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Dreaming Heroic Dreams: James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and the Rise of Ronald Reagan

In the voluminous literature of child rearing and family health, the work of psychologist James Dobson stands eminent. Dobson received his Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Southern California in 1967. Focus on the Family and its founder first entered the American consciousness a decade later with the radio broadcast, “Let’s Get Acquainted.” In form it was not unlike President Roosevelt’s attempts to speak to the hearts of Americans through “Fireside Chats” in the 1930s and 40s. The radio show–particularly its title–was but a foreshadowing of things to come: Dobson and his organization have become inseparable from discussions surrounding family health, and his organization receives national acclaim. “For the past thirty years,” Jim Daly, the CEO of Focus noted, “for every stage of family life, Focus on the Family has been there.” Focus and its founder have been active everywhere, especially, as of late, in politics.1

In October 2009, the Council for National Policy honored James Dobson with the Ronald Reagan Lifetime Achievement Award. During his acceptance speech, Dobson reflected on the age before Reagan ascended the presidency and lamented an historic 1966 issue of Time magazine in which John T. Elson’s “Is God Dead?” made its startling appearance and sold more copies than any issue previously produced. Dobson identified a change in American attitudes and how they seemed to supplant traditional culture. Conservatives, as historian James T. Patterson notes, viewed the 1960s with “disgust,” adding that “the tumult of the decade…unsettled much that Americans had taken for granted before then, including vestiges of what for lack of a better word can be called ‘Victorian.'” To Dobson, Elson’s piece “cut to the core” of America’s faith in their Judeo-Christian heritage. But as ominous as the 1960s seemed to American evangelicals, all was changed in 1980 when Ronald Reagan, the “cowboy,” “rode into town” and won the presidency following his “O.K. Corral shootout” with Jimmy Carter.2

The victory proved monumental for American evangelicals. If any sense of the Puritan intellectual culture that dominated New England in the early years of the Republic held sway in 1984, it was in the idea of visible Providentialism, the belief that God’s blessing on a particular people shone forth in positive temporal circumstance. To American Christians confident of their nation’s place in redemptive history, the Carter years were an abomination, an unwelcome hiatus from the Promised Land and an “Errand into the Wilderness.” President Jimmy Carter’s July 15, 1979, televised speech to the American people, in which he spoke of the “crisis of confidence” that “threaten[ed] to destroy the social and political fabric of America,” attempted to embrace the long-held belief of American Exceptionalism yet return the nation’s citizens to those principles that had made America the envy of the West. Rather, his remarks cast a dark shadow on prospects of a brighter future. As historian Richard Gamble put it, the “Malaise Speech” is remembered to have cost Carter the election: “Sackcloth and ashes just weren’t America’s style.” Reagan’s candidacy in the election of 1980–and most importantly his faith…spirituality…shaped by a ‘Jesus-only’ populist Christianity”–offered redemption for evangelical Americans who believed their California actor might help the nation return to God. Reagan won the 1980 election in one of the largest electoral landslides in history. Distancing themselves from the stagnation, inflation, and perceived defeatism that plagued the Carter years, Americans dared to “dream heroic dreams” once again.3


Mitch Daniels captured the legacy of Reagan’s presidency when he observed, “The Reagan years will be for conservatives what the Kennedy years remain for liberals: the reference point, the breakthrough experience–a conservative Camelot. At the same time, no lesson is plainer than that the damage of decades cannot be repaired in any one administration.” But cultural understandings of conservatism changed with Reagan’s presidency–prior to his election, American conservatism had no dogma; it was less a political platform than it was a way of seeing the world, culture, philosophy and understanding the human condition. Russell Kirk, remembered by one historian as “one of the greatest inspirations of the post-World War II conservative renaissance,” published The Conservative Mind in 1953, in which he outlined six canons of thought embraced by conservative intellectuals. These six canons reappeared as Kirk’s “Ten Conservative Principles” in Politics of Prudence in 1993. Of conservatism Kirk wrote,

Being neither a religion nor an ideology, the body of opinion termed conservatism possesses no Holy Writ and no Das Kapital to provide dogmata…Perhaps it would be well, most of the time, to use this word “conservative” as an adjective chiefly. For there exists no Model Conservative, and conservatism is the negation of ideology: it is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order.

Of course, there were particular ways of “looking at the civil social order” that most appealed to Kirk. In Politics of Prudence, Kirk speaks of principles of an enduring moral order, of variety, prudence, imperfectability, restraints upon human passions, and voluntary community. These form but six of Kirk’s “Ten Conservative Principles.” But it is a telling mark of the current GOP–and also of how conservatism is now understood–that before the party had selected its man (and, as it turned out, woman) to challenge for the Presidency and Vice Presidency in 2008, every candidate in the running viewed and explained their political accomplishments and aspirations in Reaganesque terms. While prior to Reagan’s presidency it had been an idea and a worldview, in 2008 conservatism had been defined by how Reagan did politics.4

The character of conservatism changed with Reagan, too. Influenced heavily by the Enlightenment understanding of inevitable progress and perfectibility, Reagan’s brand of conservatism borrowed a “romantic optimism” that, far from sounding conservative in the old sense, seemed more comparable to a worldview embraced by Progressive Liberalism. Writes Gamble,

Reagan’s speeches abounded with themes that were anything but conservative. He aligned the Republican crusader more closely with America’s expansive liberal temperament. In particular, his brand of evangelical Christianity, combined with fragments of Puritanism, enlightenment optimism, and romantic liberalism, set Reagan apart in key ways from historic conservatism.

Reagan’s labeling the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” and invoking national morality in causes of good against evil was not unlike Woodrow Wilson’s understanding of World War I as a conflict over “the right,” the good, and all that free civilization clung to in the early years of the twentieth century. American foreign policy from the beginning of that time could be viewed as the practical working-out of two sound bites intrinsic to the American progressive, redemptive impulse: Wilson’s “The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty,” and Thomas Paine’s “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Thus, with the presidency of Ronald Reagan came a synthesis of evangelical Christianity, romanticism, and progressive Enlightenment philosophy. Historian John Patrick Diggins puts it thusly:

[Reagan] stood for freedom, peace, disarmament, self-reliance, earthly happiness, the dreams of the imagination and the desires of the heart. With the 1980s came America’s ‘Emersonian moment,’ when people were told to trust not the state but self and to pursue wealth and power…Far from being a conservative, Reagan was the great liberating spirit of modern American history, a political romantic impatient with the status quo.

And so the conservatism espoused by Reagan sounds very much unlike Kirk’s conservatism, one skeptical of romantic “progress”: “The conservative is not opposed to social improvement,” Kirk wrote, “although he doubts whether there is any such force as a mystical Progress…When a society is progressing in some respects, it is usually declining in other respects.” Yet this fundamental shift is lost on most Americans who automatically associate Ronald Reagan with conservatism despite deficit spending, heightened militarism, and a Wilsonian international approach to foreign policy. Ignorant of historical conservatism, evangelicals like Dobson flock to that candidate in any election cycle who invokes the legacy and memory of Ronald Reagan.5


Dobson and Evangelicals cling fast and hard to the notion that America was and will remain–in the words of Scripture and, in 1630, reintroduced to the Puritan consciousness through John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity”–a “City upon a hill.” Like Benjamin Rush in 1791, Evangelicals understand the American nation as a fusion of religious culture and republican government, a potent force with which to usher in Christ’s New Heaven and New Earth:

Republican forms of government are the best repositories of the Gospel: I therefore suppose they are intended as preludes to a glorious manifestation of its power and influence upon the hearts of men. The language of these free and equal governments seems to be like that of John the Baptist of old, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord–make his paths straight.”

Since the founding, Americans believed that they occupied a special place in the redemptive history of the world, convinced that Judeo-Christian values ought to saturate contemporary politics and law. In a September 5, 2003, interview with Larry King, Dobson, when asked if he would be “ok” with a Muslim Supreme Court justice, expressed his disapproval: “[the Islamic faith’s]–that’s not the historic foundation of our country.” The very forging of the American nation represented something grand, the culmination of Western political thought, culture, religion, and philosophy. George Berekely, the Anglo-Irish philosopher, published his famous “Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America” in 1752. Its words, “Westward the course of Empire takes its way…Time’s noblest offspring is the last,” resound as a clear and powerful articulation of American exceptionalism and that acute sense of historical consciousness planted in the hearts and minds of American citizens.6

Thus, the election of 2008 seemed more important to American evangelicals than the election of 1980 and perhaps all other elections before it, if for no other reason than they sensed an impending loss, a terrifying notion that all the progress achieved in defending the family in the Reagan and Bush years–indeed the Christian character of the nation at large–might be undone by the election of a liberal senator from Illinois. To Dobson and other evangelicals who understood their national identity in providential, messianic terms, the success of Barack Obama meant the arrival of the apocalypse and the secularization of a Christian nation with distinctly Christian roots and political institutions. But the election in 2004 illuminated those same fears. New York Times writer David D. Kirkpatrick notes of that 2004 election, “It would have been hard to overstate the Christian conservative leadership’s sense of the presidential race’s historical significance. In the days before the election, Dobson told me he believed the culture war was ‘rapidly approaching the climax, with everything that we are about on the line.'” To Dobson, it seemed that the words of Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” transcended the individual and his responsibility to a supremely moral and authoritative Being and were redefined in national terms, for as Kirkpatrick recounts, Dobson informed the White House the day following Bush’s victory in 2004 that God had given the nation a “‘short reprieve’ from its impending ‘self-destruction'” by electing George W. Bush.7

For the nation to lose its Christian identity to the likes of John Kerry in 2004 or Barack Obama in 2008 presupposes a national Christian character completely, and it is in assuming the historicity of, politically speaking, a Christian nation that Dobson and many evangelicals err. The result, aside from a poor knowledge of history, is an attempt to restore and redeem American political institutions on a large scale by infusing them with Judeo-Christian principles, in effect, putting them “as they were” at the time of the founding. Focus on the Family’s political impetus can be viewed, quite rightly, as an extension of this effort. But perhaps things “as they were” is not what evangelicals ought to desire. Gordon Wood notes, “The American Revolution broke many of the intimate ties that had traditionally linked religion and government.” He also observes that while some of the Founders were good men, few were practicing, devout Christians. Historians do not endorse, wholesale, the faith of America’s founders. Even George Washington–the father of the young republic–despite semi-regular church attendance and an upbringing “steeped in religious piety,” left nothing conclusive upon which the case could be made that he was a sincere believer of the Christian faith.8


The efforts of Dobson to fuse Christianity and American institutions is but an offshoot of the entire history of Christendom, begun when Augustine of Hippo authored in roughly 426 that work which has for almost all of Christian history shaped the entire nature of the church-state discussion: The City of God. The evangelical conundrum of faith and politics has its roots in this work and the philosophical and religious thought of early Christianity. Historian Diarmaid MacCulloch notes that at the time of the work’s inception, Augustine “was faced with the problem of explaining the Roman world’s catastrophe. How could God’s providence allow the collapse of the manifestly Christian Roman Empire, especially the sack of Rome by barbarian armies in 410?” The contemporary evangelical conundrum seems nothing but a twenty-first century re-phrasing of that same question, which now in the context of the New Conservatism might be put: how do believers make sense of the rampant secularization of American culture and politics? Why is the American nation, a supposedly Christian nation, coming undone and degenerating into a “politically correct” culture that cannot recognize an enduring moral order? Augustine, nearly half-way through his work, posits an explanation that seems lost on American evangelicals: “Two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord.” But despite the two cities existing in separate temporal and eternal realities, evangelicals try desperately to make them one. Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority, as popular historian Steven Waldman has it, believed firmly that “society had become so degraded, God wanted believers to take back the political sphere to reassert His values.” This past year, an evangelical press in Michigan published a comprehensive synthesis of American politics and Scripture, a means (as the subtitle explicitly states) for “Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture.” In spoken and written word, evangelicals would hasten the marriage of Augustine’s two cities, something that, according to orthodox Christian doctrine, only the second coming of Christ can accomplish perfectly. Even Christ instructed his followers to render unto Caesar his due.9


Despite Dobson’s resignation from Focus on the Family as CEO and chairman of board of directors on February 27, 2009, his organization remains a strong force in the New Conservative movement. The new CEO of Focus on the Family commented that though “Dr. Dobson is a wordsmith…one word I don’t suspect we’ll hear him using is ‘retirement.'” Time will tell whether Dobson’s role in the current political landscape actually diminishes, but meanwhile students of history, politics, and religion must take stock of conservatism and evangelical Christianity in America.10

Ignorant of Augustine’s idea of the two cities and also of historical conservatism, Dobson and many evangelicals continue to fear the demise of America and anxiously await the restoration of the nation that will surely come when Sarah Palin takes the presidential oath of office in 2013. Months ago Glenn Beck, a Mormon, inspired thousands of Americans in the nation’s capitol with his “Restoring Honor” rally, in which he claimed that turning to God could solve America’s problems. And he invoked the memory of Ronald Reagan. Palin, whose America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag, recently hit bookstores across America, spoke also. Still, the message is clear: only by infusing politics with Christian morals can the nation be saved and restored. But the idea of a Christian founding–in totality–may be exactly that: an idea, a vision that has inspired evangelical Americans who wish to understand their existence as Christians in temporal terms. And lost on evangelicals is the possibility that, just perhaps, America as it is now understood will not inaugurate Christ’s new heaven and new earth. The holy scriptures and the history of the Christian tradition transcend America and American institutions. Attempting to ascertain America’s place in the divine order of Providence is indeed difficult. It is the course of every republic, of every empire, to rise, thrive, and fall. And the rising and falling of nations vindicates the Old Testament prophet who wrote, beautifully, “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever.”11

Mitchell Klingenberg studies American religious, intellectual, and Civil War Era history at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas.