Right-wing dominance over the public face of Christianity in
James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, is as good example as any of the problem. He started out as one of those radio personalities that advise listeners on how to be good parents. There’s a need out there for such guidance—corporate culture offers none whatsoever, and for the less educated, glib media personalities try to fill the vacuum. From “Dr. Phil” to “Dr. Laura,” we have experts of dubious authority making big bucks by teaching the public how to live, especially in terms of relationships and families. Dobson eventually went from there to becoming a player in the right-wing culture wars.
For Dobson, child-rearing is about winning a power struggle between the parent and the child. The will of the child needs to be molded by the parent:
“When youngsters display stiff-necked rebellion, you must be willing to respond to the challenge immediately. When nose-to-nose confrontation occurs between you and your child, it is not the time to discuss the virtues of obedience. It is not the occasion to send him to his room to pout. Nor is it the time to postpone disciplinary measures till your tired spouse plods home from work. You have drawn a line in the dirt, and the child has deliberately flopped his bony little toe across it. Who is going to win? Who has the most courage?”
There is nothing new about this. It reflects a very long disciplinarian tradition. I’m sure many of Dobson’s readers nod their heads automatically at passages like this because they reaffirm long-held beliefs. One curious aspect of the approach is how frightened and defensive it sounds. The parent gets a dreadful feeling from this “stiff-necked” rebellion, and wishes to suppress the feeling at all costs. But look at how unequal the match really is: a grown-up versus a child. Why should there be a line in the dirt, or a test of courage involved? I would argue that the parent in this case is upset (outraged, challenged, confounded) that his authority is being questioned. That’s the sign of a guilt-based authority, in other words, a bad conscience. The parent is afraid of his own vulnerability and painful childhood feelings. So they get projected onto the kid. This is how child abuse is perpetuated.
Dobson would argue that there’s a difference between what he is proposing and child abuse. Certainly there is a difference of degree, and that difference may translate into relative “success” rather than the failure evidenced in an abuse situation. But there is no realistic guideline here, because parental authority is given an absolute value. Dobson talks about the importance of loving, but every parent uses “love” as the rationale for whatever he or she does.
So what is the outcome of the power struggle?
"Some strong-willed children absolutely demand to be spanked, and their wishes should be granted…Two or three stinging strokes on the legs or buttocks with a switch are usually sufficient to emphasize the point, 'You must obey me.'"
"Pain is a marvelous purifier…It is not necessary to beat the child into submission; a little bit of pain goes a long way for a young child. However, the spanking should be of sufficient magnitude to cause the child to cry genuinely."
That’s really what it comes down to. Beneath all religious pretensions is the power principle—the application of physical force by the authority figure.
Most of these quotes are from a book called Dare to Discipline (interesting how the oldest, most unconscious behavior is framed as “daring”—but this is a symptom of Dobson’s identification of liberalism as the enemy, which we’ll get to later). He also wrote a book called Bringing Up Boys. The core of Dobson’s thought lies in the assumption that traditional gender roles are God-given, and that deviations from those roles are both sick and ultimately sinful. Naturally, there’s a hefty section of the book devoted to homosexuality:
“The onset of most cross-gender behavior occurs during the pre-school years, between the ages of two and four. You needn't worry about occasional cross-dressing. You should become concerned, though, when your little boy continues doing so and, at the same time, begins to acquire some other alarming habits. He may start using his mother's makeup. He may avoid other boys in the neighborhood and their rough-and-tumble activities and prefer being with his sisters instead, who play with dolls and dollhouses. Later he may start speaking in a high-pitched voice. He may affect the exaggerated gestures and even the walk of a girl, or become fascinated with long hair, earrings and scarves… The fact is, there is a high correlation between feminine behavior in boyhood and adult homosexuality. There are telltale signs of discomfort with . . . boys and deep-seated and disturbing feelings that they [are] different and somehow inferior. And yet parents often miss the warning signs and wait too long to seek help for their children. One reason for this is that they are not being told the truth about their children's gender confusion, and they have no idea what to do about it.”
“Masculine” and “feminine” are absolute categories that go unquestioned here. Dobson goes on to express his conviction that homosexuality can be “cured,” and of course he has been obsessed with fighting against equal rights for gays. In any case, it is important to realize that Dobson’s assumptions about boys are very narrow in scope. When children don’t fit into these categories, as they often don’t, Dobson’s idea is to somehow mold the kids so that they will eventually fit into them. If the child rejects the roles, there’s something wrong with the child, not with Dobson’s beliefs and assumptions.
What is reflected here is a patriarchal social system founded on gender roles, in which sexuality is maintained within certain approved forms by male authority. We avoid a lot of confusion when we recognize that this way of thinking, this belief system, takes precedence over religious identity. Dobson’s views on the family and on sexuality would make just as much sense if he was a worshipper of Zeus, or Moloch, or for that matter, Karl Marx. The authoritarian mindset uses religious belief as a dogmatic support. God is the metaphysical counterpart, if you will, of the male authority, aiding the husband or father in exacting a similar authority within the family. The real faith of these people is in the social order that they’ve internalized, the patriarchal system as they believe it should be. All this gets translated into religious terms, but without genuine religious content.
With Dobson and others like him, you don’t get a sense of humility or of the sense of human limitation realized by people who seek God inwardly. You also don’t get a sense of passionate devotion to Jesus as a direct encounter. God is like a mere third-person watcher keeping everyone in line. Of course, this is all unconscious, and whatever spiritual experiences Dobson and his sort have are kept separate from the system of social control that is maintained.
Dobson never wrote a book called Bringing Up Girls. Women are strictly subservient in his world-view. “My observation,” he once said, “is that women are merely waiting for their husbands to assume leadership.” For a woman to have her own desires for power, self-determination, independent expression—to seek fulfillment outside of the context of men and motherhood—is simply unthinkable. They get the scripture passage from Titus 2.4-5: “Train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home.” The Bible actually offers slim pickings for the family system, especially the New Testament: the Dobson type has to be very ingenious to come up with these passages and make them relevant, because the texts are not really about living a conventional life. It’s only because Christianity is a dominant organized religion that the scriptures get used this way.
At one point in Bringing Up Boys, Dobson starts railing against Phil Donahue and Gloria Steinem, blaming feminism for the “gender confusion” that upsets him so much. The myth of these right-wing Christians is that everything was basically okay until the liberals came along and started messing with the family. But I look at old photos of people standing around laughing at a lynching and I think, these were all “Christians” the way Dobson is a Christian. The conservative churches were silent about all that. They opposed women’s rights, too. It was no thanks to the churches that women finally got the vote. The conservative churches were silent on child labor, on slavery, on civil rights, on rape and sexual abuse, on the atrocities of war. Among Christians, it’s always been the liberals who have stood up against these things and worked for change.
When your religion is actually the maintenance of a patriarchal social order, then your “morality” will support anything that bolsters that order. Therefore, Dobson is pro-war, pro-nuclear weapons, pro-torture. He supports the murder of children in other countries if his Christian president orders it, while he campaigns tirelessly against abortion here. The “love” in this religion starts with love of the switch or the paddle, and it extends itself all the way up to the bomb falling on some other guy’s family. But, you know, he’s not really aware of this. The ethos of obedience prevents critical self-examination. It’s all about controlling other people, not looking at yourself.
So when we find ourselves intimidated by the “moral” stance of the Christian right, we must realize that it’s a sham, and not a genuine spirituality or morality. The greatest threat to Christianity as a vital religion comes not from secularists or liberals, but from Dobson and his allies. They’ve already trivialized their faith to the point where it has become not much more than a lobbying group for sexual and reproductive control. Dobson’s God frets all day long about promiscuous teenagers and gays. His is a pathetic, silly God that constantly needs to be reassured and upheld by a group of hysterical narrow-minded busybodies.
So, in a world torn by strife and suffering and injustice, what worries Dobson? Why, the United Nation Convention of the Rights of the Child “has worried me for years,” he said, calling it a “dangerous document.”
That a child may have rights—this is what concerns our guardian of morality. If the absolute authority of the parent is challenged, then the entire system collapses, the entire way of life that has produced such wonderful results for centuries—centuries of twisted, miserable children growing up into lying, self-righteous, abusive adults. And we wouldn’t want that to happen.
And lo, a child shall frighten them…