A Dobson's Choice for Conservatives?

Having read Jim Dobson’s latest lecture, I feel a little bit like SpongeBob SquarePants: maligned and misunderstood. But it would be unfair, I think, to suggest that SpongeBob has become bitter over his experience with Jim Dobson; he seems to have moved on.

Frankly, though, I don’t understand why Jim Dobson always feels the need to justify himself in such great detail. If he believes that Dick Armey is the only person who thinks he is a bully, it should be of little concern to him. On some issues, regarding interactions between us, his recollections are clearly different than mine. It seems, therefore, that Jim Dobson is no more willing to believe himself a bully than I am able to believe he is a gentle soul.

For well over a decade, Dobson and several other self-anointed leaders of America’s Christian evangelicals have cajoled and threatened Republican leaders with public and private ultimatums. As early as 1995, we were being told what bitter disappointments we had turned out to be by Jim Dobson.

Time magazine reports that as early as "March, James Dobson, head of the powerful Focus on the Family organization, fired off open letters to GOP chairman Haley Barbour, complaining bitterly about the lack of immediate payoff from the November election. Fearful of compromising with 'anti-family' elements, Dobson argued that it was time to fold the all-inviting 'big tent' of the Republican Party."

In 1998, he was quoted in the Washington Times in what became a typical, scolding refrain:

"Does the Republican Party want our votes, no strings attached — to court us every two years, and then to say, 'Don't call me; I'll call you' — and to not care about the moral law of the universe? ... Is that what they want? Is that the way the system works? Is this the way it's going to be? If it is, I'm gone, and if I go, I will do everything I can to take as many people with me as possible."

In 2004, Dobson told ABC News that he was “quite sure [President Bush] will fail us. He doesn’t dance to our tune. … I think that this President has two years — or more broadly, the Republican party has two years to implement those policies or certainly four, or I believe they’ll pay a price at the — in the next election.”

In 2005, Dobson and his colleagues even sent a threatening letter to the White House challenging their decision to focus on Social Security reform after the 2004 elections. That letter read in part:

"We couldn't help but notice the contrast between how the president is approaching the difficult issue of Social Security privatization where the public is deeply divided and the marriage issue where public opinion is overwhelmingly on his side. ... Is [President Bush] prepared to spend significant political capital on privatization but reluctant to devote the same energy to preserving traditional marriage? If so it would create outrage with countless voters who stood with him just a few weeks ago, including an unprecedented number of African-Americans, Latinos and Catholics who broke with tradition and supported the president. ... When the administration adopts a defeatist attitude on an issue that is at the top of our agenda, it becomes impossible for us to unite our movement on an issue such as Social Security privatization where there are already deep misgivings."

So try to understand and forgive my indiscrete use of words over a year ago in an interview, when I used the terms “thugs” and “bully.” My friend Rep. Mike Pence called me out on that, and he was right. And, as much as I never enjoyed Jim Dobson’s many lectures over the years, I too, like SpongeBob, have moved on to the serious issues faced by the conservative movement in America today.

One of Armey’s Axioms says that if it’s about you, you lose. The idea is always bigger than the man. If this debate becomes merely a Jim Dobson versus Dick Armey circus, it doesn’t help the American public in any way. There is a fundamental debate going on here, one in which neither of us matters all that much.

The very real tragedy of the past 60 years is the ongoing expansion and intrusion of the federal government into the traditionally private sphere of American life. Activist judges are clearly responsible for much of the damage, but just as corrosive is the expansion of the federal bureaucracy into education, welfare, and health care and retirement. The result is that private, social decisions once left to individuals and communities are now under the control of Washington powerbrokers. Our cultural debate has become politicized.

In fact, the specific demands constantly made by Dobson and his gang in the name of “values voters” feel a lot like the group identity politics employed by the left wing that every conservative should abhor. The politicization of the culture war cheapens the political participation of millions of Christians by turning us into just another “special interest” group to be appeased by meaningless symbolism.

Meanwhile, the growth of government spending and regulation continues unchecked.

In his comments posted yesterday, Dobson discussed at length his personal commitment to freedom and limited government. Therefore, we should take him at face value that he is a man dedicated to liberty and small government.

That being the case, I’m sure he agrees that the action by Congress in the Terri Schiavo situation was a trespass against the separation of powers and an affront to conservatives’ historic resistance to judicial activism and interventionism. Clearly we cannot find judicial activism acceptable in cases when it is ordered by a legislative body. If we do find that acceptable, we might consider the damage that future liberal legislative bodies can wreak. What is good for the goose is good for the gander.

If Dobson is a champion of freedom, he understands then the risks of using the power of government to define social norms. We might not like what others have to say on these issues when they are in power. If Dobson is a defender of the Constitution, he will pause before calling for amending it on every social issue of the day.

When you boil it down, this debate centers on the role of two critical ideas: freedom and righteousness. In our private lives, living righteously is paramount. However, in our public lives — in our relationship with policymakers and our government — we should resist the belief that the power of government should be used to force righteous behavior in others. That’s the temptation facing religious conservatives.

Indeed, such efforts to impose righteousness are doomed to fail — society cannot truly become righteous simply because the government compels “righteous” behavior. God gave us free will, and true righteousness can only be found through a free exercise of personal choice. Although Dobson may not realize it, government-mandated righteousness is a pathway to tyranny.

The goal for Christians in our public lives, then, must be freedom — freedom to practice our faith without government interference. Freedom to build churches and schools and businesses without being forced to supplicate before an ever-expanding government leviathan.

When we defend values, we win; when we impose values, we lose.

Jim Dobson is correct that if evangelicals stay home, Republicans lose. On the other hand, equally true, is the fact that if pocketbook voters stay home, we lose (as was the case in 2002, 1998, and in 1992). This election cycle, it is my belief that Americans are more concerned with basic pocketbook issues, and the 109th Congress has failed to address those concerns.

All officeholders must come to terms with the fact that they are expected to deal with substantive legislative outcomes, not just political posturing and pandering. The electorate holds them accountable.

Indeed, pandering and posturing on gay marriage is an insult to most voters. I’m the first person to argue that marriage is between a man and a woman. But here, Jim Dobson himself is prone to hyperbole, having claimed in one campaign speech that homosexuals and gay marriage “will destroy the earth.” We should leave such rhetoric to Al Gore, where it is better suited.

Jim Dobson would have us believe that we, as conservatives and Republicans, face a stark political choice: His way, defeat or nothing. However, a Republican Party that believes its first value is righteousness over freedom is a party that will lose elections.

There is a better answer than Dobson’s Choice. The Republican Party needs to find a common ground, as President Reagan did, that unites all factions of the GOP coalition. I argue that the common ground is personal liberty and limited government. More fundamentally, freedom is a “tent” in which all Americans, including evangelical Christians, will prosper.

Dick Armey, a Republican, represented Texas' 26th Congressional District in the House of Representatives from 1985 to 2003 and was the Majority Leader of the House from 1995 to 2003.

He is now chairman of FreedomWorks. In his current position, he has traveled to more than 20 states, rallying grassroots, testifying before state and federal governments, meeting with pro-reform legislators, and challenging “backsliding” politicians while helping advance FreedomWorks’ mission of lower taxes, less government and more freedom.

Armey has written four books: "Price Theory: A Policy-Welfare Approach" (1977), "The Freedom Revolution" (1995), "The Flat Tax" (1996), and "Armey's Axioms" (2003).