Dr. James C. Dobson is one of the most influential spokespersons in the evangelical spectrum of Christianity. Millions of Christians have listened to his daily “Focus on the Family” broadcast and over fifty million people have viewed his “Focus on the Family” film series. Dobson’s books are not only best sellers, but remain on the best-seller lists for years. His Focus on the Family magazine and church bulletin inserts supply weekly and monthly fare along with his books.
His Focus on the Family ministry continues to expand its borders. According to U.S. News & World Report (1998), Dobson’s “radio and TV broadcasts are heard or seen by 28 million people a week. A core audience of 4 million listens to his Focus on the Family radio show every day. That gives him a greater reach than either Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson at the height of their appeal. Dobson’s most popular books have sold more than 16 million copies, and his other tracts and pamphlets have sold millions more.”1
Dobson may indeed be the best-known and most respected man in twentieth-century American Christendom. An astounding number of Christians look to Dobson as an authority. His opinions and advice about children, the family, marriage, and society are held in high esteem. In fact, they are hardly considered opinions. They are received as authoritative truth. That’s because of the current faith in psychology, especially when it is psychology practiced by a professing Christian.
While in past centuries such a revered position of authority among Christians would no doubt have been held by a theologian or pastor, Dobson came into his position through secular education. He holds the now-coveted title of “psychologist” rather than “theologian,” although he was actually trained in education. He earned a Ph.D. in Education with a major in Child Development from the University of Southern California. According to the State of California Psychology Examining Committee, Dobson holds a generic license. A letter from that State office says, “Dr. Dobson indicated ‘educational psychology’ as his area of competency when he completed his oral examination in 1968. . . . Under the generic license requirements one is titled ‘licensed psychologist’ in California.”2
Dobson has made the most of that title. Countless Christians look to Dobson as an authority on all matters of life and conduct because he carries both titles: “psychologist” and “Christian,” which is the new ideal in the contemporary church. The opening words of an article in Christianity Today refer to him as one “who may well be the most famous psychologist in the world.”3 However, Christianity Today also admits, “Dobson is a generalist and a popularist. That is an American tradition: speaking with authority and without footnotes. . . . If Dobson were more qualified in his assertions, if he developed careful biblical and theological arguments, if he marshaled psychological data for his positions, it is doubtful that he would sell millions of books.”4
Dobson’s teachings are psychological in theory and practice. His discussions about the nature of children and adults and how to change behavior come primarily from psychology rather than from the Bible. In numerous instances, they come from that kind of psychology which is opinion and not science. While Dobson opposes the teachings of some psychologists, he embraces the theories and practices of others. Like most practitioners, he is eclectic in his approach in that he picks and chooses from a variety of theorists. However, his psychology is neither original nor biblically based.
Dobson has not developed a new system of understanding and treating people. Nor do his psychological pronouncements and recommendations originate from a careful exegesis of Scripture, even though he sometimes uses the Bible to bolster up his psychological teaching. Dobson uses the story-telling mode, which not only keeps his readers’ interested but gives a seeming reality to everything he says, including the ideology behind the details he chooses and the conclusions he makes.
Rather than relying on research, which may actually prove just the opposite from some of his conclusions, Dobson uses case histories which emphasize and especially dramatize the points he wants to make. But these considerations do not seem to bother the many Christians who base daily decisions on what Dobson says. In fact, his psychological influence on how to understand the nature of children and adults extends beyond denominational boundaries. By avoiding certain theological doctrines and questions, Dobson has made himself welcome in a great variety of religious settings.
Man of the Hour
Dobson’s rise to fame tells us as much about the condition of Christianity as about the man himself. He chose to promote psychology at the right time as far as the church was concerned. The encroachment of the psychological way into Christianity has been a subtle gradual movement which began in seminaries and pastoral counseling classes. Pastors were concerned about their parishioners seeking help outside the fold and so they availed themselves of the wisdom of men in order to minister to souls.5 While they may not have intentionally borrowed ideas and techniques which obviously contradict Scripture, they embraced enough to let the proverbial camel’s nose into the tent.
Liberal denominations became psychologized much earlier than the more conservative ones, but there were a number of psychologists who were active in breaking down barriers of mistrust. Society as a whole was becoming saturated with the kind of psychology that seeks to understand why people are the way they are and how they change. Psychological language had become a part of everyday language and psychological solutions were being accepted as life’s solutions. Sometimes, through the work of local mental health organizations, psychologists and ministers dialogued together, and in the process pastors became intimidated and psychologists received referrals.
Pastors accepted the lie that they could only deal with spiritual matters (with a very limited definition) and that only those who were psychologically trained were equipped to deal with psychological matters (which virtually included everything about understanding the nature of man and how to help him change). A number of evangelical Christians became psychologists and set about to educate the church regarding the importance of psychological theories and therapies in the lives of Christians. One of those men, Dr. Clyde Narramore, was instrumental in encouraging Dobson to pursue his interest in psychology.6
In addition to the active role of psychologists working to infiltrate the church, the passive role of worldly influence also seduced the church into a psychological mind-set. As Martin Gross says, we live in The Psychological Society.7 Psychological opinions and explanations are everywhere, so much so that they are accepted as fact. And whenever a person is experiencing problems, the primary recommendation is, “You need to talk to a counselor”—that is, a professional, psychologically-trained counselor.
Most fundamental, evangelical Christians were suspicious of those psychological ideas which directly and obviously contradicted what they understood to be biblical. Therefore, they desired a form of psychology which seemed to agree with what they knew about the Bible. They were eager for a person who was both a psychologist and a Christian, a person who seemed to oppose secularism, but at the same time would deliver the supposed riches gleaned from the psychological mines. The church was ripe to embrace a psychological savior. Thus Dobson’s psychological teachings and his mode of presentation captured the hearts of many.
Dobson’s books emphasize his brand of psychology instead of the Word of God. And while there may be some points of apparent agreement between certain ideas in psychology and the Bible, psychology rather than the Bible is the authority for too much of what Dobson says and writes. He has elected to look to psychology for answers and he speaks from that source, even though any good, useful advice, while having been collected, categorized, and claimed by psychology, has been around for centuries. Nevertheless, readers pay attention to what Dobson says because he is a psychologist. They forget how long real wisdom has been around.
(Excerpted from James Dobson’s Gospel of Self-Esteem & Psychology)
1.Michael J. Gerson, “A Righteous Indignation.”U.S. News & World Report, May 4 1998, p. 22.
2. Letter from Board of Medical Quality Assurance Psychology Examining Committee, State of California, on file.
3. Tim Stafford, “His Father’s Son.”Christianity Today, April 22, 1988, p. 16.
4. Ibid., p. 22.
5. E. Brooks Holifield. A History of Pastoral Care in America: From Salvation to Self-Realization. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983, pp. 231ff.
6. Stafford, op. cit., p. 20.
7. Martin Gross. The Psychological Society. New York: Random House, 1978.