John Fea Whitewashes James Dobson, Evangelicalism

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

To Christian historian John Fea, the Evangelical radio broadcaster James Dobson is a familial savior. Fea’s father was prone to rages “that often resulted in corporal punishment” until he found God and, later, Dobson, he writes at The Atlantic. The rage diminished, and the man became “a better father and husband,” he adds. He learned to administer “paternal discipline” without a “spirit of anger.” To Fea, the story hints at deeper truths — about Dobson and Evangelicalism itself. “​​For all the bad that’s come out of this movement, there are still countless stories of personal transformation leading people to become better parents, better spouses, and better members of their communities,” he argues. I don’t question Fea’s story. His personal experiences are his to recount. But his relatively mild description of Dobson is sharply at odds with Dobson’s own writings, which calls his underlying argument into question.

In the opening pages of The Strong-Willed Child, Dobson, a professional psychologist, beats his dachshund Siggie with a belt. “That tiny dog and I had the most vicious fight ever staged between man and beast,” Dobson writes. “I fought him up one wall and down the other, with both of us scratching and clawing and growling and swinging the belt.” Eventually Siggie backs down and Dobson wins the fight. The next night, when Dobson tells him to go to bed, Siggie does so “in perfect submission.” Parents have a lesson to learn, he writes. “Just as surely as a dog will occasionally challenge the authority of his leaders, a little child is inclined to do the same thing, only more so,” he adds. Strong-willed children will test their parents most of all. Though a parent should not crush a child’s will, they should shape it — and one way to do that, he argues, is through corporal punishment, or child abuse.

“When spankings occur, they should be administered with a neutral object; that is, with a small switch or belt, but rarely with the hand,” he explains. “Should a spanking hurt? Yes, or else it will have no influence … Two or three stinging strokes on the legs or bottom with a switch are usually sufficient to emphasize the point, ‘You must obey me.’” If a child between the ages of 2 and 3 keeps getting out of bed, “give him one swat on the legs with a small switch. Put the switch on his dresser where he can see it, and promise him one more stroke if he gets up again.”

Dobson’s books sold millions of copies, and his ministry was a staple of my Evangelical childhood. My own parents had a copy of The Strong-Willed Child, as I recall, and they treated me accordingly. In practice, this meant corporal punishment — a lot of it. Because I was homeschooled for my early childhood and had no extracurricular activities, my parents could not meaningfully ground me. But my father could spank me, and shove me, and threaten me with belts, and he did. I still have physical scars from his efforts at discipline. My parents didn’t always follow Dobson’s advice, but his books and broadcasts gave abuse a Christian imprimatur.

Beyond this, Dobson is an antifeminist and an influential purveyor of anti-LGBT bigotry. Though he’s now retired from his ministry at Focus on the Family, his legacy endures. For decades he railed against same-sex marriage and taught, falsely, that LGBT people could change sexual orientations and that homosexuality is a psychological disorder. Boys might suffer from “prehomosexuality,” a condition that parents should recognize and root out, he wrote in Bringing Up Boys. Child abuse takes many forms.

That context is absent from Fea’s piece. He acknowledges Dobson’s imperfection only in oblique terms, writing just that the broadcaster’s “emphasis on male authority in the home has come under significant criticism in recent years.” He did not follow Dobson’s teachings as he reared his own children, preferring “other Christian approaches” that were “perhaps, less harmful.”

Fea never explains what that harm might be. He instead takes aim at historians Kristin Kobes Du Mez and Beth Allison Barr, who are Christians themselves, and their recent books, which contain nuanced, if critical, portrayals of Dobson. They have produced “woefully flat” works of Evangelical history because they allegedly “do not explain historically the story of my father and, I imagine, millions of other men and women who learned from Dobson how to love their families as Jesus loves his church,” he writes. (Du Mez has responded to Fea on her Substack, writing that her book, Jesus and John Wayne, is not a history of Evangelicalism but of “white evangelical masculinity & militarism,” and argues persuasively that Fea has mischaracterized her work.) Fea’s overarching argument — that Evangelicalism, like Dobson, has been flattened by its critics — works by omission. Context weakens it. If we are to believe, as Fea writes, that American Evangelicalism hasn’t completely earned all its negative coverage, we have to ignore much of what Evangelicals say, and do.

“Journalists don’t sufficiently distinguish Christian nationalists from conservative evangelicals who simply and reasonably want to bring their faith to bear on public life,” he complains. There is some truth here: I don’t think most journalists understand Evangelicalism particularly well. “Christian nationalism” is one such case. It is a real phenomenon; at the same time, the term has been taken up by a cohort of self-appointed “whisperers,” whose explanations of Evangelical thought and deed are not always rigorous. There is a temptation, further, to sort Evangelicals into “good” and “bad” categories, though they’re as complex as any other person. But apologists like Fea will cite that complexity to absolve them from critical judgment. What does it mean to bring conservative Evangelicalism “to bear on public life,” for example? That could look like an abortion ban or public funds for crisis pregnancy centers, which lie to women about their reproductive options. Perhaps it would lead to more vouchers for religious schools, which often preach homophobia. What looks reasonable to Fea could mean oppression for anyone who is not a conservative Evangelical.

Fea goes on to say that there are Evangelicals engaged in good works, “that for every Christian nationalist, nativist, and MAGA promoter, there is a believer in Jesus Christ living out the Sermon on the Mount’s call to humility, meekness, and mercy.” He adds, “These are evangelicals doing evangelical things. They are following the way of the cross and extending the grace and mercy they have experienced to others.” No doubt these Evangelicals exist. I count my own parents among them, despite some events in my childhood. It’s not clear to me, though, that there is a meaningful distinction between “MAGA promoter” and “believer in Jesus Christ,” at least in political terms. A Trump devotee may well think of themself as an Evangelical doing an Evangelical thing. Moreover, the polls are what they are. Most white Evangelicals are Trump voters. Their church may run a food pantry and host Mike Flynn, or someone like him, the following week. Fea admits as much. “Many of them will hold their nose and vote for Donald Trump,” he writes, adding, “Others might even attend churches that occasionally hold patriotic Sunday services. But they are also doing the Lord’s work.” A “patriotic Sunday service” is a vague euphemism. What does it mean to do the Lord’s work for the needy and then vote for a champion of the wealthy? Surely the needy deserve better than Trump.

There is indeed a complex story to tell about contemporary Evangelicalism. But we can’t serve the truth by whitewashing it as Fea does. James Dobson may have wanted parents to love their families. He also taught them to abuse their children, and he inflicted serious damage on generations of Evangelical youth. Evangelicalism fares little better under scrutiny. It’s easy to blame journalists — even other historians — for “overemphasizing the negative,” as Fea puts it. “Let’s tell the whole story,” he writes. The truth can be difficult to accept: Perhaps Evangelicalism has earned that negative coverage. The occasional act of mercy or justice has not been enough to save the tradition from itself. That is the whole story.

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