James Dobson v. Barack Obama

James Dobson, on his Focus on the Family radio show the other day (June 24, 2008), did a 20-minute diatribe against Barack Obama. Dobson took offense at what Barack Obama said about him in a speech from two years ago. Evidently, Dobson hadn’t read the Call to Renewal speech or heard it until just recently.

In the "Call to Renewal" speech, Obama said,
“Given the increasing diversity of America's population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers. And even if we did have only Christians within our borders, who's Christianity would we teach in the schools? James Dobson's, or Al Sharpton's?”

To which Dobson responded,
“I don't want to be defensive here. Obviously, that is offensive to me. I mean, who wants to expel people who are not Christians? Expel them from what? From the country? Deprive them of constitutional rights? Is that what he thinks I want to do? Why'd this man jump on me? I haven't said anything anywhere near that. He also equates me with Al Sharpton, who is a reverend. I am not a reverend, I'm not a minister, I'm not a theologian, I'm not an evangelist. I'm a psychologist. I have a Ph.D. in child development from the University of Southern California. And there is no equivalence to us.”

Dobson is missing the point. Dobson hates being equated to Sharpton, and he has allowed his being offended to get in the way of understanding what Obama is saying. Dobson's argument against Obama's linking of Sharpton with Dobson is that Dobson is not a reverend or a theologian but instead a psychologist. This may be true, but it does not keep Dobson from bestowing theological judgments against people or ideas that he opposes and pastoral blessing on those that he deems to be properly Christian. Obama’s point that Sharpton represents the Christian left while Dobson the Christian right is an appropriate observation. Obama is simply stating that America has to be careful not to favor one set of religious views over another, even the religious views within Christianity.

Obama said,
“Which passages of scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is OK and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount - a passage so radical that it's doubtful that our Defense Department would survive its application? ...Folks haven't been reading their Bibles.”

To which Thomas Minnery (Dobson’s co-host) responded,
“That kind of commentary drives me crazy. It’s almost willful to confuse the dietetic laws of the Old Testament that applied to the Israelites to suggest that the Levitical law governing stoning of a belligerent, drunkard son somehow applies to the church age of the New Testament. The Lord was trying to purify, trying to create a holy nation, and laws that applied to them then, the Levitical code, the dietary laws, no longer apply. Many of the principles in the Old Testament apply, but not those laws. And it seems that he’s willfully trying to confuse people with what Jesus said in the New Testament.”

To which Dobson comments,
“I think he’s deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own worldview, his own confused theology…He is dragging biblical understanding through the gutter.”

And Minnery adds,
“And you remember, more recently, he quoted the Sermon on the Mount – cited the Sermon on the Mount as justifying same-sex marriage.”

Obama does have a penchant for making the old, tired argument about the non-existent boogey-men who want a “theocracy.” The argument is that these theocrats are dangerous and that they are not even consistent by accepting all the Levitical laws as binding on modern society. However, nobody in the religious right camp suggests this – it is a straw-man.
Obama says in this speech that “folks haven't been reading their Bibles,” but that kind of off-scripted statement does not help Obama’s cause. On another occasion, while in Ohio in March, Obama said, “I don't think it [a same-sex union] should be called marriage, but I think that it is a legal right that they should have that is recognized by the state. If people find that controversial then I would just refer them to the Sermon on the Mount, which I think is, in my mind, for my faith, more central than an obscure passage in Romans.” Where in the Sermon on the Mount does Jesus refer to homosexuality, and why is Romans, an important letter from the Apostle Paul, dismissed by Obama as “obscure?” It seems that it is Obama that needs to be reading his Bible.
The point Obama is trying to make by referring to Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and the Sermon on the Mount has to do with the proper role of religion in a pluralist society. The reason we need to be careful about trying to foist our religious beliefs on others in the political arena is that questions would be raised, “Whose religious beliefs shall we favor in our nation’s political enterprise? And how do we choose that?”

Obama said,
“Democracy demands that the religiously-motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all. This may be difficult for those who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice.”

To which Dobson responded,
“Am I required in a democracy to conform my efforts in the political arena to his bloody notion of what is right with regard to the lives of tiny babies? What he's trying to say here is, unless everybody agrees, we have no right to fight for what we believe. What the senator is saying there, in essence, is that I can't seek to pass legislation, for example, that bans partial-birth abortion, because there are people in the culture who don't see that as a moral issue. And if I can't get everyone to agree with me, than it is undemocratic to try to pass legislation that I find offensive to the Scripture. Now, that is a fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution.”

Obama did not say what Dobson is making him out to say. In fact, Obama is saying the exact opposite. Just moments earlier in this same speech, Obama had said, “What I am suggesting is this: Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King - indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history - were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. To say that men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality’ into public policy debates is a practical absurdity; our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.” The “fruitcake interpretation” is found in Dobson’s interpretation of Obama’s words.

Obama said,
“They [the American people] don’t want faith used to belittle or to divide.
They’re tired of hearing folks deliver more screed than sermon.”

To which Dobson responded,
“You know, how interesting it is that Senator Obama is condemning pastors there for their highly emotional diabtribe, when he sat for twenty years under the tutelage of his own pastor, and eventually had to disown him.”

Minnery added,
“And he only disowned him when it became public that Reverend Jeremiah Wright was delivering ‘more screed than sermon.’ Apparently, Senator Obama didn’t recognize it in his own pastor, in his own church.”

Dobson and Minnery are absolutely right. This is a deeply troubling thing. Anybody who is thinking about supporting Obama had better answer this question. How could Obama speak against those who “deliver more screed than sermon” while listening to Jeremiah Wright do just that week-in and week-out at Trinity United Church of Christ? How can Obama legitimately portray a calm and steady demeanor on issues (especially concerning race and religion) while being under the mentorship of Wright?

Near the end of the show, Dobson criticizes all the candidates for not talking about preserving the family.
“It is as though the family does not matter… They don’t give a hoot about the family!”

But in this very speech that Dobson has been criticizing, Obama said,
“Our failure as progressives to tap into the moral underpinnings of the nation is not just rhetorical. Our fear of getting preachy may also lead us to discount the role that values and culture play in some of our most urgent social problems... Solving these problems will require changes in government policy; it will also require changes in hearts and minds... I think we should put more of our tax dollars into educating poor girls and boys, and give them the information about contraception that can prevent unwanted pregnancies, lower abortion rates, and help assure that every child is loved and cherished. But my Bible tells me that if we train a child in the way he should go, when he is old he will not turn from it. I think faith and guidance can help fortify a young woman's sense of self, a young man's sense of responsibility, and a sense of reverence all young people for the act of sexual intimacy.”

Sounds like family values to me…


newbeginning said...

Bob: thank you for a fair-minded, thoughtful analysis.

(I might, however, humbly suggest a re-thinking of your sentence, "The 'fruitcake interpretation' is found in Dobson’s interpretation of Obama’s words" -- perhaps "Dr. Dobson misinterpreted Senator Obama's words" would make the same point without the perjorative label? I agree with you that Dobson's response was somewhat intemperate -- not perpetuating that tone from either direction could contribute to Scot McKnight's call to "public civility and discourse"?)

Obama is attempting, he says, to "join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy" -- which seems to me a worthy endeavor.

And in that light, I think his comment that you cited is intriguing, and worthy of rigorous analysis and discussion: "Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason."

But when he follows that several sentences later with "If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God's edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one's life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime; to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing." -- I'm not convinced that basing policy making on God's edicts would be "a dangerous thing." (Indeed, if that was actually attempted it might radically alter some of the traditional party platforms of both the Democrats and the Republicans!)

If Jesus is "the smartest man who ever lived" (Dallas Willard), then to exclude any arena of life from his say would be utter folly.

Obama's point also seems to contradict his earlier statement that "...secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. . . . To say that men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality’ into public policy debates is a practical absurdity; our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition."

Bob Robinson said...

Thanks for you excellent input. The nuance that Obama is advocating does indeed warrant rigorous analysis and discussion. His stand is exactly what I have been advocating here in the Vanguard.

We Christians (of every stripe, with different viewpoints on theology and on what God intends for government) should, before we engage in the public discourse, have earnest debate amongst ourselves about what it means to have a Christian political philosophy. Without such, we simply are reactionary and actually detrimental to the common good.

One of the keys to a healthy Christian political philosophy is to embrace plurality in public discourse. Instead of insisting that this is a "Christian Nation," we need to accept the reality that this is a melting pot of very many different religions and cultures. We need to promote civility in public discourse that promotes each voice having deep convictions (even coming from their religious views) but voicing them in the public sphere in ways that are translated, in Obama's words, "into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason."

B-W said...

Obama said... "I think (the Sermon on the Mount) is, in my mind, for my faith, more central than an obscure passage in Romans.” ... why is Romans, an important letter from the Apostle Paul, dismissed by Obama as “obscure?” It seems that it is Obama that needs to be reading his Bible.

Let's be fair to Obama here. He doesn't say that Romans is obscure. He says that the passage mentioning homosexuality is obscure. You may agree or disagree with that assessment, but I would also note that for Obama to even cite a passage he considers "obscure" would be an indication that he has "read his Bible." How else would he be aware of it?

RonMcK said...

I am sure that Jim Dobson hates have his words twisted and distorted by those who oppose him. It is a nasty trick and a very weak form of debate. So he should be careful that he does not fall into the same trap.

With regard to your remarks about Obama and Jeremiah Wright, I am intrigued that for many American Christians, Jeremiah Wright has become the great Satan. His method of communication is pretty awful, but I sense that he is saying something that Americans need to hear.

Living outside America, the constant repetition of the mantra “God bless America” sounds bizarre. There are several meanings it can take.
- Don’t get in our way because God is on our side.
- You had better bless us God, or else.
- God will bless everything that America does.
All these meanings verge on blasphemy. Assuming that God has to keep blessing America, because American is doing his work is dangerous.

So the question does need to be asked. Can you expect God to keep blessing America, no matter what? Will a time come when God chooses to curse America, or more precisely, will American curse itself? That seems to be a question that American’s do not want to think about. Yelling back at Rev Jeremiah, seems to be easier than doing the hard thinking about the hard issues.

joeldaniel said...

@ B-W...I can't really give Obama too much credit for citing an "obscure passage in Romans." While it does indicate that he's up on his talking points regarding homosexuality, it doesn't indicate that he's thoroughly consumed the Scriptures on this topic, or even knows what exactly the passage says. On the other hand, I can't assume that he doesn't know anything at all about it, or that it was just a talking point. I just don't want us to assume to much on either side.

I wonder, and this is pure speculation, if he's been influenced by Obery Hendrick's at all. Hendrick's just recently published a book called "The Politics of Jesus" and I had the opportunity to hear him while I was at Envision a few weeks ago (a place overflowing with Obama supporters, I might add). Among a variety of topics he hit on, he spent some significant time building the case that the words that Christ said ought to be much more important to us than those of other men. The Gospels, being direct reports of what our Messiah would want us to do, have much more weight than Paul who, Hendrick's claimed, never was with Christ and, instead of learning under the disciples tutelage, removed himself and taught himself for several years.

I do not agree with this view. But it sounds similar to what Obama is suggesting...that the words of Christ bear more weight than "some obscure passage in Romans."

@ Bob...thanks for such a balanced & considerate view of this. I was thinking about posting on this as well in the last week, and I'm glad I never got around to it. You've done us all a favor.

Rachel H. Evans said...

Regarding his comments about the Bible, I think Obama was simply acknowledging that:

1) multiple interpretations of the Bible exist
2) there are many ways to apply the teachings of the Bible to public life
3) no one denomination or spokesperson has a monopoly on how to accurately interpret the Bible and apply it to public life
4) because we live in a pluralistic society, we must learn to raise the level of public discourse so that we not only appeal to our specific religious tradition, but to a common sense of morality and justice

The difference between Barack Obama and James Dobson is that Barack Obama talks about the Bible with both respect and realism.

The Bible is not a manual for how to run a country. The Bible is a beautifully diverse collection of stories, poetry, history, and letters. It is full of both timeless truths and cultural assumptions. Applying its teaching to public life isn’t as easy as Dobson makes it out to be.

Dobson accused Obama of “deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own worldview, his own confused theology.” What does Dobson mean by “the traditional understanding of the Bible”? He means “the James Dobson understanding of the Bible” in which the Levitical code no longer applies (except to homosexuals) and in which Jesus did not intend for us to literally apply “love your enemies” to foreign policy.

Dobson has every right to his interpretation, but I think he is wrong to claim that only those who interpret the Bible in this way take it seriously.

Bob Robinson said...


The Bible is certainly not a simple manual for how to run a country, but it certainly is the very best place to start in order to figure out precepts for the political endeavor. You are correct in your assertion that the development of a political theology is definitely not as easy as Dobson makes it out to be.

We must stand up for Dobson's right to interpret the Bible in any way he wants and his right to try to convince others of that interpretation. It is OK for him to be convinced that he's got it right, as well. But in public discourse in a pluralist society, he cannot arrogantly state that all other views are outside the "traditional understanding of the Bible" or a "confused theology." We need more civility.

Jeff Greathouse said...

dobson and me got into a disbute in 1993 over abortion and I have not seen him eye to eye since ..