Family Panic


Right-wing dominance over the public face of Christianity in America has been so complete that the word morality may inevitably evoke the scowling face of the evangelical conservative preacher in our minds. The so-called religious right has used its financial clout and political connections to advantage. But its real power lies in the skilful evocation of guilt—primarily in the church followers or “flock” but also in all of us, like it or not, by virtue of a shared cultural history.

James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, is as good example as any of the problem. He started out as one of those radio personalities that advise listeners on how to be good parents. There’s a need out there for such guidance—corporate culture offers none whatsoever, and for the less educated, glib media personalities try to fill the vacuum. From “Dr. Phil” to “Dr. Laura,” we have experts of dubious authority making big bucks by teaching the public how to live, especially in terms of relationships and families. Dobson eventually went from there to becoming a player in the right-wing culture wars.

For Dobson, child-rearing is about winning a power struggle between the parent and the child. The will of the child needs to be molded by the parent:

“When youngsters display stiff-necked rebellion, you must be willing to respond to the challenge immediately. When nose-to-nose confrontation occurs between you and your child, it is not the time to discuss the virtues of obedience. It is not the occasion to send him to his room to pout. Nor is it the time to postpone disciplinary measures till your tired spouse plods home from work. You have drawn a line in the dirt, and the child has deliberately flopped his bony little toe across it. Who is going to win? Who has the most courage?”

There is nothing new about this. It reflects a very long disciplinarian tradition. I’m sure many of Dobson’s readers nod their heads automatically at passages like this because they reaffirm long-held beliefs. One curious aspect of the approach is how frightened and defensive it sounds. The parent gets a dreadful feeling from this “stiff-necked” rebellion, and wishes to suppress the feeling at all costs. But look at how unequal the match really is: a grown-up versus a child. Why should there be a line in the dirt, or a test of courage involved? I would argue that the parent in this case is upset (outraged, challenged, confounded) that his authority is being questioned. That’s the sign of a guilt-based authority, in other words, a bad conscience. The parent is afraid of his own vulnerability and painful childhood feelings. So they get projected onto the kid. This is how child abuse is perpetuated.

Dobson would argue that there’s a difference between what he is proposing and child abuse. Certainly there is a difference of degree, and that difference may translate into relative “success” rather than the failure evidenced in an abuse situation. But there is no realistic guideline here, because parental authority is given an absolute value. Dobson talks about the importance of loving, but every parent uses “love” as the rationale for whatever he or she does.

So what is the outcome of the power struggle?

“Some strong-willed children absolutely demand to be spanked, and their wishes should be granted…Two or three stinging strokes on the legs or buttocks with a switch are usually sufficient to emphasize the point, ‘You must obey me.'”


“Pain is a marvelous purifier…It is not necessary to beat the child into submission; a little bit of pain goes a long way for a young child. However, the spanking should be of sufficient magnitude to cause the child to cry genuinely.”

That’s really what it comes down to. Beneath all religious pretensions is the power principle—the application of physical force by the authority figure.

Most of these quotes are from a book called Dare to Discipline (interesting how the oldest, most unconscious behavior is framed as “daring”—but this is a symptom of Dobson’s identification of liberalism as the enemy, which we’ll get to later). He also wrote a book called Bringing Up Boys. The core of Dobson’s thought lies in the assumption that traditional gender roles are God-given, and that deviations from those roles are both sick and ultimately sinful. Naturally, there’s a hefty section of the book devoted to homosexuality:

The onset of most cross-gender behavior occurs during the pre-school years, between the ages of two and four. You needn’t worry about occasional cross-dressing. You should become concerned, though, when your little boy continues doing so and, at the same time, begins to acquire some other alarming habits. He may start using his mother’s makeup. He may avoid other boys in the neighborhood and their rough-and-tumble activities and prefer being with his sisters instead, who play with dolls and dollhouses. Later he may start speaking in a high-pitched voice. He may affect the exaggerated gestures and even the walk of a girl, or become fascinated with long hair, earrings and scarves… The fact is, there is a high correlation between feminine behavior in boyhood and adult homosexuality. There are telltale signs of discomfort with . . . boys and deep-seated and disturbing feelings that they [are] different and somehow inferior. And yet parents often miss the warning signs and wait too long to seek help for their children. One reason for this is that they are not being told the truth about their children’s gender confusion, and they have no idea what to do about it.

“Masculine” and “feminine” are absolute categories that go unquestioned here. Dobson goes on to express his conviction that homosexuality can be “cured,” and of course he has been obsessed with fighting against equal rights for gays. In any case, it is important to realize that Dobson’s assumptions about boys are very narrow in scope. When children don’t fit into these categories, as they often don’t, Dobson’s idea is to somehow mold the kids so that they will eventually fit into them. If the child rejects the roles, there’s something wrong with the child, not with Dobson’s beliefs and assumptions.

What is reflected here is a patriarchal social system founded on gender roles, in which sexuality is maintained within certain approved forms by male authority. We avoid a lot of confusion when we recognize that this way of thinking, this belief system, takes precedence over religious identity. Dobson’s views on the family and on sexuality would make just as much sense if he was a worshipper of Zeus, or Moloch, or for that matter, Karl Marx. The authoritarian mindset uses religious belief as a dogmatic support. God is the metaphysical counterpart, if you will, of the male authority, aiding the husband or father in exacting a similar authority within the family. The real faith of these people is in the social order that they’ve internalized, the patriarchal system as they believe it should be. All this gets translated into religious terms, but without genuine religious content.

With Dobson and others like him, you don’t get a sense of humility or of the sense of human limitation realized by people who seek God inwardly. You also don’t get a sense of passionate devotion to Jesus as a direct encounter. God is like a mere third-person watcher keeping everyone in line. Of course, this is all unconscious, and whatever spiritual experiences Dobson and his sort have are kept separate from the system of social control that is maintained.

Dobson never wrote a book called Bringing Up Girls. Women are strictly subservient in his world-view. “My observation,” he once said, “is that women are merely waiting for their husbands to assume leadership.” For a woman to have her own desires for power, self-determination, independent expression—to seek fulfillment outside of the context of men and motherhood—is simply unthinkable. They get the scripture passage from Titus 2.4-5: “Train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home.” The Bible actually offers slim pickings for the family system, especially the New Testament: the Dobson type has to be very ingenious to come up with these passages and make them relevant, because the texts are not really about living a conventional life. It’s only because Christianity is a dominant organized religion that the scriptures get used this way.

At one point in Bringing Up Boys, Dobson starts railing against Phil Donahue and Gloria Steinem, blaming feminism for the “gender confusion” that upsets him so much. The myth of these right-wing Christians is that everything was basically okay until the liberals came along and starting messing with the family. But I look at old photos of people standing around laughing at a lynching and I think, these were all “Christians” the way Dobson is a Christian. The conservative churches were silent about all that. They opposed women’s rights, too. It was no thanks to the churches that women finally got the vote. The conservative churches were silent on child labor, on slavery, on civil rights, on rape and sexual abuse, on the atrocities of war. Among Christians, it’s always been the liberals who have stood up against these things and worked for change.

When your religion is actually the maintenance of a patriarchal social order, then your “morality” will support anything that bolsters that order. Therefore, Dobson is pro-war, pro-nuclear weapons, pro-torture. He supports the murder of children in other countries if his Christian president orders it, while he campaigns tirelessly against abortion here. The “love” in this religion starts with love of the switch or the paddle, and it extends itself all the way up to the bomb falling on some other guy’s family. But, you know, he’s not really aware of this. The ethos of obedience prevents critical self-examination. It’s all about controlling other people, not looking at yourself.

So when we find ourselves intimidated by the “moral” stance of the Christian right, we must realize that it’s a sham, and not a genuine spirituality or morality. The greatest threat to Christianity as a vital religion comes not from secularists or liberals, but from Dobson and his allies. They’ve already trivialized their faith to the point where it has become not much more than a lobbying group for sexual and reproductive control. Dobson’s God frets all day long about promiscuous teenagers and gays. His is a pathetic, silly God that constantly needs to be reassured and upheld by a group of hysterical narrow-minded busybodies.

So, in a world torn by strife and suffering and injustice, what worries Dobson? Why, the United Nation Convention of the Rights of the Child “has worried me for years,” he said, calling it a “dangerous document.”

That a child may have rights—this is what concerns our guardian of morality. If the absolute authority of the parent is challenged, then the entire system collapses, the entire way of life that has produced such wonderful results for centuries—centuries of twisted, miserable children growing up into lying, self-righteous, abusive adults. And we wouldn’t want that to happen.

And lo, a child shall frighten them…


~ by cdash on May 18, 2008.

16 Responses to “Family Panic”

  1. Dash, you nailed it. That whole section about why people respond to children in that authoritative way and the results was fantastic. I wish I had been armed with this knowledge a few months ago. Thanks for clarifying things I instinctively know are true.

  2. In homage to our dear Doktor Dobson, Amen. Real problems don’t frighten these lunatics, but those with power on a far smaller scale, or those with none at all – children, gays, lesbians, hetero women – do.

  3. Great post. It does seem that what frightens mr. dobson and those like him is the deviation from what they believe to be the norm. Their aim is to maintain the patriarchal society at all costs. It seems that protecting the the patriarchy is the basis for all homophobia, and it is the gay men that present the biggest threat to these homophobes. You don’t hear much talk about lesbians, because afterall, they’re just women….but men who lower themselves (in their viewpoint) to take on the role of women must be punished for destroying the male-dominated system.

  4. This fucktard should have his license yanked. He breaks the oath , to do no harm. His techniques and similiar have been shown to HARM. Its making children the patients, when indeed it is our culture that suffers the sickness – This quack should be looked at as a child molester and offender – his thoughts are that misguided and dangerous to children , sadly there are too many parents out there, brain washed and STUPID who think this is what child psychology is about, they do not trust ,nor read non christian based books and will not listen to those who actually study and help children through a humanist lense..they ,the parents hate science, and fear more for the souls of their kids , than the child’s happiness, bunch of sick fucks all of em !

  5. As usual, Dashiell, this post is great. Absolutely. So much good stuff there.

    With regard to the whole homosexual thing and how to bring up a boy, all I can say is that I come from a family where there were five girls and one boy. My brother played dolls with my sisters, but he also went out with his buddies and did what boys do. So what? If my parents were listening to Dobson at the time, they would have pulled him aside and said something to the effect that “boys don’t play with dolls.” Then that would have made my brother uncomfortable feel like there was something wrong with him. If anything, my brother, as a function of having grown up with five screwball sisters, grew up to be a man who has an understanding of women and their foibles far better than the average guy. Because his sisters were also his friends. And he’s not gay. Even though he did play with dolls as a kid. What a surprise.

  6. dash

    a home run

    what an excellent post and analysis. Dobson is a sick, deranged and unstable douchebag. there is no other way to describe him — he has co-opted so many things — parenting, spirituality, morality and humanity into a mold of what James Dobson sees the world should be – and it sucks, like Dobson.

    there are no words or punishments that can be described for people like him (Wildmon, Phelps, Dr Laura, Coulter etc) – that use religion as the ultimate justification for their warped view on the world. because we have a society that has so little hope right now — war, financial trepidation, etc — we are a ship without a rudder – and people sadly turn to idiots like Dobson for guidance

  7. Oh, wow…what DC said…//Dobson is a sick, deranged and unstable douchebag//

    and what Anita said // Because his sisters were also his friends//

    …whatta great way to grow up!!

  8. Two things-

    1) Dash, we need to figure how we can get you an interview with this cock biter.

    2) The only people I know who spend much time thinking, writing, discussing, and worrrying about the “Gay Agenda” are, GAY!!

  9. Thanks to all for great comments. Another thought on the sissy boy theory: I have known quite a few gay men who have no so-called effeminate traits at all. And also many straight men, on the other hand, who have such traits. The personal range is so much wider and more diverse than the Dobsonite p.o.v. that it exposes the whole line of thought as completely arbitrary. Understanding of course that “masculine” and “feminine” behavior is a social construct anyway.
    I was particularly struck by the truth of Randal’s comment about the less powerful. The religious rightists never challenge the powers-that-be. They have bought into the corporate system, blaming liberalism for the cultural aspects that they hate. It doesn’t seem to dawn on them that the corporate system supports the very “sinful” or “permissive” forms of culture that they are protesting against. I mean, Dobson might appear as a guest on Fox News. But does he look at the shows that Murdoch’s network produces and connect the dots? No, and that shows how unperceptive these people are, or in same cases how totally insincere they are.
    Fairlane, I have difficulty imagining my interview with Dobson. For one thing, I swear like a sailor, so it would be hard to get through the interview without bursting into, “Oh, for Fuck’s sake.”

  10. Dashiell, as a follow-up to your comment on the sissy boy thing (or, conversely, the dikey girl thing … which, dobson doesn’t seem to be concerned about, but it is the flip side of that coin).

    I remember about the time that Tennesse Williams died. There was an article in the New York Times Magazine. I’m not sure if it was an interview published posthumously, or whether it was an article about him by another writer. But anyway, it was probably mid-to-late 80’s and I recall reading what Williams said about *sexuality* … he noted that it’s not a cut and dry concept: the categories of straight v. gay, sissy boy v. dikey girl and the like, are, like you said, social constructs, and pretty rigid ones at that. However, what hit me at the time, and it really presented an *alternative reality* of sorts, was what Williams talked about in terms of human sexuality as being a continuum. We can all fall at different points along that continuum at any time in our life, although most (or so we’re told) people are aggregated toward one pole (no pun intended) or the other.

    Anyway, I just thought I’d throw that in there. Since there ’80’s people have continued to write far more comprehensively on that subject and the entire field of gender studies has exploded in academia and has certainly found deep expression in the arts as well.

    Given the relative ubiquitousness (ubiquity?) of the topic, it’s odd (or maybe it’s not so odd) that the right wing has so completely hardened it’s stance on the subject. Which explains, perhaps, the regular *gay eruptions* among that group. You put a top on a kettle of boiling water and it’s gonna blow (again, no pun intended, seriously, no seriously, i’m not that kinda girl !!).


  11. Monday morning. Bummer #1. Bummer #2 is the stark realization that my local newspaper takes less time to read and has no-where near the substance of a couple of Jonestown posts.

    Local top lead on front page “Local Boy Wins Tickets to American Idol”……I shit you not. Almost gagged on my coffee.

    What Dashiell said,

    //religious rightists never challenge the powers-that-be. They have bought into the corporate system, blaming liberalism for the cultural aspects that they hate//

    …there are far too many that will not challenge….anything,anyone,anythought,anyidea…..because they hate…..anychange….change just scares the shit out of them.
    And so does thinking.

    I opened my office email. First item….

    “Good Morning Everyone,

    There is a Blue Ford Explorer on 2nd floor of the East parking ramp, License 939154, left their lights on.

    Thank you and have a nice day :O) ”

    Well ThankGODAmerica, Jonestown has left the light on.
    Thank you, and have a peachy-keen day!! 😉

  12. Dobson is like Winston’s neighbor, Tom Parsons. By day, staunch defender of Orthodoxy, and Big Brother, but in his dreams…

    In the end, Parsons found himself in the Ministry of Love.

  13. I know I’m late to the party, but I’d also like to commend you on this great post, Dash. I am a Christian, and I definitely disagree with Dobson’s positions on certain issues. Thanks for spelling it out so clearly.

  14. Your point about all this morality and religion being for the benefit of patriarchy is right on. Male power is all he’s about and let there be no mistake about it.

  15. CDash…great post. What I drew from this post is the fallacy behind the need to discipline children in order to guide them, as if they’re too stupid to understand their own experiences. I say give them the opportunity to succeed and fail on their own merits and be there when they have questions or need help. Spare the rod and talk to them.

  16. Hello, Dashiell.
    My response was quite lengthy.
    You may find it here.

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