The Common Good

Dobson and Obama: Who is 'Deliberately Distorting'?

Sojomail - June 26, 2008


All told, the most persuasive indictments of Israeli actions come from Israelis themselves. This scrupulous honesty and fairness toward Israel’s historic enemies is a triumph of humanity. In short, there are many Israels. When American presidential candidates compete this year to be "pro-Israeli," let’s hope that they clarify that the one they support is not the oppressor that lets settlers steal land and club women but the one that is a paragon of justice, decency, fairness — and peace.

- columnist Nicholas Kristof, in a recent op-ed titled, "The Two Israels." (Source: The New York Times )

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Dobson and Obama: Who is 'Deliberately Distorting'?

James Dobson, of Focus on the Family Action, and his senior vice president of government and public policy, Tom Minnery, used their "Focus on the Family" radio show Tuesday to criticize Barack Obama's understanding of Christian faith. In the show, they describe Obama as "deliberately distorting the Bible," "dragging biblical understanding through the gutter," "willfully trying to confuse people," and having a "fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution."

The clear purpose of the show was to attack Barack Obama. On the show, Dobson says of himself, "I'm not a reverend. I'm not a minister. I'm not a theologian. I'm not an evangelist. I'm a psychologist. I have a Ph.D. in child development." Child psychologists don't insert themselves into partisan politics in the regular way that James Dobson does and has over many years as one of the premier leaders of the Religious Right. He has spoken about how often he talked to Republican leaders -- Karl Rove, administration strategists, and even President Bush himself. This year he tried to influence the outcome of the Republican primary by saying he would never vote for John McCain or the Republicans if they nominated him, then reversed himself and said he would vote after all but didn't say for whom. But why should America care about how a child psychologist votes?

James Dobson is insinuating himself into this presidential campaign, and his attacks against his fellow Christian, Barack Obama, should be seriously scrutinized. And because the basis for his attack on Obama is the speech the Illinois senator gave at our Sojourners/Call to Renewal event in 2006 (for the record, we also had Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republicans Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback speak that year), I have decided to respond to Dobson's attacks. In most every case they are themselves clear distortions of what Obama said in that speech. I was there for the speech; Dobson was not.

I haven't endorsed a candidate, but I do defend them when they are attacked in disingenuous ways, and this is one of those cases. You can read Obama's two-year-old speech, [audio link] which was widely publicized at the time, and you can see that Dobson either didn't understand it or is deliberately distorting it. There are two major problems with Dobson's attack on Obama.

First, Dobson and Minnery's language is simply inappropriate for religious leaders to use in an already divisive political campaign. We can agree or disagree on both biblical and political viewpoints, but our language should be respectful and civil, not attacking motives and beliefs.

Second, and perhaps most important, is the role of religion in politics. Dobson alleges that Obama is saying:

I [Dobson] can't seek to pass legislation, for example, that bans partial-birth abortion because there are people in the culture who don't see that as a moral issue. And if I can't get everyone to agree with me, it is undemocratic to try to pass legislation that I find offensive to the Scripture. ... What he's trying to say here is unless everybody agrees, we have no right to fight for what we believe.

Contrary to Dobson's charge, Obama strongly defended the right and necessity of people of faith in bringing their moral agenda to the public square, and he was specifically critical of many on the left and in his own Democratic Party for being uncomfortable with religion in politics.

Obama said that religion is and always has been a fundamental and absolutely essential source of morality for the nation, but he also said that "religion has no monopoly on morality," which is a point I often make. The United States is not the Christian theocracy that people like James Dobson seem to think it should be. Political appeals, even if rooted in religious convictions, must be argued on moral grounds rather than as sectarian religious demands -- so that the people (citizens), whether religious or not, may have the capacity to hear and respond. Religious convictions must be translated into moral arguments, which must win the political debate if they are to be implemented. Religious people don't get to win just because they are religious. They, like any other citizens, have to convince their fellow citizens that what they propose is best for the common good -- for all of us, not just for the religious.

Instead of saying that Christians must accept "the lowest common denominator of morality," as Dobson accused Obama of suggesting, or that people of faith shouldn't advocate for the things their convictions suggest, Obama was saying the exact opposite -- that Christians should offer their best moral compass to the nation but then engage in the kind of democratic dialogue that religious pluralism demands. Martin Luther King Jr. perhaps did this best, with his Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other.

One more note. I personally disagree with how both the Democrats and Republicans have treated the moral issue of abortion and am hopeful that the movement toward a serious commitment for dramatic abortion reduction will re-shape both parties' language and positions. But that is the only "bloody notion" that Dobson mentions. What about the horrible bloody war in Iraq that Dobson apparently supports, or the 30,000 children who die each day globally of poverty and disease that Dobson never mentions, or the genocides in Darfur and other places? In making abortion the single life issue in politics and elections, leaders from the Religious Right like Dobson have violated the "consistent ethic of life" that we find, for example, in Catholic social teaching.

Dobson has also fought unsuccessfully to keep the issue of the environment and climate change, which many also now regard as a "life issue," off the evangelical agenda. Older Religious Right leaders are now being passed by a new generation of young evangelicals who believe that poverty, "creation care" of the environment, human trafficking, human rights, pandemic diseases such as HIV/AIDS, and the fundamental issues of war and peace are also "religious" and "moral" issues and now a part of a much wider and deeper agenda. That new evangelical agenda is a deep threat to Dobson and the power wielded by the Religious Right for so long. It puts many evangelical votes in play this election year, especially among a new generation who are no longer captive to the Religious Right. Perhaps that is the real reason for Dobson's attack on Barack Obama.

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A Call for Evangelical Rhetorical Accountability (by Brian McLaren)

The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability ( was launched in 1979, in response to growing concern "over an increase of [sic] questionable fund-raising practices in the nonprofit sector." As their Web site explains, Sen. Mark Hatfield challenged "a group of key Christian leaders" to begin policing their own mission agencies as a kind of "Christian Better Business Bureau." Perhaps 30 years later, evangelicals, because of "an increase in questionable rhetorical practices in the nonprofit sector," need to form the ECRA: The Evangelical Council for Rhetorical Accountability. ... The need for an ECRA became clearer than ever to me this week when a beloved elder in the evangelical broadcasting community spoke out against Sen. Barack Obama.

Video: Jim Wallis talks about Dobson and Obama on CBN

The Christian Broadcasting Network talks to Jim Wallis in a recent segment on James Dobson's criticism of Barack Obama. Bishop Harry Jackson of the High Impact Leadership Coalition is also interviewed. CBN has also made extended audio content of their interview with Jim available.

Good News in Pew's Latest Survey (by Marcia Ford)

Whenever I hear those three little words -- "the latest poll" -- I generally tune out. Pollsters and survey-takers seldom ask the right questions, I've found, so the responses they get are less than reliable. One exception is the surveys conducted by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, and the organization's U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, released Monday, June 23, proves why. ... [W]e know who Pew talked to, and that makes the results of this survey particularly compelling -- and encouraging to those of us who stubbornly hold on to the hope that we can effect political and social change by building on the common ground that unites us as Christians. And the meticulous wording of the survey enabled Pew analysts to recognize such nuances as the indirect influence of religion on political life.

Video: Dobson, Obama, and Jim Wallis on the Evangelical Agenda

Jim Wallis talks about the evangelical agenda in the context of James Dobson's recent criticism of Barack Obama. Watch it:

The Gaza Cease-Fire and Palestinian Nonviolent Resistance (by Philip Rizk)

Parallel to the legal battles, the Nassars have done everything to prevent the confiscation of their land. In the summers they host children's summer camps and nonviolent resistance training camps. They also continue to come up with creative ways of resisting Israel's intention of removing them from their property by gathering winter rains when they are not permitted to connect to the water system of the nearby village, and digging out old caves because they cannot legally build above ground. Israeli land annexation is occurring all over Israel, yet the Nassar's case reveals a rare example of perseverance and creativity, and they have achieved international support to persist in fighting for their land.

Video: They Will Have Their Reward (by Daniel Ra)

When you take your big prize home, be sure to tell me
You won it with your bag of tricks, flicks, and candy

And I'll be sure to tell you, you've done a good job
For making yourself feel good from the people you rob

"Those People": Humanizing the Health Care Debate (by Andrew Wilkes)

Recently I had the privilege of attending a health-care debate at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Inspired by Denzel Washington's The Great Debaters, two groups of five people debated the following resolution: Government-sponsored health care programs should be expanded to cover the uninsured. The group arguing against the aforementioned resolution carried the day. They dismantled their opposition by critiquing Medicaid, Medicare, and the State Children's Health Insurance Plan (SCHIP), and lamenting the financial cost of health-care expansion. Beneath the bludgeoning, however, the affirmative group constructed a moving closing argument.

Thank God For George W. Bush (by Chuck Gutenson)

In the late summer of 2004, a seminary colleague and I pondered the possibility of another four years of Bush 43. The polls were very close, and it seemed highly possible that we could be faced with four more years of G.W. Bush, coupled with both houses of Congress under the Republicans. My colleague observed ruefully, "Perhaps unified Republican rule would be the best education for the people to see just how much they don't want it." Before I could respond, he added, "Though, I really don't know if we can afford four more years of Bush and a Republican Congress." It turns out he was right -- on both accounts.

Young Evangelicals, Elections, and Our Real Work (by Tim Kumfer)

We should not place our hopes solely on our representatives, senators, or presidents to enact our values for us. Rather, we should learn how personal the political truly is, by living out the changes we want to see take place in the wider world. Then, the political choices we make will flow naturally out of the work we're already doing as part of being the church. What I mean is, part of the faith community's vocation is feeding the hungry, providing shelter for those who have none, caring for single mothers, working for peace, and so forth. Casting a ballot should simply be an extension of that prior service -- not an excuse for noninvolvement with the marginalized -- but a chance to further the work we should already be doing.

Be a 'Budget Hero' (by Rose Marie Berger)

American Public Media recently launched Budget Hero -- an interactive game that lets people explore the major issues of the election by changing the federal budget to match their stands on issues and values. Budget Hero tries to bring a level of clarity and simplicity to the federal budget. It is bound to be controversial since the game puts numbers against issues like bringing the troops home from Iraq soon, versus gradually or not at all, and providing options on taxes, Social Security, and Medicare.

Pagans and Patriarchs (by Phyllis Tickle)

In the case of Christianity, which is the tradition in which my own faith is implacably rooted, and in the case of the liturgy that gives it form, our secularly un-remarked upon passage away from spring is still very much remarked upon during the first full week of summer. That means that twice this week, Christians will stop and consider, hopefully to our souls' benefit, the stories of two men. One of them biblical, the other not. The biblical saint is so well-known as to need no great mention here. That is, on Tuesday, June 24, Christians will say prayers of thanks for the life of John the Baptizer, herald and forerunner of our Lord. And on Saturday, June 28, we will give thanks for Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons.

Making Their Mark: Interview with Gloria Luna, Social Advocate

While there are many signs of hope, young Christians are in the thick of a culture of individualism, consumerism, lack of reconciliation, and violence. The idea that individually we must struggle, work, and survive is deeply ingrained in our communities. My experience has been that this radical individualism is what weighs most heavily on the human soul, that we cannot count on our neighbors to care for us when we are in trouble, because there just simply is too much competition and not enough time to care for ourselves, much less anyone else.


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