James C. Dobson, the child psychologist who is widely regarded as one of the nation’s most influential evangelical leaders, has always sought to keep his public persona at a safe distance from the battlefield of partisan politics.
But this year, amid the debate over same-sex marriage and the presidential election, he is throwing himself into the fray, creating a political organization, stumping for candidates, drawing a crowd of 20,000 to a rally against same-sex marriage and backing a drive to register conservative Christian voters.
Because of Dr. Dobson’s wide following among conservative Christians, his new activism promises to help social conservative candidates and causes. It could be a particular boon for President Bush, whose chief political adviser, Karl Rove, has made getting sympathetic churchgoers to the polls one of the Bush campaign’s priorities.
But motivating evangelical Christians to go the polls is a delicate and risky endeavor, political scientists and strategists say, because many are suspicious of the worldly pursuit of political power.
Dr. Dobson, founder of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, owes his following mainly to his trademark mixture of psychological and biblical expertise, and his millions of admirers know him primarily as a source of folksy advice about children and families who insists he has no love for politics. Getting too close to partisan politics risks undercutting Dr. Dobson’s spiritual and psychological authority, just as evangelical conservative leaders like the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have lost some of their influence, political scientists and other influential Christian conservatives say.
“When Pat Robertson started running for president, his ministry took a big hit, because a lot of people tuned in to `The 700 Club’ for spiritual reasons, not political reasons,” said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron who studies religion and politics.
A friend of Dr. Dobson, Charles W. Colson, the Watergate figure who founded Prison Fellowship Ministries, also questioned the wisdom of endorsements, saying: “I think anybody who is a Christian leader or a pastor has to be very careful not to divide his flock. I think you can be a good Christian and not necessarily agree with me politically.”
In an interview in early May, Dr. Dobson acknowledged the risks, but said he felt compelled to act.
“There are dangers, and that is why I have never done it before,” he said, speaking on the phone from Washington, where he was lobbying for an amendment banning same-sex marriage. “But the attack and assault on marriage is so distressing that I just feel like I can’t remain silent.”
In truth, Dr. Dobson has never kept his views on what he calls moral issues to himself. He has worried aloud for 30 years about abortion, divorce, gay rights and contraception. Every few years, he has publicly warned Republicans not to take conservative Christian votes for granted, and two decades ago he set up a separate organization, the Family Research Council, to press social conservative causes in Washington.
But until now Dr. Dobson has held back his most potent asset, his own public persona and the reputation of his organization. After he created the Family Research Council, he let others act as its spokesmen. He almost never endorsed political candidates, even when Gary L. Bauer, his protégé and the former president of the council, ran in the Republican presidential primaries four years ago.
Instead, Dr. Dobson concentrated on expanding his evangelical self-help empire. His books have sold more than 12 million copies. Focus on the Family says his radio broadcasts reach more than 7 million each week. He sends his Focus on the Family newsletter to more than 3 million donors, a number comparable to the circulation of Newsweek.
“I would say that Dr. Dobson has replaced Billy Graham as the most respected and most influential person in evangelical Christendom,” said Dr. Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Last month Dr. Dobson started a new, expressly political sister organization, Focus on the Family Action, capitalizing on his reputation and his flagship organization’s to lobby and campaign more openly for social conservative causes without endangering its tax-deductible status. This month, the new organization sent out its first fund-raising brochure.
Mr. Dobson has already made speeches around the country backing prohibitions on same-sex marriage, drawing 20,000 people to a rally in Seattle on May 1. In a recent radio broadcast, he warned that not to vote was a sin, and a spokesman for Focus on the Family said that in an effort modeled on MTV’s Rock the Vote, his group would be signing up voters all summer wherever it could find gatherings of young Christians.
In addition to lobbying through the new organization, which will still be prohibited from directly endorsing candidates, Dr. Dobson said in the interview that as a private individual he would endorse and campaign for conservative candidates. For example, he sent mailings, made radio commercials and stumped for Representative Patrick J. Toomey’s unsuccessful challenge to Senator Arlen Specter, a moderate Republican, in Pennsylvania in April.
Dr. Dobson said he decided to start the new organization in part because Focus on the Family had grown so large that even the cost of one political mailing to all its donors bumped against the limitations of its tax-deductible status.
“I do not give up my First Amendment rights because I lead a nonprofit organization,” he said, “and in fact I still have a responsibility as a citizen and as an American to participate in the system.”
Some prominent liberals acknowledged that Dr. Dobson’s efforts could hurt their causes. “There is no question that James Dobson is the most powerful and most influential voice on the religious right,” said Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way.
But Mr. Neas argued that Dr. Dobson’s support could inadvertently hurt candidates by alienating voters who disagree with him on issues like abortion and gay rights.
The original Focus on the Family is bracing for any confusion Dr. Dobson’s public activism might create about its purpose. In an interview, Don Hodel, chief executive of Focus on the Family as well as its new sister organization, said a marketing consultant had recently warned Focus on the Family executives that Dr. Dobson’s political advocacy could potentially overshadow Focus on the Family’s traditional image.
“We are definitely going to try to crank up our communications capacity about what Focus on the Family really is,” said Mr. Hodel, a secretary of interior in the Reagan administration. “We are going to try to make the point that Dr. Dobson is going out into the political arena not because that is what he wants to do; it is because that is what he feels he has to do. From where I am coming from, we want to emphasize repeatedly that our brand is still evangelical outreach through the family.”
That reputation is what recently drew the Rev. Rod Vermillion, pastor of the 100-member Glenfair Evangelical Church in Portland, Ore., to a suburban Dobson rally.
“I think he is the Will Rogers of the Christian world,” Mr. Vermillion said in a telephone interview. “I feel that he is a genuine man of God. And I am not a right-wing, Jerry Falwell character either. There are certain elements of Bible-believing people who have taken it to an extreme that I would call `legalism.’ “
Mr. Vermillion acknowledged that campaigning more openly for legislation or for candidates might make Dr. Dobson appear too “legalistic.”
“I think we all walk a tightrope between standing up for what we believe and doing it in a kind of loving and rather long-suffering way, not just wham-bam,” he said. “It is a tightrope that Jim Dobson walks, I will tell you, and yet I think he is doing a great job.”