The 80’s are Over, but James Dobson Isn’t Done Trying to Bring Them Back

–Daniel S. Ferguson

Even though I wasn’t alive for most of them, I have strong opinions about the 80’s. Music? Fantastic. Technology? Best decade ever (though 2010s still has a shot). International affairs? We won a lot of battles without firing shots, and I like that. My being born? Simply the best.

But when it comes to a lot of other issues, the 80s were actually pretty terrible. The economy; the culture of deregulation; the oppression of homosexuals during the AIDS crisis; the doubling down on the War on Drugs; the long-term political, social, and economic impacts of a short-sighted presidency; and the utter ridiculousness with which Christian leaders behaved when they finally got their teeth around power.

It’s that last one that most infuriates me. When we Millennials talk about wanting to leave religion but not faith, we’re largely talking about the church we grew up in, which was that of the 80’s and 90’s. That church was chock full of zealotry, selfishness, cliché, exclusiveness, single-mindedness, and closed-mindedness, with very little room for significant dissent. The definition of Christianity dramatically narrowed in the 1980s, even as its numbers increased.

This trend in American Christianity was not even close to accidental. It was crafted by skilled communicators and politicians. You may know their names well. Jerry Falwell. James Dobson. Pat Robertson. Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Oral Roberts. These people shaped the face of American Christianity in enormously impactful ways that still affect how churches think and act to this day.

Where would the phrase “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” be without Billy Graham? Where would Christianity’s headlock on “family values” be without James Dobson? Where would the unabashed (and historically recent) tethering between Christianity and conservatism be without Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson? Where would Joel and Victoria Osteen have come from if not for Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker?

Most of that list is either dead or effectively defunct, but James Dobson is still kicking around. Indeed, he’s made the news twice in the last 24 hours.

Homeschooling

In one instance, he commented about homeschooling, which James Dobson has almost singlehandedly exponentialized. The population of homeschooled children in the 1970s was in the tens of thousands. Today, it’s over 2 million. Much of this is due to increased awareness of special needs, but a great deal is also due to Christian parents seeking to control what their children learn and how they learn it so that they grow up with a Christian mindset about any number of issues, from abortion to gender to science.

That notion isn’t entirely bad; indeed I know some phenomenal kids and adults who grew up in homeschool. But Dobson’s tact has almost never been about the pedagogical benefits of homeschooling (which are legitimate and demonstrative); rather Dobson insists on the spiritual benefits (which are not). There is simply no evidence connecting homeschooling to “improved” Christianity, just like there’s no evidence linking public school to a decrease in faith.

But that doesn’t stop Dobson from saying there is. What’s his problem with public schools? He says they “have gotten much worse in indoctrinating children in a godless, anti-Christian agenda disguised in progressive curricula found in public education.”

Dobson points to Millennials as an example, noting that if only Millennials had voted in the 2016 election, Secretary Clinton would have won 45 states and 504 electoral votes in a landslide election not seen since 1984. About Millennials, Dobson said, “They [have] been propagandized and given a philosophy that – in many cases – is contrary to Scripture and what we believe.”

No, Jimmy, they haven’t. First of all, we haven’t been taught a cohesive (or even coherent) philosophy at ALL. If there’s anything Millennials can claim as a label, it’s that we don’t have a label. We’ve long since recognized that we’re radically different from each other, all the way down to what we believe and what we care about. The reason many of us left the church wasn’t because we were liberalized and set against it by public school. We left because of people who insist that controlling what people are allowed to think about is better for them than thinking for themselves.

Homeschool isn’t bad. It can be a legitimate alternative from public school for any number of reasons. But fear of liberalism and alternative points of view shouldn’t be one of them. Children’s religious development is the parents’ responsibility, whether or not their kids are in public school, and I would advocate that their being with the general public will help them to develop the necessary empathy to share their faith in meaningful and kind ways, rather than keeping them away from that public, which bears the chance of developing in children’s mind an “otherness” about non-Christians, effectively alienating them.

Why does James Dobson want your kids to be in home schools or, at worst, in Christian schools? I haven’t asked him. But I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that he sells Christian school curriculum. That, and nobody ever went broke striking fear into the hearts of parents.

Women in the Draft

For the life of me, I can’t figure out why Dobson commented on this, but he seems honestly to believe that there is something very dangerous threatening our national security: women in combat.

Dobson laments that “hearings were held on [women in combat]…on behalf of what has never been permitted in the 217-year history of this country.” Well, yeah, but they also couldn’t vote or control their own reproduction for a lot of that time, either, so maybe we shouldn’t consider the length of a trend as a factor when determining whether it’s good or not.

Dobson goes on to talk about the difficulties of combat and how women simply weren’t designed for them. “Imagine women being disembarked in Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944, when 17 or 18-year-old boys, many coming straight out of high school, fought, bled and died for their country. These fellows slogged through wet sandy beaches under a staggering load and into the face of withering machine gunfire and treacherous mines. Then, exhausted and terrified, they fought their way up heavily defended bluffs from which crack German troops rained down hell upon them. If they survived that bombardment, and 2,000 of them perished that first day, they were required to fight continually from foxholes all the way to Berlin. That trauma went on for 11 months. Some units didn’t have a single survivor when it was over.”

I cannot, for the life of me, figure out what that has to do with gender. Running toward a machine gun is an incredible act of bravery, but bravery is not a gender-limited trait. I imagine that women would have charged the machine guns, too, and that many men acted in some degree of fear on that day, just as many women would have done. Dobson, however, contends, that the idea of women in combat is “dangerous and irrational.” With James Dobson’s zero years of military experience, I’m sure he completely understands what combat is like and how women are unqualified for it.

He’d much rather they be teaching their kids at home. Maybe then they’d buy his curriculum.

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