Over the past thirty years a redefinition of the meaning of the historical term "Christian" began. This change came about because of the influence of the Christian Right politically and culturally. I can still recall, as a young pastor, getting my first voter’s guides delivered to my church so that I could help my congregation learn how they should vote with regard to the correct social and international issues. There was a list of twelve issues and how candidates stood on them. The point was that their answers revealed how close they were to the "Christian" position. While no candidates were endorsed it quickly became clear who was and who was not on the correct side with this list in hand. Some of the issues on that list, like abortion, were genuinely moral ones. Others, like a particular approach to national defense, were far more complicated and clearly had little or no biblical support. These kinds of issues were simply not black and white Christian issues, at least in terms of biblical and historical ethics. I refused to give out these guides and have watched with alarm as this approach has gone more and more mainstream in very conservative places of ecclesial power in America.
Look, readers of this blog know that I am a conservative politically, at least in the broad sense of the term. When it is used to refers to issues like abortion, marriage, family, the free market, a strong defense and tax-cuts I remain a conservative who desires to see a more limited government that favors the freedoms of people. But I have never been an active participant in the formal and political expressions of the Christian Right and I am even more deeply troubled by this movement today than I have ever been. I now find myself opposing it even though I remain a conservative on most issues. It has too much power, far too many people sure that God is on their side, and draws too much attention away from the real work of the church itself.
One of the reasons why I find myself in an odd position came about last week when Dr. James Dobson proclaimed that former-senator Fred Thompson was "not a Christian." The news report cited this as a "devastating blow" to Thomson’s chances should he seek the Republican nomination. Dobson, in a phone call to the senior editor of U. S. News & World Report, said, "Everyone knows he’s conservative and has come out strongly for the things that the pro-family movement stands for, but I don’t think he’s a Christian. At least that’s my impression."
Dobson knows very well that his making such a public statement could kill Thompson’s potential chance for the Republican nomination with several million people who love James Dobson and listen to him faithfully. It seems that he has learned the political power game very well over the past twenty-five years. Now he is using his influence to impact a potential nominee of the Republican Party for reasons that may be only fully known to him.
A Thompson spokesman responded by saying "Fred Thompson is indeed a Christian. He was baptized into the Church of Christ." A Focus on the Family spokesmen responded, in an attempt to clarify Dobson’s position, by saying "Dobson didn’t believe Thompson belonged to a non-Christian faith,
Well, there you have it. A new, non-biblical, culturally conservative definition of what makes a person who professes faith in Christ to be real or not. If they openly talk about faith they are in and if they don’t they are not.
I am sorry to say this but such a redefining of the historic term "Christian" is nuts! It raises several troubling questions.
First, when did Dobson become the person who helps Christians, and the general public, know who is and is not a Christian?
Second, many people who "openly talk about faith" are not real Christians and many people who are more silent (verbally) are some of the best Christians I know. This criteria is, as I said, "Nuts."
Third, where does a Christian psychologist get this kind of power and influence? The real leaders of the church of Jesus Christ should be its bishops, pastors, elders, and deacons; i.e., those who lead congregations and who answer to some church authority. Dobson is none of these. He is a psychologist with a powerful following.
Fourth, why does a person with no theological training, no ministerial ordination, and no particular church accountability to anyone within the church, become the person who now defines for millions what a Christian is or is not? The answer, sadly, is that evangelicalism has become more of a conservative social movement than a theological and missional movement and Dobson’s popularity is symptomatic of this very problem. He may be a wonderful man, that is not the issue I am addressing. The issue is that he should not be a spokesman for how we understand meaning of the term "Christian." This is why we have creeds, sacraments and churches. This kind of evangelicalism, which Dobson so powerfully represents, is built on a perverted expression of sola Scriptura, one reduced to its worst form. It is, in actuality, a deadly virus that plagues our movement with individuals who pretend to determine who is and is not a Christian and then tell the world on radio or through their books.
Fifth, Dobson seems to clearly have a favorite candidate for the White House, former-speaker Newt Gingrich. Recently, Dobson interviewed Gingrich on his radio program. On the second program he got into Gingrich’s messy previous moral lapses by lobbing him a few "softball" type questions about his sorrow over these sins. I listened to the two programs on the Internet very carefully. I happen to respect Newt Gingrich’s political views on numerous issues but I found Dobson’s interview, both the manner and the timing, overtly political. It was an odd way, and time, for Speaker Gingrich to announce his repentance, assuming his confession is real. (I should only assume the best if I follow Christ but I can’t shake the issue of timing and place.)
I think Dr. Dobson has helped a load of people with their family and personal issues. I happen to like his psychological counsel on most issues and find him a rather sane voice when he sticks to his area of professional training. The problem is that he has inserted himself overtly into the political arena and now seems to feel that he is empowered by some people (and maybe God) to tell us who is and is not a Christian by his own "new" definition.
I do not believe this type of thing will stop until many conservative Christians begin to say "Enough is enough." We should not be a special interest group politically, even if it is conservative movement. (Maybe I should say, especially if it is conservative group given the nature of how power corrupts us so easily.) And we should not be so strongly influenced by radio personalities in terms of how we approach issues, people and their personal claims to being Christians. It seems to me that we should also let Dr. Dobson know this in some appropriate manner. I want him to use his gifts and powerful influence for the good of Christians but I ask him to avoid redefining important Christian terms for the sake of the political process and his own partisan views. His desire to help improve the moral condition in America is admirable but his methods are deplorable.
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Even if Dr. Dobson were correct in his judgment about who is and is not a Christian, why should that be the overriding factor in determining our support? Jimmy Carter may have been a sincere Christian, but he appears to have lacked some important qualities that America needed in a president. Sincerity of faith does not qualify someone for public office any more than it qualifies one to practice psychiatry, medicine or law or to play football.
This is all interesting in light of Jesus’ warnings to us to be careful how we judge because our standards will be meted out against us. I no longer take this as exclusively happening on Judgment Day, but it can take form in everyday life by other people. Large numbers of Christians in the conservative “bible only” and “biblical counseling” circles view Dobson as not being a true Christian (I used to) because he dares to bring secular psychology into the “exclusive” realm of the bible. Isn’t it funny how this works?
John, thank you for writing this!
I strongly agree with the sentiments that you express in this post. I have become uncomfortable being identified as a conservative and have to constantly explain to people what I mean when I call myself an evangelical. I believe that the power of the religious right has done great harm to the witness of Christ. A recent example of this harm is the way James Dobson, Don Wildmon and Tony Perkins went off on Richard Cizik over his postion on global warming. Being an almost 50 year old evangelical pastor that grew up in the evangelical sub-culture I remember the NAE and the evangelical movement being a movement that included people many different political stipes and that took it’s orders from asking “where stand’s it written”. There was unity on core issues and divesity on issues such as war and peace, poverty, etc. The uniformity that is being forced down the throat of pastors on issues where there has not been broad consensus in the evangelical movement is having a chilling effect on the prophetic voices of our pulpits.
Darn, I’ll sign a petition against evangelical leaders behaving like Dobson did toward Thompson. 😉
Great post John.
John, I’m so glad to see a number of people agreeing with you/thanking you for this post.
I started attending a relatively big evangelical church after I moved to the US and I was taken aback and disturbed to see those voter scorecards available at the information desk. I don’t think that’s appropriate. It bothers me that they dumb down the whole voting process. Instead of saying “here, we’ll spoon-feed you a way to vote” Christians should be saying “research the issues for yourself – it’s your decision which issues are the key ones”.
I’ve never liked James Dobson’s involvement in politics – I always wished he really would ‘focus on the family’.
John you are as narrow minded as you accuse Dr. Dobson. You have absolutely no idea why Dr.”D” said what he said so your conclusion is as false as your thinking about what a christian’s responsibility really is. I am very glad that Jesus did not believe like you do, and that is, to not get involved in the social issues of the day. Rome would never have cricified him if they did not believe he was acting politically now would they? Dr. Dobson is not political, but he does stand for righteousness and many call that political. Christian is to be Christ-like and you are so Luke-warm you will never have to worry about being persecuted for your definition of being a Christian.
Dr. Ken Hutcherson
from what you said above, you seem to have a penchant for eisegesis–for you have imputed to Mr. Armstrong things he did not express, and there was no textual justification to do so. I sincerely hope this is *not* your regular habit of reading, and construal of the beliefs of others–if it is, i shudder at the possibilities.
Well said. I’m afraid that Dr Dobson has become “merely” political. Thompson may or may not be a true follower of Christ but the point is that Dobson knows the influence he has by making such pronouncements. It was anything but a casual comment.
James Dobson: Reader of Hearts and Would-be Kingmaker
Evangelical radio talk show host Dr. James Dobson has received lots of flak for stating recently that potential GOP candidate for president Fred Thompson is not a Christian. Many of my non-evangelical friends – including a Roman Catholic – are cryin…
I couldn’t agree more. As I explained in my blog post – “James Dobson: Reader of Hearts and Would-be Kingmaker” (read it here: http://eric.langborgh.com/?p=478 ) – “Christian charity and catholicity of spirit demands that we accept our brothers’ baptisms and professions of faith, and that we exhort and encourage – and rebuke as necessary – accordingly. This means that we must consider all members of Trinitarian churches as Christians.”
Moreover, I am uneasy making orthodoxy a litmus test for public office. “Where one places their faith, and the doctrine they hold, certainly impacts one’s policy decisions and leadership qualities. But one can be devout and still a fool. One can be right about/with God and wrong on policy. And vice-versa.”
Ken, I am not sure if you are aware of the Dr Dobson that I am, but he is political if he is anything. My liberal friends are very aware of his politics. My conservative friends may not be as much aware because they don’t always give his words the political weight that I think that they should receive.
Although I concur with many of the sentiments expressed in these comments, I think we should be careful not to gang up on Dr. Dobson. God has given him a position of influence, and he has the right and duty to speak his mind on important issues of the day. No doubt he believes that God has called him to do so. And, on a great many issues, he speaks the truth. Dr. Dobson is just one man, and his pronouncements would not matter if he did not have a large following. The real question is how we, as Christians, view the faith of those whose political leanings or denominations may differ from ours. (John’s next post about Barrack Obama is a useful example.) And whether & how we consider the faith of a candidate for public office in a pluralistic society. Personally, I am glad that Dr. Dobson does have a following, even though I do not always agree with his approach. His voice provides a counterbalance to special interests that would, if left unchecked, trample on the rights of believers and silence their voices wherever they could. I have also been impressed by Dr. Dobson’s willingness to have public dialogue on his radio show with Christians who disagree with his approach to lobbying and public policy. I’m glad that he showed generosity to Mr. Gingrich. But his remarks about Fred Thompson were clearly out of line.
It’s hardly a new observation that the leaders of the Religious Right about 2 decades ago started developing a certain kind of strut that spoke, through body language, “man, isn’t this power stuff grand?” It’s quite the opposite of Jesus’ approach to the world, and non-believers see the hypocrisy of it. The worst part is, their actual access to power is not what it seems; one of Bush’s former aides wrote about how most of the people working the Bush White House, including many of its main political figures, were privately ridiculing evangelicals.
The reason why Dobson is most disturbing of the whole bunch is that, unlike Robertson and the rest, Dobson cannot be dismissed as a flake. He clearly is not. He founded and leads a major religious institution, has trained and put to use some of the very best people I know in the field of strengthening families. But (1) a whiff of power can intoxicate quicker than a bottle of rum; (2) he has an institutional colossus behind him that makes him seem all the more dominating.
I hear people using such examples as Dobson as more reason to simply dismiss evangelical Christianity. I know — that’s bigotry, and bigotry is never excusable. But it is sometimes explainable. We all have to start actually engaging in a real dialogue with non-believers about the issues we care about (in my case, poverty is my main issue, and for me it is a matter of faith because loving my neighbor is). Dialogue demands being quiet long enough to listen, as well as bold enough to speak. But when was the last time a Religious Right leader was caught *listening*?
Thanks very much for your thoughts about the Christian Right and about Barack Obama’s church. I admire your objectivity and fairness. Please sign me up for emailings from your ministry, if you offer those.