Dr. James Dobson stepped down last week from his post as chairman of the worldwide Focus on the Family ministry.
I have been critical of the political involvement of Dr. Dobson and other evangelical leaders, and will continue to watch how he and Focus on the Family ply their influence in the political arena, but I thought it appropriate to take this opportunity to spell out my feelings as a Christian who is interested – to be polite – in the politics of the day.
I admire Dr. Dobson as an evangelical leader whose ministry has clearly been blessed and is a blessing to many. Through Focus on the Family Dr. Dobson has built a positive and effective ministry that reaches tens of thousands of families around the world each day with a message of hope and edification. Whether or not you subscribe to the Focus perspective on life, for many people the ministry’s counsel on marital issues, child-rearing, and social and moral teaching is a much needed source of comfort and guidance. Focus on the Family’s multi-media organization effectively uses all the available tools of communication to daily reach out and help people.
But Dobson’s taken advantage of his prominent position, using his pulpit to play politics and influence policy by weilding his influence among millions of Christian voters as leverage. Now, I am not against civic involvement on the part of Christians. As an Evangelical, I follow state and national politics closely and express my opinion often. I believe I have a duty as a citizen to follow my conscience and faith on political issues, but regard this as a matter of personal choice, not religious obligation. I resent being told by anyone, let alone a religious figure, that I have a moral responsibility to act in a certain way and I will continue to speak out against influential Christians like Dobson who use their position to manipulate the political process. There is a world of difference between debate and exploitation, and I believe the pages of holy scripture clearly show a better way to bring about social change.
In the Bible, the Seventeenth Chapter of the Book of Acts records an incident in which an angry mob gathers in the city of Thessalonica because of the preaching of Paul and Silas. Those behind the mob complained to the Roman authorities that the missionaries were a threat to Rome because they told of a king other than Caesar, and that they were spreading discontent everywhere they went. “These who have turned the world upside down have come here too,” they protested.
Of course, Paul and Silas were not spreading sedition or inciting rebellion. They were simply preaching the gospel message, that “this Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ” — and they turned the world upside down. In my opinion, that’s the model the Evangelical movement should follow if it wants to change the country and world: preaching and leading by example, not preaching with an eye on accruing power in the civic arena.
In the late ’60s and early ’70s there was a phenomenon in this country that became known as the Jesus Movement that grew out of and because of the simple preaching of the gospel message. At its height there was no political agenda to the Jesus Movement. To the contrary, the Jesus Movement took hold in stark contrast to the political climate of the day as many of America’s youth found in Jesus what they failed to find in their political and cultural leaders (right and left). They responded to the unadulterated message of hope and love that was lived by Christ, preached by the Apostles, and recorded in the Gospels. They turned their world upside down.
That message hasn’t changed in the two millennia that have passed since the crucifixion; neither has the desire of individuals to use that simple message to achieve selfish ends. Dr. Dobson has resigned, but the legacy he and other evangelical leaders leave behind – a ministry as political as it is spiritual – is one that should leave with them.
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