With that much clout, he's got Washington's ear too.

October 07, 2005|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — They call because they feel afraid and alone, and because the voice on the radio is kind.

My husband is addicted to gambling. My sixth-grader refuses to study. My aunt is an alcoholic. My daughter hears voices. A cousin molested me when I was a boy.

"My son talks so ugly. Today he said, 'stupid mommy.' It breaks my heart, and I don't know what to do." A sob escapes the young mother on the line.

"I know he's a busy man, but I was wondering, would it be possible for me to ask Dr. Dobson a few questions?" she asks. "I want to apply the Bible in how I raise my boys. But I'm really struggling."

It is calls like these -- by the thousands each week -- that have transformed plain-talking child psychologist James C. Dobson into a formidable political force.

The founder of the evangelical ministry Focus on the Family, Dobson, 69, is known in Washington as a warrior for the religious right -- relentless, ruthless and dangerous to cross. He's so influential that White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove rushed to line up his support for the nomination of Harriet E. Miers to the Supreme Court by personally reassuring him of her conservatism.

But if the political world treats Dobson as a powerbroker, to millions of Americans he is simply a friend.

In daily radio broadcasts, monthly newsletters, 18 websites, nine magazines and 36 top-selling books, Dobson offers advice on toilet training, temper tantrums, infidelity and other stresses of family life. At the heart of his ministry is the toll-free resource line he has run for more than a quarter-century.

The calls to 1-800-A-FAMILY are personal, not political. Yet over the decades, the hotline has bolstered Dobson's influence in the nation's capital by cultivating millions of grateful, reverentially loyal constituents. It has also emboldened him to use that clout to push a conservative social agenda.

"In those thousands of calls, we believe we're seeing the unraveling of the social fabric of this country," said Tom Minnery, vice president of public policy for Dobson's organization.

Focus on the Family gets close to 10,000 calls, e-mails and letters daily. Most are book orders or other purchases from the vast ministry warehouse. But up to 1,000 a day are more complex: requests for help researching topics such as depression and divorce, or pleas from despairing men and women seeking Dobson's advice.

Those calls are routed to a warren of gray cubicles where dozens of assistants call up Dobson's writings to guide their responses. They are authorized to send out free self-help books and tapes; each year, the ministry gives away material worth more than $1 million. Trained to mimic Dobson's reassuring, low-key manner, they also offer much-welcomed empathy.

"I don't know where else to go," one young mother told social worker Sarah Helus, breaking down as she described her headstrong 3-year-old.

"I've tried spanking him with a switch like Dr. Dobson says, but it hasn't been effective," the mother said. "I've tried explaining to him that Mommy and Daddy make mistakes too and we all have to ask Christ's forgiveness. Nothing works. And I just lose it."

As her son howled in the background, the woman said she had read three of Dobson's parenting books, including "The Strong-Willed Child," several times. They hadn't much helped, but she hadn't lost faith. She begged for a few minutes to ask Dobson how, precisely, she should respond if her son throws a fit in Wal-Mart.

Helus told her gently that Dobson doesn't take calls. But his wisdom on scores of topics is loaded into two computers on every assistant's desk.

Already that day, Helus had used those resources to help a pastor find statistics for a sermon on divorce; to calm a father furious about his 4-year-old's habit of laughing at inappropriate times; and to recommend several books to a man whose wife had recently confided she was sexually abused as a child.

Now, Helus scanned Dobson's writings on tantrums. "Dr. Dobson has said that kids like this are often really, really bright," she soothed.

Glancing through a databank of book reviews, Helus recommended several parenting texts. Then she suggested a free phone session with one of the ministry's 16 licensed counselors, who handle 1,300 of the most serious calls each week.

"Does what they say correspond with what Dr. Dobson would say?" the mother asked anxiously. "Because I love Dr. Dobson."

Dobson has devoted himself to nurturing the masses since the late 1970s, when he quit his jobs as a psychologist at Childrens Hospital in Los Angeles and a pediatrics professor at the University of Southern California to host a family advice radio program. (Declaring Southern California too expensive, he moved his ministry to Colorado Springs in 1991.)

In his books and broadcasts, Dobson speaks directly to his core constituents: well-educated, middle-class white women in their late 20s to early 40s who work outside the home at least part time.

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