Hey, #Exvangical friends and supporters of! What a lovely Friday it is. Were you just thinking to yourselves that you hadn't heard anything about our esteemed @DrJamesCDobson in a few minutes? Never fear. Got you covered. Today we are going to talk about his dad...
So @ErikMKort and I are currently (and very slowly) reading through the book "Dr. Dobson: Turning Hearts Toward Home - The Life and Principles of America's Family Advocate" by Rolf Zettersten, who is basically a Dobson sycophant. He was Vice President of FotF for a while.
He is a bad writer. It's all very melodramatic and worshipful and gross and I hate it. Still somehow slightly less painful than actually reading Dobson, but low bar. I would like to include this picture of the back of the bookjacket and just let you enjoy that.
Our first chapter - titled "The Rest of the Story" - was about what a godly and incredible man Dobson was, his heart for the people, how he cried when his son went to college, how humble he is. It all read like a very bad Lifetime movie and not sincere for a moment.
Last night we read the chapter called "His Father's Son" and I found it fucking INSIGHTFUL, y'all. Accidentally so - they are not telling the story they think they are telling. But honestly, that is one of my favorite kinds of stories. So we are gonna get into some daddy issues!
First, did you know that James Dobson is actually James Dobson Jr.? They call him Jimmie when they talk about him as a kid and idek why but that causes a visceral reaction in me and I hate it. I should probably just say up front that I am just incapable of empathy for Dobson.
This is rare for me, I'm a really empathetic person for all kinds of villains but James Dobson and Walter White are a bridge too far for me. So, let's talk about James Sr. (hereafter I will just be referring to them as Sr. and Dobson for clarity's sake).
This chapter starts by telling us that children who experience traumatic childhoods don't remember things but children who have loving childhoods have strong memories, therefor Dobson must have had a very loving childhood because his first memory is at 1. Fuck all these people.
Anyway. Onto dad.
Sr. was born in 1911, the fifth boy in his family. There was also a sister that came later and the fact that she existed is all we know about her. The book says that "almost from infancy he seemed to have a classic 'artistic' temperament."
So here's the weird thing about putting things in quotes, when you do that, they sound like code. I have personally only ever heard "artistic temperament" used as code for queer. I am not saying that was the case here, I obviously don't know that. It's just a weird thing to say.
Whatever. Apparently Sr. announced when he was about 3 that he wanted to be a great artist and that was all he ever wanted. He was also quite talented and it seemed like he was well on his way to achieving his dreams, so good on him.
When he was 16, he was walking somewhere when he heard that damn "still small voice" say to him that he needed to give up being an artist, god wants him to be a preacher. Now, 16yo Sr. is understandably quite upset about this. This is all he wants to do! He's good at it!
He loves it! But god says no, this is what I want you to do. "He said he would argue with God and try to suppress the matter, but it always returned more forcefully than before. That war between his will and the will of God went on for more than two years."
Tell me that doesn't sound like not just about art. Whatever, I read queer subtext onto everything, and again, I'm not at all claiming anything. It just amuses me. Anyway. At the end of two years god decides he's done, and on a random day tells him this is the day to decide.
So he comes home, pacing and crying, turns his face upwards and says to god "It's too great a price and I won't pay it!" I am so on Sr's side here. Like... fuck off, god. After he did that, he said he felt the presence of god leave him and it was the worst feeling of his life.
Because god is a petty, jealous jerk. The book tells me that it's because Sr. was worshiping art as his god and that the lord had called him out at his point of disobedience but it seems extremely abusive to me. "I'll give you this love and passion and punish you for loving it."
Sr. keeps going with his life though. Here's where more interesting stuff shows up. His father was a successful businessman, "co-owning a Coca Cola plant with the first man to put the drink in a bottle." So like... rich, folks. Bro was rich. He sent all of his sons to college.
He asks his youngest where he wants to go, he says Art Institute of Pittsburgh. And that's where he goes. He enrolls in 1930. For 3 years. If that time period sounds familiar, it should. The Great Depression began in 1929. Sr. was in ART school for 3 years of the Great Depression
Here is an interesting article about school during the Great Depression. People were going but one of the things it mentions is that people were tending towards more general education, to try and be prepared for the confusing times.
But I think we can safely say that going to college was a privileged thing to be doing. Going to college to major in ART was... a very privileged thing to be doing. Apparently Sr. did well. Graduated top of his class, was on his way to a good career.
Except of course, when he left the Depression was still happening. The book says he "walked the streets" looking for a job but I feel confident this is poetic license. No mention is made about his parents and if they were destitute I think we would have heard about it.
He took a job pumping gas a Texaco service station. He was frustrated, of course and I get that. He had dreams. But again, we are talking the Great Depression. People literally were dying. He has a job, even if it is not what he wants or expects. He's got food.
So perhaps you can understand why I nearly lost my mind when I read that he in later years would call this period his "Egyption bondage." Like this is your idea of god punishing you. What about the other people who are suffering and dying rn? Is god punishing THEM?
Are they worse than you? Are they less lucky? Does luck exist? The incredible tone deaf nature of that claim and the weird romanticism of a period that was so awful for so many people... I understand where Dobson came from is all I can say about that.
An art professor writes him a letter asking for him to become a professor but somehow it never gets sent, which allows god to speak to him or whatever. He marries a young woman named Myrtle, daughter of a preacher (we will learn more about her next chapter, I think).
He goes to a revival meeting at the tearful begging of his brother, and he hears god's voice again. Want to know what this loving god of the universe says to him?
"Son, are we going to do business again?"
Hits you right in the feelings, doesn't it?
But this time he hears and accepts. He quits his job at the Texaco and starts taking a correspondence to become a minister.
Let me repeat that.
He QUITS HIS JOB and starts a correspondence course.
We get some notes about how it was hard to keep food on the table but like...
There's no mention of Myrtle working! They're just not working! His parents must be supporting them. They have Dobson Jr, who will be their only child, which is.. unfortunate. I don't think being an only child was probably awesome for him.
Anyway. There is a lot about Sr. trying to find a job. In spite of the fact they have no money or whatever, when he gets called away to do a trial sermon, he goes a day early, stays at a motel, doesn't pack a lunch, and eats at a restaurant.
The story consistently reads less like someone who is destitute than like someone who grew up with money and isn't used to living with less. When they are offered a preaching job in NOLA, they feel certain god doesn't want to take it and feel vindicated when the train is attacked
Again. Train is attacked. People presumably... died? It never makes it to NOLA. But you know. God saved Sr. so that's nice. They are given a church in a small Texas farming town, apparently do well there. They are very loved. They even meet a young man who stutters.
Apparently they are nice to him and he ends up going into the ministry, his stutter improves, whatever. According to the book, if you talk to him now (well, now when the book was written) he would cry and say that they "loved him when he was unlovable" which is horrifying.
Is he saying he was unlovable because of his stutter? That hurts me so much.

There are also stories like how one time they shared a room with other preachers for a revival thing and Sr. would get up at 4am every day to pray loudly for hours. Eventually they just all got up too!
Or one time there was a cat on the stage and he stepped on the cat's tail and just didn't notice and kept preaching louder, thought the cat howling was a car and didn't notice it desperately trying to get away. Poor fucking thing. But hilarious!
It's a little unclear what happened. He was apparently a very popular travelling preacher, eventually booked out up to four years in advance. But at some point he must have stopped, because he was eventually an art professor at a Nazarene college. Good for him, I guess?
Oh, let's not forget that Dobson himself became a Christian at the age of 3 at one of his father's revivals. He says that he remembers it crystal clearly to this day, coming forward and crying and asking Jesus to forgive him of his sins.
"It is overwhelming for me to think of that event today. Imagine the King of the Universe, Creator of all heaven and earth, caring about an insignificant kid barely out of toddlerhood! It makes no sense but I know it happened."
1) You were 3, you were not out of toddlerhood.
2) A 3 year old does not have sins to be forgiven.
3) Any god who does NOT care about a child is a fucking monster
4) You have made your whole goddamn career talking about how to raise, children, how do you not know that?
Apparently everyone was super thrilled when he became a Christian because his maternal grandfather had received a prophecy that every member of his family (including him) for 4 generations would serve Jesus as lord. So I guess Dobson's grandkids are off the hook?
There's a lot of other romanticized stuff in here about the time they spent together. Dobson was really obsessed with his father. But I'm less interested in all that. His dad died of a massive heart attack in 1977, so it's been a while at this point.
I am fascinated by where he came from. It makes sense that he came from money. But I think it is important to point out because this is not the story that he paints, this is not the image he presents. His folksy wisdom, his "common sense" image, it's all about the "common man."
But his father's story is the EPITOME of someone succeeding because of privilege - because of chances other people didn't get, because of luck, and not because of a sky fairy or because he had more common sense or wisdom than other people.
It is also interesting to try and parse how much Dobson realizes what is fake. I think he is a fucking snake oil salesman, but I also think we are trained not to recognize or talk about class structure or privilege in this country, so both things could be true.
But it really, really matters. Because, as I've said before, his messages are expecting a certain lifestyle. They are expecting middle class (or upper middle class), white values. He expects these things because he has been taught these things and has BENEFITED from them.
So when he makes other people feel guilty for not measuring up to those standards, he is contributing to the system that sustains his power. But he is also confirming his own mythology. I'm sure Dobson loved his father as much as he is capable of loving anyone.
But this is what privilege looks like, y'all. Dobson was able to become who he has become because he came from a legacy of money and power. It's no accident. He already had the network and the connections and the name. And it matters how he chose to use it.
That's what I've got for now. I'm sure I'll do a whole thing about his mom when I read about that. Sometimes the best we can do is just take it all apart, piece by piece.
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