Maybe you’ve seen it recently, like I have (over and over and over): James Dobson’s “Final Thoughts about the Election.” I have to write about it; it’s just too much for me to take.
For those unfamiliar, James Dobson is a household name in conservative Christian homes, and has been for decades. His Focus on the Family organization has promoted Christian values and social conservatism since 1977. Dobson has long supported Republican politicians, and wielded significant political power thanks to his wide readership among Christians. The New York Times once called him “the nation’s most influential evangelical leader.”
In his “Final Thoughts about the Election,” Dobson doesn’t directly name either Trump or Biden, but it’s obvious who he’s talking about, and how he wants his readers to vote. He invokes Newt Gingrich, who believes “what we are facing now might bring an end to civilization as we have known it.” Yes, yes, by now we have all heard that if Joe Biden wins, America will be destroyed.
Dobson asks voters how they’re going to decide whom to vote for. Will we be like “dozens” of people he’s heard from, who will vote based “solely on a candidate’s rhetoric, tone, style, or likeability?” Later in the letter he laments that “the notion of choosing a president based on frivolous personality characteristics is so unfortunate.”
Can we pause here for just a second? Because this is something I’ve seen for years, and it drives me up the wall. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve seen Trump supporters accuse conservatives like me of opposing him just because we don’t like his tweets, or because he’s brash, or because he’s unpolished, or because he’s orange. Because of his “frivolous personality characteristics.”
Are you serious? Have you been paying any attention at all for the past four years? We could fill a set of encyclopedias with reasons we oppose him. Pathological lying, emboldening racists, alienating our allies, surrounding himself with criminals, and abusing his power are not “frivolous personality characteristics.” Please don’t insult me by telling me I oppose him because he’s “brash.”
Anyway. The heart of Dobson’s open letter is actually an anonymous social media post which I’ve also seen making the rounds for weeks. The post begins thus: “This is not a junior high or high school popularity/personality contest. I’m not voting for the person—I’m voting for the platform!” It goes on to list a bunch of the usual policy reasons to vote for Trump: the Second Amendment, the military, abortion—as well as some vague ones, like, “I’m voting for the Republic in which we live,” and “I’m voting for the flag that is often missing from public events.” (Again, it is not explicitly in support of Trump, but it’s obvious.)
Possibly even more popular among conservative circles than “If Biden wins, America will be destroyed,” is this: “I’m not voting for the person—I’m voting for the platform!” It’s an understandable angle for evangelicals to take. When you’re voting for a man who represents most of the sins you’ve always said are disqualifying in a leader, you’ve got to justify your vote some other way.
It’s not the first time Dobson has used his influence to support Trump. In an article in Christianity Today calling for Trump’s impeachment, CT’s editor-in-chief, Mark Galli, wrote, “To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior.” Dobson defended Trump with a laundry list of policy positions.
So, now I think we’re all clear: Dobson’s position is that policy is the only thing that matters. The person doesn’t matter. The personality doesn’t matter. What he says and how he acts don’t matter.
Character doesn’t matter.
Which is really, really strange, because I am old enough to remember Bill Clinton, our last president to be impeached before Donald Trump, and what James Dobson had to say about him.
To refresh my memory for you, dear readers, I sat down and read a long newsletter James Dobson put out in September, 1998. There are so many gems, it’s hard to know where to start.
“What has alarmed me throughout this episode has been the willingness of my fellow citizens to rationalize the President’s behavior…”
“We heard it time and again during those months: ‘As long as Mr. Clinton is doing a good job, it’s nobody’s business what he does with his personal life.’ That disregard for morality is profoundly disturbing to me.”
In one paragraph, Dobson lists Clinton’s previous misdeeds: an affair, dodging the draft, lying, smoking marijuana, organizing anti-war rallies. Then he makes his main point: “There were other indications that Bill Clinton was untruthful and immoral. Why, then, did the American people ignore so many red flags? Because, and I want to give the greatest emphasis to this point, the mainstream media became enamored with Bill Clinton in 1992 and sought to convince the American people that ‘character doesn’t matter.’”
Dobson then lists seven examples of publications making excuses for Clinton’s lousy character, calling them an “effort by the press to undermine the moral values that we called ‘character.'” The very first one, from the San Diego Union-Tribune, says, “…remember that we are electing not clergy but political leaders…”
I nearly choked on my drink when I read that. Since 2015 I’ve had conservative Christians telling me, “We’re electing a president, not a pastor.” The exact thing Dobson called out as “undermining moral values” when it was used on behalf of Bill Clinton.
In his 1998 newsletter, Dobson takes care to point out Clinton’s various scandals, his lies about those scandals, women who accused him of sexual assault, his potentially illegal financial activities, and a slew of people connected to the president who were accused and/or convicted of crimes. It’s like a time machine; just change the names.
Then we come to this paragraph, and it is truly the pièce de résistance. Please take time to read it slowly. Savor each line.
“As it turns out, character DOES matter. You can’t run a family, let alone a country, without it. How foolish to believe that a person who lacks honesty and moral integrity is qualified to lead a nation and the world! Nevertheless, our people continue to say that the President is doing a good job even if they don’t respect him personally. Those two positions are fundamentally incompatible. In the Book of James the question is posed, ‘Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?’ (James 3:11 NIV). The answer is no.”
In 1998, character did matter. It mattered more than anything else.
So I’d like to ask Dr. Dobson, and everyone sharing his more recent letter: what changed? What has changed since 1998? Because it wasn’t God. It wasn’t the Bible. It wasn’t morality.
Be honest. Bill Clinton’s real sin wasn’t adultery, or lying. It was having the wrong letter after his name on the ballot.
Be honest. You were always going to vote for the Republican, and you’ve conveniently bent and molded your standards to fit that predetermined fact. Immorality in Democrats is disqualifying. Immorality in Republicans is “frivolous personality characteristics.”
I was seventeen in 1998. I remember. I remember all the Christian adults in my life bemoaning the sad state of the world, the immorality of our president, the shame he’d brought on our country, the awful example he was setting for our children.
Eighteen years later, I was begging them not to vote for a man who had paid hush money to a porn star he’d cheated on his wife with—his third wife, who had posed nude for money and could easily be seen naked by anyone who wanted to look.
The hypocrisy still blows me away, to this day. A porn star. Dirty hush money. A First Lady with nude photos. Bragging about walking in on naked teenage girls. Bragging about sexual assault. And they excused all of it. And they’ve excused or ignored virtually everything since then.
And they scold me for voting against him because of “frivolous personality characteristics.”
Dr. Dobson would have done well to listen to Mr. Galli’s exhortation: “Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior.” I promise you, the world has noticed evangelicals’ justification of President Trump. They’ve noticed the hypocrisy—how could they possibly miss it? Time will tell how much damage has been done, but I fear it’s significant. We have ceded the moral high ground, likely for a couple generations.
The election is coming soon, and if it turns out the way I believe it will, we’ll have a resounding verdict from Americans, in spite of what Dobson and evangelicals have been saying for four years.
Character does matter.