James Dobson’s Family Values Were Influenced by a Eugenicist [Audio]

This exclusive three-minute clip, featuring historian Audrey Clare Farley, is from the May 17 episode of Straight White American Jesus, a podcast hosted by Bradley Onishi and Daniel Miller. RD will be collaborating with SWAJ to regularly bring you audio and transcripts on Christian nationalism, “conversion therapy,” purity culture, and more. — eds


Bradley Onishi: What’s so important about this story is that once again, we have a secular person or a non-evangelical person whose ideas are formative for what will become the bedrock of evangelical theology, politics, and practice. I mean, we see this with the rise of the religious right and someone like Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie; neither of them are evangelicals, and yet they are the ones who sort of link forces with the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons to create this sort of political this political force in the seventies, eighties, nineties and so on. 

Here, we have somebody who’s an atheist and yet his ideas about race and the family are compatible in, you know, in, in, in some way, seamless with evangelical thought, evangelical theology.

And so this brings us to a critical juncture. He’s in LA. He’s training psychologists. He’s training pastors. And there is just this guy that you know, some of us have heard of, James Dobson, who happens to be training in Los Angeles to be a psychologist. And this is where we kind of pick up the story with James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, the champion of family values, somebody that I might bet a hundred bucks is one of the five most influential evangelicals of the 20th century. What is his relationship to Paul Popenoe

Audrey Clare Farley: So Dobson went to work for Popenoe as his assistant, before he founded Focus on the Family in 1979. And so, as his assistant, he authors all kinds of publications, which were basically Popenoe’s ideas for a public audience. So, about male/female differences and strict gender norms; the dangers of evil feminism; how it’s going to lead to society’s decay and all of this. He would often write for newspapers like the Los Angeles Times

And, just like Popenoe, he viewed homosexuality and feminism as these grave threats to the family. He would dismiss domestic abuse—that’s something that appears in later of his books. He would sometimes accuse women of faking it, just to get attention, that sort of thing. Even where he believed abuse was real, he never really thought of it as a good reason for divorce. Everybody had to stay in their marriage.

And when he, when he ended up founding Focus on the Family he really gave all of those ideas that he’d been articulating as Popenoe’s assistant more of a religious cloak. 

So in Beth Allison Barr’s new book, which I’m sure everybody, or most people have heard of, The Making of Biblical Womanhood, she uses the term ‘sanctified’ to describe how people like Dobson recast these cultural or man-made ideas as scriptural ones. And I think that’s exactly the right verb. Dobson is trying to make the Bible the basis for these eugenic ideals that he’s learned from Popenoe

Listen to the whole podcast here