The Dobson Divide

Two days ago I signed a letter stating: “In coming election cycles, we will vote against any candidate who does not explicitly and unambiguously endorse the separation of church and state.” The letter asks candidates to respond to five questions, one of which is about abortion.

Today I read an interview with James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family. Here’s what he has to say:

[T]here was an informal meeting of about 50 pro-family and pro-life leaders that had come together [in Salt Lake City]. The purpose of it was to talk about what we would do if the Republican Party nominates a pro-abortion candidate…

There were about 50 people there and, to my count, 44 of them stood saying we will not vote for Rudy Giuliani or whoever it is we’re talking about that’s pro-abortion. And that got covered all over the nation and, as you can imagine, I was inundated.

So I wrote an op-ed in The New York Times saying why we would not do that — because you start with a moral principle. You have to make your decisions about who’s going to lead you not on the basis of pragmatics — not on the basis of who can win or who’s ahead in the polls or who has the most money or who’s the most popular. You begin by saying what are the irreducible minimums that I believe in, that I care about; what are the biblical values I cannot compromise.

At least Dobson doesn’t dodge the issue: he explicitly says he wants to base American politics on Christian doctrine.

Dobson wants to outlaw abortion and prevent marriage or domestic partnerships for homosexuals because that’s what he believes is the will of God. If Dobson has his way, what other policies might Christians try to impose? I have not researched Dobson’s particular views, but here are some policies that various Christians have proposed: censorship, criminal sanctions against homosexual acts among consenting adults, a ramped-up drug war including renewed alcohol prohibition, tax-funded religious education, tax-funded welfare, and bans on all sorts of medical research from cloning to stem cells. Certainly these policies, and many others involving a heavy hand of government, have found support in “biblical values.”

Dobson poses the typical false choice between pragmatism and religion. For what it’s worth, I agree with many of Dobson’s criticisms of Giuliani’s personal life. But Dobson’s “principles” are not grounded on any objective morality; they are merely arbitrary constructs, ultimately as subjectivist as what he claims to criticize. Dobson wants to govern America by his reading of an inherently ambiguous book of popular mythology. Giuliani has his personal faults, but at least he seems to be somewhat oriented toward reality.

I think that the Republican Party remains in deep, deep trouble. On one side, the religious right threatens to work against any candidate who does not pledge to govern according to Christian doctrine (as interpreted by the religious right). On the other side, voters more concerned about economic liberty and limited government are increasingly alienated by the religious right. (This is essentially the issue that handed Colorado to the Democrats.) Various leaders within the GOP have called for a renewal of vows, but the wedding was always one born of a shotgun. I suppose that one eventual possibility is for the free marketeers to seek out the civil libertarians of the left, even as the religious right and religious left grow closer together.

But Dobson is right about one thing. Politics is not primary. Ethics is primary. That is the real cultural battle today.

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