Dr. James Dobson’s Apologia for Ted Bundy: How Evangelical Christianity Became a Safe Space for Sexual Predators
To paraphrase Faulkner, America’s religious past is never dead; it isn’t even past. The recent resurgence of overt white supremacy and antisemitism has prompted renewed debate about the role of fundamentalist Christianity in U.S. politics.
Trump is unavoidably at the center of this debate.
But so, too, are the White evangelicals who, through an astonishing routine of theological gymnastics, rationalized voting for him, casually dismissed his misogynistic “locker room talk,” and gave him, in the words of Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, a “mulligan” on his past affair with and likely pay-off of adult film actress Stormy Daniels. To understand these contradictory evangelical politics, we must understand how they view masculinity.
Despite the apparent moral gulf between them, evangelicals have actually stuck by their core principles in supporting Trump — principals that were always clear in the theology promulgated by their leading intellectuals, particularly Dr. James Dobson.
During the summer of 2016, Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and patriarch of the evangelical movement, made headlines by affirming that Donald Trump had become a born-again Christian. The timing was significant. When Trump clinched the Republican nomination, it drove a temporary wedge between his supporters and Republicans who viewed his crass, secular, outsider politics as a threat.
As conservatives tried to mold Trump into an electable candidate, the Trump campaign courted evangelical leaders by promising access to the president through a newly-created Evangelical Advisory Board, which would include televangelist Paula White (who would later give the invocation during Trump’s election) and Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr. (who would later head up a Trump administration education reform committee). Dobson went on to call Donald Trump a “baby Christian” who was “tender to things of the spirit” — code words that evangelicals could cast a vote for Trump with a clean conscience.
To many who grew up in the Midwest in the 1980s and ’90s, Dr. Dobson was a household name. Through his weekly Focus on the Family radio show, Dobson used his child psychology credentials and his Louisiana drawl to spread a simple but value-laden message about how to raise children, especially boys.
His first book, Dare to Discipline, advocated firm parenting, the commonplace use of spanking, and a strongly male-centered home. Written in 1970, the book was designed to do double-duty as a response to the permissive parenting style of more liberal psychologists like Dr. Benjamin Spock and to resist what many conservatives viewed as the collapse of the family sparked by feminism, civil and gay rights, and the sexual revolution.
He went on to write dozens of books that promoted abstinence-only sexual education, railed against abortion, and attributed all manner of social ills to pornography. As his influence grew, Dobson translated this into political access within the Reagan administration and financial gains for his rapidly-growing organization.
Dobson’s view of masculinity — as well as his derision of feminism, the LGBTQ community, and reproductive rights — is derived largely from the brand of evangelical theology that shapes the worldview of white American voters: an implicit theory of patriarchy, nationalism, and what I’ll call “end times geopolitics” that helps explain why Dobson could rationalize Trump’s treatment of women.
My understanding of this theology goes something like this: the violent judgment of mankind by God in the end times centers on the political nation of Israel. As an allegedly Christian country, the United States has a special role in maintaining support for the state of Israel in order to facilitate this always-impending event which will be a blessing to believers and a curse to unbelievers (which, according to Christians, includes the Jews). In order for the United States to remain strong, however, Christian families must raise up strong Christian men for leadership. In Dobson’s view, men learn to become leaders in the context of the family. Accordingly, Dobson doesn’t just fear the “collapse of the family” for the family’s sake, but sees it as the first in a domino effect that leads to the fall of the American empire.
As a result of a worldview that depends on men, Dobson and others often attribute male violence not to the problems with the heteronormative, patriarchal system they’ve created, but to the encroachment of progressive social forces. For instance, after the Sandy Hook massacre in December 2012, Dobson argued that “Millions of people have decided that God doesn’t exist, or he’s irrelevant to me and we have killed 54 million babies and the institution of marriage is right on the verge of a complete redefinition. Believe me, that is going to have consequences, too.”
Drawing on the relationship he sees between patriarchy and nationalism, Dobson interpreted tragedy through the lens of nationwide judgment and seemed to imply that the shooter, Adam Lanza, a White teenage male, was the predictable result of expanded access to abortion and the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Dobson’s ability to rationalize the behavior of men is also evident in his public campaign for Roy Moore. During allegations that Moore had sexually assaulted multiple minors, Dobson attributed the media’s coverage of these allegations not to Moore’s behavior, but to the ostensibly liberal establishment:
Judge Moore is a man of proven character and integrity, and he has served Alabama and this country very, very well. I’ve known him for over 15 years, but recently I’ve been dismayed and troubled about the way he and his wife Kayla have been personally attacked by the Washington establishment. Judge Moore has stood for our religious liberty and for the sanctity of marriage, when it seemed like the entire world was against him. I hope you’ll vote for Judge Roy Moore for United States Senate.
Here again, it’s clear that Dobson has little interest in the substance of the allegations about Moore’s behavior so long as Moore supports the pillars of evangelical politics. Dobson views Moore not as a potential sexual predator but as a victim.
Perhaps the most significant example of Dobson rationalizing men’s behavior by externalizing responsibility comes from his interview with the serial rapist and murderer Ted Bundy. Fresh off of the Meese Committee, which dubiously concluded that pornography was a leading cause of criminality, Dobson was eager to present Bundy as a victim par excellence of the teleology between pornography and sexual violence and to spread the gospel of a patriarchal Christian family as a solution. In the interview that Dobson conducted with Bundy the day before he was set to be executed, Bundy claimed (falsely) that he grew up in a “fine, solid Christian home,” but that engaging in pornography as a teenager sent him down the path towards increasingly violent pornography, rape, and murder.
The interview was widely discredited as little more than a Dobson being willingly and eagerly duped by Bundy’s pathological manipulation. But Bundy’s fabricated narrative fit perfectly with Dobson’s view that it was the unchecked liberal, un-Christian, feminist, sex-crazed, anything-goes social context that led to the breakdown of society and created serial killers.
Throughout the interview, both Dobson and Bundy repeatedly acknowledge that Bundy’s crimes are his own. But after watching the interview several times, I believe that Dobson views Bundy as a victim of liberal society. When men like Ted Bundy — or Roy Moore, or Adam Lanza, or Donald Trump — make deeply offensive and misogynistic statements, when they sexually assault minors, or commit acts of violence, Dobson views this not as a symptom of a patriarchal system he helped create, but as an indication that the world still isn’t patriarchal enough.
By the time that Trump’s misogynistic remarks to Billy Bush about grabbing women were played on TV, Dobson had been rationalizing men’s terrible behavior for decades. Moreover, he wasn’t simply driven by political opportunism; it was part of a framework about masculinity, family, and nationalism that Dobson had honed over years of shaping evangelical thought.
What I want to emphasize here is not that Dobson is unusual or a fringe character in the evangelical movement. Dr. James Dobson — child psychologist, founder of Focus on the Family, and author of dozens of parenting books — is one of the central intellectuals within the evangelical movement that most successfully and practically married the framework of the patriarchal, heteronormative Christian family with the political vision of America as a Christian nation preparing for the end times. Dobson’s frequent public apologia for predatory white men is not tangential to his ‘family values’ mission; it is central to it.
More broadly, I want to challenge the claims by the predictable wave of apologists who attempt to preserve what they see as an essentially morally pure core to evangelicalism by distancing themselves from the public media crisis that is Trump. But this strategy irresponsibly fails to address the conditions of Trump’s existence as a political figure within the patriarchal and nationalistic worldview that past evangelicals helped create.
In light of the explosion of high-profile sexual harassment cases, the #MeToo movement, changes to health care that impact women, as well as the resurgence of white supremacy and anti-Semitism, we should pay attention to the role that evangelical politics still plays in American politics.
This short essay was originally written for publication after the 2016 election, but never published. For more writing on immigration and politics, visit austinkocher.com.