Dobson, James C., Jr. (1936-), Evangelical Leader

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Dobson, James C., Jr.
(1936-), evangelical leader.

James C. Dobson, Jr., is both founder and president of Focus on the Family (FOTF)—an evangelical organization "dedicated to the care and preservation of the home"—and an influential leader of America's Religious Right. Dobson earned a Ph.D. in child psychology from the University of Southern California in 1967. Until 1980 he worked as professor of pediatrics at USC's School of Medicine and remained an attending psychologist at Children's Hospital of Los Angeles until 1983. But it was Dobson's publication of Dare to Discipline, which sold 2 million copies in 1970, that established his reputation as the evangelical Dr. Spock and reset his career trajectory toward radio broadcasting. His show, Focus on the Family, with Dr. James Dobson, began broadcasting in 1977 over forty-two radio stations. Today Dobson leads FOTF, which has expanded into a multiservice evangelical agency with more than thirteen hundred employees and with an annual budget of more than one hundred million dollars. He also plays a central role in the Family Research Council (FRC), a political action organization he launched in 1982 to promote a conservative "family values" agenda at all levels of government.

The key to Dobson's success at FOTF lay in his popularizing combination of contemporary psychology with evangelical faith, a destined-to-succeed combination given the ardent individualism of American evangelicals and psychology's focus on the individual. Moreover, Dobson's world is a simple one—there are those who are on God's side and those who are not, those who recognize sin as the cause of all destructive human behavior and those who do not. Dobson says permissive parenting has failed because it "spares the rod and spoils the child." Children need discipline, including spanking—though Dobson restricts parents with a history of abuse or violent tempers from striking their children and limits spanking to children 1.5 to 8 years old. Likewise, Dobson's sensationalistic, videotaped interview with serial murderer Ted Bundy in 1989—who attributed his actions to the influence of pornography (a claim disputed by experts on violent behavior)—distills tragic and deeply complex behavior down to a single simple cause. Dobson is, to be sure, an unyielding conservative idealist, and his many supporters enjoy the legitimation they find in calling him "Dr. Dobson."

This unyielding idealism also undergirds Dobson's political activism. Originally Dobson sought to keep himself and FOTF out of the political spotlight through founding the FRC and locating it in Washington, D.C. (The FRC, along with its thirty-five state Family Council affiliates, are legally separate organizations from FOTF, but pursue an agenda that mirrors Dobson's.) But in 1998, Dobson's frustration with the Republican Party's failure to act on his moral agenda moved him to publicly chastise Republican leaders, threatening to abandon them and form a third party that would not compromise on abortion, homosexuality, or other "traditional family values" issues. While subsequently mollified by Republican leaders, and now within the Republican fold so that he can aid his FRC president Gary Bauer's run for the U.S. presidency, Dobson may still make good on his threat to form a new political party. If so, his legacy may be less his books on parenting and marriage and more how he reoriented the Religious Right and possibly reconfigured the Congress of the United States.

See alsoEvangelical Christianity; Focusonthe Family; Journalism, Religious; Psychologyof Religion; Publishing, Religious; Religious Right; Televangelism.


Gerson, Michael J. "A Righteous Indignation." U.S.News & World Report (May 4, 1998): 20–25.

Novosad, Nancy. "The Right's New Messiah." Progressive 60, no. 12 (1996): 20 ff.

Zettersten, Rolf. Dr. Dobson: TurningHeartsTowardHome. 1989.

Timothy C. Clydesdale

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Dobson, James C., Jr. (1936-), Evangelical Leader

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