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Dobson 2.0

As the good doctor leaves Focus, his son talks about a second coming



There may be no second acts in America, as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously claimed, but that's clearly not the case in the Colorado Springs evangelical community.

Last year, exiled New Life Church founder Ted Haggard returned to Colorado Springs and later began holding prayer meetings in his home. And last fall, Focus on the Family announced the end of its ties with James Dobson, who founded the conservative Christian group three decades ago.

The evangelical leader's reign at Focus was comparatively scandal-free, unless you count the SpongeBob SquarePants uproar, and his departure was considerably less sudden. But Dobson, who will host his final Focus broadcast tomorrow, won't be gone long: "I have felt since the turn of the century," he wrote on Facebook, "that I needed to begin passing along the leadership of the ministry to a younger generation."

To that end, Dobson is partnering with his adopted son Ryan in the launch of a new program called Family Talk, which is slated to debut May 3 and is currently being shopped to stations by Ambassador Radio, the same agency that repped Dobson back when he was starting out in broadcasting. The show is the pilot project for a new advocacy organization, a $2 million startup that will be based here in Colorado Springs.

Ryan Dobson is no stranger to media himself. He already hosts his own radio program, and his KOR Ministries obtained the rights to Focus' teen publications last May.

He also has a bachelor's degree in communications and has authored several books, including 2 Die 4: The Dangerous Truth About Following Christ, written in collaboration with Ollie North's co-author Brian Smith. Published in 2004, the slim tome was targeted at young adults and described by Publishers Weekly as a "ragged and rugged portrait of the Christian as the world's true rebel," written in a "colloquial style with all the subtlety of a two-by-four to the side of the head."

In conversation, the younger Dobson's colloquial style is considerably more refined, as he answers questions about religion, politics and his own family life in a way that may seem less judgmental and unforgiving than the evangelical tradition he inherited.

The following conversation is drawn from a 90-minute interview earlier this month in Dobson's northern Colorado Springs office, as well a 20-minute follow-up. He talks about growing up Dobson, his early years as a Christian rock musician, and how he expects the new organization to function in an already established epicenter of evangelical activity. He also responds to questions about George Tiller and Columbine, speculation that his divorce kept him from taking the reins of Focus on the Family, and the pros and cons of Christian cage-fighting.

We'll let Dobson begin.

Dobson: I'm reading the latest bad press. [Points to computer screen.] I'm a big mixed martial arts fan — I don't watch other sports, I don't have time — so some guy from the New York Times says, "I'm doing an article on Christians and MMA, there's a fad going on ... "

Indy: [Checking own notes.] Let me see if I can find your quote here: "We've raised a generation of little ..."

Dobson: Little boys, yeah.

Indy: Which has a certain Robert Bly quality to it. You know, the men's movement poet ...

Dobson: Absolutely. You know, we have the second adolescence for guys. ... I got a buddy who's like, "Man, I can't get a date." And I'm thinking, "Dude, you're 30, you work at the Apple store and you're trying to start a band. Really? Do you not know that women look way into the future?"

I'll tell you, the feminist movement, one thing that it has done, it has made really, really smart, motivated, educated women. They graduate high school at a higher rate, they graduate college at a higher rate, they enter master's programs at a higher rate, across the board.

So you've got really intellectual, smart, forward-thinking, future-planning women, and dudes that are trying to start a band at 30.

Indy: You grew up in California, though. You must have tried to start a band.

Dobson: Oh, I was in a bunch of bands, but ...

Indy: What kind of bands?

Dobson: Let's see, my first band ... the first one that actually did anything, it was the cusp of the grunge movement, so it was more you know, Green Day, Nirvana-esque, that kind of thing. I've actually got our first and only concert on a VHS tape somewhere — it's really funny — but I don't have any illusions of grandeur at 39.

Indy: Did you write lyrics?

Dobson: A little bit.

Indy: About what?

Dobson: Oh, girls. You know, things like that.

Indy: What are things like girls?

Dobson: Relationships, girls, breakups. I did a little bit in politics, but it always sounded a little bit trite. You know, a little forced.

Indy: What was your best political song? Or your worst?

Dobson: We did one, it was probably during the Clinton era, it was something about, you know, flip-flopping or being wishy-washy.

Indy: So you tried to slip a few talking points into the set?

Dobson: Oh my goodness, yeah. [Rolls eyes heavenward.]

Indy: Someone on Twitter said they'd like to punch you in the face after reading that [MMA] article.

Dobson: Yeah, come down to the gym, it's OK.

Indy: Would you turn the other cheek?

Dobson: No, it's a sport. There's nothing wrong with that, it's boxing.

I grew up watching boxing with my dad for years, he was a big fight fan. In fact one of the greatest times we had, we were in D.C. and we went to the National Archives. I don't know if you can do it anymore, but you could rent films. And so he showed me old Muhammad Ali films back when he was Cassius Clay.

Indy: Tell me how this [new organization] came about with you and your dad.

Dobson: He's been talking about stepping down from Focus for a couple of years. But he always said he'd still continue on with radio.

Indy: The impression I got back in December was that he was calling it quits completely. Was that a misinterpretation, or did he have a change of heart?

Dobson: No, no, he's just not done. He loves what he does. We enjoy what we do, you know ... I love it when people are like, "Oh, the younger Dobson needs a real job." I'm like, "I feel like I have a real job." Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays, I do an hour live call-in show, I'm on the road, I speak 40, 50 times a year. I've written six books.

Indy: How many people download your podcast?

Dobson: I'm doing just over 200,000 a month now ...

Indy: How does that compare to Dad's radio show?

Dobson: Oh gosh, he's doing 300 million.

Indy: So you've got a ways to go. Do you want to go that far?

Dobson: Um [pauses], oh sure, why not? ... You know, I don't think my audience is the exact audience that's listening to him. So would I love more and more people to listen to it? Sure.

But at the same time, it's kind of like music. You know, I saw a documentary on punk rock and all these guys were like, "Oh, sellout, sellout." It's like, really? You know, these guys are making a living. How cool, you know? I'd love to make a living at what I do. I don't make anything off the radio. I lose tons of money on my radio show.

Indy: So what do you do in real life?

Dobson: I write books and I speak, that's how I make my money. I enjoy doing what I'm doing.

But with my dad, he was talking about starting this new thing, and he's 73, he'll be 74 in a couple months. And a year ago I just said, "Listen, whatever it is that you need help with, just let me know." I felt like at this stage in life, you shouldn't really have to do a start-up all over again, and figure out who's going to buy computers and how are we going to set up our phones and who's going to build a Web site, I mean, he's a radio genius, why not let him do radio? Let someone else do all the grunt work ...

And maybe six months ago, I just said, "Hey, you know, I'd like to be your co-host." And he laughed, he thought that was funny. And I was like, "Seriously, I'll try out ..."

Indy: What was this tryout like?

Dobson: We didn't. I just ended up doing it. I did a broadcast with him maybe a month or two after that. I spoke at an event at Focus and they were gonna play it on the radio. And so I went in to record the front end of it, and we ended up doing a whole broadcast together.

Indy: So there's going to be the radio show. What is there beyond that?

Dobson: The ministry is called Family Talk. The radio show is Family Talk With James Dobson. It looks like we just got an office, but it's not secured yet.

Indy: Here in town?

Dobson: Yeah, it's not far from here, which is awesome, because I just live down the street. My parents live real close too, which is nice. Not that anything in the Springs is a long commute.

Right now we're focusing on the radio, and then how to work with Focus on the Family, because they have a counseling department and they've got facilities and all those types of things. And so to work together so that we don't have to re-create a call center, and try to work that relationship out.

By the way, all the things about competition, that's all somebody's speculation once again. We're not competing with the Billy Graham organization or Dennis Rainey's Family Life, or HomeWord in California. We're all trying to get the same thing, you know? It's not like there aren't that many hurting people in the world, or people that want help with marriages or kids.

Indy: Will there be any particular local initiatives or outreach? Or will it be more like Focus, where it's a national organization that really just happens to be based here?

Dobson: I think it will be that way, yeah. I don't think there's gonna be a ton of local initiatives. It'll be mostly just a national organization.

Indy: And what about political advocacy? Will that be taking more of a back seat in this new organization?

Dobson: No, I think it will be about the same. You know, the amount of time we spend on politics is regulated by the IRS. So we're only allowed to do a certain number of shows on political topics, based on our 501(c)3 status.

Indy: I'm still not entirely clear on why — given that your father is staying in radio — he just didn't keep on with Focus.

Dobson: I think it started about eight years ago, trying to plan for the point where he's not going to do it at all. And if he'd just left all of a sudden, abruptly, you kind of leave them in the lurch. So it started with him stepping down from his presidency, and then Don Hodel, former Secretary of the Interior, took over for a little while. Then Jim Daly was hired on and has been there ever since.

So [the elder Dobson] stepped down from the board and then he stepped away from Focus, but he's still not done. He still wants to do some more things.

But for Focus, the growing pains kind of were getting to where, Jim's president, they've got things they want to do and directions they want to go, and you know, it was just time to go, time to move on and do something else.

Indy: The conventional wisdom is that your dad had wanted to hand over the reins of Focus to you ...

Dobson: Absolutely not.

Indy: But then there was the divorce ...

Dobson: It's so silly. Oh yeah, it's become a huge rumor, because when I went through my divorce, people were like, "Oh, you're hiding it." No one ever hid it. Call Focus on the Family, ask if I got divorced, they will say yes. There's a statement that was written up you know, because legally I can't say a whole lot about it, you know, that was the terms of the divorce.

Indy: I didn't know divorces involved non-disclosure.

Dobson: It can.

Indy: Really? Does that mean there was money involved?

Dobson: No. Well, yeah, there was money involved, but I just lost a lot of it. You know, it was California — I don't know if it's no-fault or whatever — but you split assets. And we had just bought a house, and the market skyrocketed right before it tanked.

Indy: So when you told your parents about it, how did that go over?

Dobson: It went well.

Indy: You didn't have any apprehension about it?

Dobson: Oh tons of apprehension, are you kidding me? And there was other turmoil going on at the time, and so we all figured — uh, I want to say this in a way that doesn't [pauses] — I have an ex-wife, and I don't want to cause her any more consternation than already took place in the divorce. And I don't think she would want that for me, either.

But when I told my parents, you know, I just said, "Hey, I wanna come home." He was like, "What?" I said, "I need to come back." I flew out and told him what was going on, and he asked me a bunch of really hard questions.

Indy: Like what?

Dobson: Things about what was going on in my marriage and, you know, if I was doing the right thing or if I was acting like an idiot, that kind of thing.

Indy: In other words, were either of you cheating ...

Dobson: Yeah, which I won't go into. But he just said, "I want to support you, I'm your dad. I want to help, I want to take care of you. And if this is all your fault and you're being an idiot, the truth has to be told." And I was totally fine with that, and they supported me throughout the whole process.

But I remember at the time thinking, oh my goodness, this is gonna be a media nightmare: James Dobson, family psychologist, son divorced, all the snide remarks, all that kind of stuff. Nothin'.

Indy: It didn't get much press at the time?

Dobson: No, no waves whatsoever. We couldn't believe it.

Indy: Why do you think that was?

Dobson: Not a clue.

Indy: Maybe if you had put out a longer press release ...

Dobson: Yeah, yeah. I think part of it was, that was '99, 2000, 2001 ...

Indy: Just a little bit before 24-hour cable got big?

Dobson: And a little bit before everything was Internet ... Today, when something's written, it's everywhere immediately, it's all over the world. Which is why with my dad leaving Focus, all of a sudden the speculation comes out.

My divorce has gotten a thousand times more press today than it got 10 years ago. But the truth is, I've never wanted to take over Focus on the Family.

Indy: Why?

Dobson: The job is insane! It's a huge job. I love what I do. This is the first time I've been in an office with people in 11 years. I work by myself. I like it! I mean, I've got an assistant that works from home 15 hours a week, that's the sole extent of people that I work with. ...

And I'm not a Ph.D. I don't have a Ph.D. in psychology. I mean, he has a Ph.D. from USC, he has a legitimate credential to dispense advice. And gosh, I don't know how many books he's written. I haven't done that yet.

Indy: So if Focus called you up tomorrow, you'd say no?

Dobson: Oh no, I wouldn't want to do that. No, it's too much, the pressure's too great. The other thing too, is trying to fill those shoes is virtually impossible ...

Indy: But someone's gonna have to do it.

Dobson: Yeah, yeah ...

Indy: Ted?

Dobson: Ted Haggard? Oh gosh ... I don't think so. Ted just needs to do what he's doing, you know, whatever ...

You know how Ted's now living less than a mile from New Life — and it's kind of awkward? What we're trying to do with Focus is to make it not awkward, trying to make it not all the things that people are saying that it is.

Indy: I want to ask a serious question, not that the others aren't. But in this book, you mention Cassie Bernall, one of the victims in the Columbine shooting. [Bernall's Christian beliefs have made her something of a martyr in the fundamentalist community.] And you know, of course, that last week George Tiller's assassin or killer or whatever word you want to use, was convicted.

Dobson: Oh yeah, he stood up in court and just said, "Yup."

Indy: In your mind, are the two killings that different, and if so, in what way?

Dobson: Oh man, that is a hard question. [Pauses.] You know, you've got Doctor Tiller, who I — I'll tell you what. You wanna know the core of my Christianity, what it boils down to? I absolutely hate what Doctor Tiller was doing. But you don't go and assassinate a person. You don't do that.

We live in a democracy. Unfortunately what he's doing, you know, is legal — which will cause a huge firestorm for me for even saying that — but we have a system in which we should be working. I mean if we just say, "Oh, if I don't agree with your viewpoint, I'm just gonna go and shoot you," then we're no different than al-Qaida. You're no different than that. You can't do a thing like that in an organized society. You live in a democracy, even if you disagree.

You know, I don't think gay marriage is good for America, but I don't hate people. I have a different political viewpoint than other people, and I want to be able to fight for what I believe in. I understand that people will dislike me and call me a hatemonger because of my stance on gay marriage. But you won't ever hear me say, "I hate gay people," or "I think you're disgusting," or say something demeaning or derogatory. It's inappropriate.

Pat Robertson talking about Haiti in the way he did was inappropriate! These are people that are hurting. You gotta ask yourself, on any level, how are you helping anything by making those statements? I'm glad that he prayed for the people of Haiti, I'm glad you had your 800 number and you're raising money for it, but to talk about somehow this is their own fault?

You know, the Westboro Baptists — they protest funerals and say "God hates fags" — they're awful people. They do not believe what I believe in. That's a terrible thing to do when people are hurting. There's never ever a cause to kick someone when they're down. It literally goes against every single thing that I would believe from Christ.

Indy: So in arguing that the political system should address these things, I'm wondering, especially with a group like Focus that straddles that line ...

Dobson: Separation of church and state?

Indy: I've heard that expression, yes. And you know, they're a nonprofit, they're not paying money into the government, but they want to influence it.

Dobson: Sure, absolutely, and they ought to. They ought to within the bounds of legality. The IRS has very strict rules on what you can and can't do if you're a 501(c)3. They've been a 501(c)3 for going on 33 years. People always scream separation of church and state with Focus on the Family and politics. If they'd broken the law, they wouldn't have a 501(c)3.

Indy: But people argue that law should be changed as well.

Dobson: And there you go. See, we're in a democracy. Change the law, fantastic. And if you do, and the law is changed, we will change the things that we do. But we are living within the legal bounds ...

Indy: Which is what George Tiller would have said.

Dobson: Yeah, he would.

Indy: And he would have been right as well?

Dobson: He is. And as much as I — it's even more personal for me, because we've lost babies. We've had a bunch of miscarriages. And so for me, it's tough, because I'm a firm believer in adoption.

So what Doctor Tiller does, in my core, it goes against everything that I hold dear to me ... But you don't get to just go and assassinate people. Because then, you can do it to me, too. "I disagree with what Ryan says about homosexuality or about gay marriage. We're gonna go kill Ryan." Or anybody else ... People that disagree with me, that's OK. It doesn't equal hate. Most of it equals different political viewpoints, different theological viewpoints. It's all right.

Indy: But then why do you think the perception of hate is there?

Dobson: Because it's personal. I mean, if you're homosexual and you're trying to get married, and you fell madly in love with someone, and then you've got Ryan Dobson, Christian right-wing extremist, saying gay marriage is bad for America, then you feel it personally — and then you wanna lash out at someone because you've been wounded.

It's similar to how I feel when I think about losing babies through miscarriage and Doctor Tiller. He did something on purpose that I'd die for. I'd love to have another baby. [Dobson has one son, Lincoln, with his second wife, Laura.] Any of the ones that we lost, I'd give the world to have them back. So it's personal, you know?

There's a movie called South Dakota, and there's a woman that talks in there, she's an abortion provider. She talks about being in Africa and having her roommate die from a botched abortion. I get it! I know why you do what you do. I disagree, but how do you not understand that?

When you have someone die in your arms, there is a reaction to that, you know? It's happened for me and my wife, we had our baby die, you don't want to see other babies die ...

Indy: In general, would you say your views — or your way of presenting your views — is more accessible to a younger audience than your father's?

Dobson: You know, I think most of it is semantics, it's in the way that I say things. My dad and I believe virtually identically across the board, I think. Stylistically we have some differences, but as far as political, theological and sociological belief systems, we're fairly identical. I'm 40 and he's [almost] 74, so we just say it differently.

When my dad started Focus on the Family in '76, his average listener was 30 and under. I mean it was a really, really young audience, and he was 41 years old, he was talking to that age group. And then they grew up with him.

Indy: [Holding up my library copy of Dobson's 2 Die 4 book.] So, you look kind of tough here, kind of a thuggish quality.

Dobson: I know. You wanna know what this is the result of? This is letting the author choose the cover of a book and not understanding the whole marketing process. This cover killed the book. I thought it was totally cool, I rode a motorcycle everyday, so that's what I looked like. But this just made people afraid.

Indy: So were you a big Fight Club fan?

Dobson: Yeah, totally. You know, that's a funny story ... Matt Lindland is a nine-time defending welterweight champion, and I ordered his book. And someone from his organization recognized my name and someone told someone told someone, and I got a call from a ministry that deals with fights. It's out of Portland [Ore.]. Matt and some friends were doing this event, and I was like, "Yeah, I totally wanna do it." And while I was there, Matt was like, "Dobson, you gotta have a fight. I know you train and you enjoy ju jitsu and all that kind of stuff, but you gotta get in the ring, it'll change your life."

I was like, "Dude, I'm almost 40! You were a high school wrestler, a college wrestler, an Olympic wrestler, and then you got into fighting. I weighed 135 pounds when I entered college. I skateboarded, that was my sport. I wasn't beating people up, I was getting beat up."

But he was like, "You gotta do it," and I was like, "Fine, you convince my wife." And Laura was like, "What? You're not doing that." And Fight Club was on TV one night and the next day she was like, "All right, if you wanna do that you can."

Indy: Fight Club is not the thing that you'd think would inspire somebody to go, "Oh yeah! And while you're at it, blow up New York."

Dobson: Yeah exactly, let's blow up the credit card system! Who knows if it was the television version or whatever. But she was like, "OK."

And then it was, "Well, do I wanna do this or not?" It was always my scapegoat, you know? I don't have to get in the ring, I'm not gonna really get beat up. My wife doesn't want me to do it. And so I called Matt and I was like, "All right, man." So I started training and, you know, I'm into it. And then he had a fight [where he] got knocked out. He was out for seven minutes and 40 seconds, and they zoomed right in on his face.

I'm out of town, my wife is watching the pay-per-view by herself. And at five minutes in, he starts trying to get up and he's trying to take down one of the paramedics, and it just made you sick to your stomach. And I got a phone call, she was like, "No way, you are not doing this." I was like, "All right, whatever." You know, no big deal, I don't need to do that ....

Hang on just one second. [Takes phone call from his wife.]

Indy: Was she calling to say you can start fighting again?

Dobson: No, she was calling to ask how the interview went.

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