By the Way: James Dobson Departs the Scene

The decision by James Dobson to retire as head of Focus on the Family, the organization he started in 1977, highlights the generational challenges facing the religious right.

Although Dobson will continue his radio program and his writing, he is stepping away from the day-to-day operations of the organization, handing the reins over to Patrick P. Caruana, a retired Air Force Lieutenant General, shortly after the largest downsizing in the organization’s history. It’s much too early to predict that either Focus on the Family or the religious right will go away, but it’s very difficult to pass the mantle of charismatic leadership from one generation to the next, especially when the founder is so closely associated with the organization. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, for example, now based in Charlotte, North Carolina, and under the leadership of Franklin Graham, laid off fifty-five people just last week, about 10 percent of its staff.

The generational dynamic within the religious right has been exacerbated by the older, founding generation’s unwillingness to relinquish power. Donald Wildmon, Chuck Colson, Pat Roberston, and Dobson are all in their seventies. Jerry Falwell died in his office in 2007. D. James Kennedy died the same year without provisions for an obvious successor.

It’s not that there’s a shortage of religious right leaders at the triple-A level itching to move up to the majors; Rick Scarborough of Vision America and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council are two such candidates. But each of them has baggage. Scarborough (how can I put this gently?) is hardly a persuasive ideologue, like Colson or Dobson. And Perkins has ties with white supremacist groups in his native Louisiana.

But the generational challenges facing the religious right go beyond leadership. According to a survey by Edison Media Research, among white evangelicals ages 18 to 29, Barack Obama received double the support in the 2008 presidential election than John Kerry had four years earlier. This was despite the fact that Obama’s social policies were virtually indistinguishable from Kerry’s.

What happened between 2004 and 2008? The Democratic Party nominated a different candidate, of course, someone preternaturally gifted at communicating his message of hope and optimism, especially in the face of a discredited Republican administration. But there was another dynamic at work as well. While Dobson, Colson, and their confreres continued to insist that the only salient moral issues were abortion and same-sex unions, this younger group of evangelicals saw things differently. They were prepared to see a moral valence in a much broader spectrum of issues: poverty, AIDS, the environment, the prosecution of an unjust war, human rights and torture.

As I travel to evangelical colleges, I find that the issue of sexual identity (for example) is, well, not much of an issue among a younger generation of evangelicals. Sure, if you pressed them, many would say that homosexuality is wrong, but they simply can’t understand why Dobson and the other leaders of the religious right are so exercised over the matter.

So too with abortion. A younger generation of evangelicals has grown tired of the stalemated debate over abortion—or rather what passes for debate. Obama’s declaration that he would seek to limit the number of abortions resonated with them – or at least satisfied them, especially because they, like other Americans, recognize that making abortion illegal will not materially affect the incidence of abortion.

Finally, this younger generation of evangelicals understands that global warming is real, not some left-wing conspiracy as leaders of the religious right would have them believe. On this issue of care for the environment, more than any other, Dobson and other old-line leaders of the religious right lost credibility with younger evangelicals. Besides, how can anyone advocate the teaching of something called “intelligent design” in the public schools, and yet evince so little interest in the handiwork of the Intelligent Designer?

Dobson’s departure marks an important transition, not only for his own organization but for the religious right as a whole. The question is whether the religious right can retool itself to reach a younger generation of evangelicals. It’s a task not unlike the task facing the Republican Party itself: how to inject new life and vitality into a movement that is both morally and ideologically bankrupt.