Call them Jesus Freaks, the God Squad, the Spirit-Filled or Bible-Thumpers, if you’re talking politics, everyone knows who you’re talking about. In 2004 they were simply the Values Voters, and they were the largest voting bloc to go to the polls for George W. Bush on Election Day. If you’re not a believer in those who believe, just look at the statistics. The number of evangelicals who voted in 2004 provided the slim margin of victory in favor of our current president — a man of faith himself (praise the Lord and hallelujah). In his new book The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family and Evangelical America Are Winning the Culture War, Dan Gilgoff, a senior editor at U.S. News and World Report, meticulously and comprehensively dissects the evangelical political movement and how it always intersects with James Dobson and his multimedia ministry.
Focus on the Family rarely allows the kind of access Gilgoff received in order to observe the organization and interview its founder and current Chairman Dobson (he stepped down as its president in 2003). I’m familiar with this because, as a former intern in Dobson’s office, and later as an employee of Focus on the Family, I observed many who viewed reporters with skepticism, since the mainstream press generally lacked the reputation of covering the ministry fairly. In fact, I distinctively remember Gilgoff lurking the halls with pen and legal-size notepad in hand. Employees were guarded, but curious, wondering how he would portray Focus, Dobson, and of course, the Cause. We hoped that Gilgoff might accurately describe evangelicals and their larger mission.
Though the book comes two years too late — Republicans are now somewhere between reeling from 2006 to straining their necks towards 2008 — Gilgoff writes with a remarkably astute grasp of the evangelical movement, their motives, their resources, and their goals. Rather than opine about the intentions and methods of the Christian Right, Gilgoff abandons most of his personal opinions in favor of actual reporting. At times his pace is sluggish, and he takes an inordinate amount of time detailing the rise and fall of the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, two now-extinct Christian Right groups. While the background is probably worthwhile to provide an accurate historical perspective of the movement, the details and inner squabbles are a bit laborious and uninteresting, even to an evangelical.
More interesting, and perhaps more important, is Gilgoff’s multi-faceted and lengthy portrayal of Dobson and his pet causes: life, marriage, and judges. As “the most powerful political leader that the American evangelical movement has ever known,” it may surprise some to know it was Dobson’s initial involvement and passion in the field of child psychology (he has his Ph.D. in psychology from UCLA) that convinced him, “beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the family was in serious trouble” and spurred his later involvement in the political scene. After spending time in Washington during the 1970s, Dobson eventually founded the Family Research Council in the ’80s. Around the time Dobson was appointed to Ronald Reagan’s Commission on Pornography, he finally began to officially connect his first love with the current crisis, becoming a voice for families in the political arena.
With the 2004 election squarely in the rearview mirror, Gilgoff ties together the races and issues in which. Dobson had a guiding hand. With his Family Councils (state-level organizations that lobby legislatures to enact a Christian Right agenda), personal conversations (he and Karl Rove discussed the nominations of Roberts and Alito — the appropriateness of which still sparks debate), and radio broadcasts (via which Dobson can shut down Capitol switchboards when he tells constituents to call), his tactics are effective and his accomplishments evident. From the defeat of South Dakota’s Senator Tom Daschle to the Republican sweep in 2004 and the debates over the nominations of Roberts, Miers, and Alito, Dobson gathered his armies and they marched, like Onward Christian Soldiers, to win many worthy battles.
After describing various 2004 victories, Gilgoff expends his last bit of ink looking towards the future. (With eyes already on 2008, you find yourself chomping at the bit for these last couple chapters.) A “New Right,” Gilgoff explains, is emerging, and its pet issues aren’t so much abortion and gay marriage as global warming, or the “Evangelical Climate Initiative.” Some of its leaders, most notably best-selling author and pastor Rick Warren, have trumpeted the cause and fueled its popularity among evangelicals. Dobson remains wary over these new initiatives and has chosen to remain engaged in the traditional culture war. Since he is largely absent from the new and expanded agenda, Gilgoff observes this may perhaps leave a spot open for a new evangelical leader.
With the DNC’s attempt to close their own God gap and with Democrats (à la Barack Obama) teaming up with evangelicals like Rick Warren on climate change and international justice, Gilgoff wonders, “Will the movement continue to break with history to make headway on humanitarian causes, or will Christian Right leaders swing attention back to the culture war?” Whether forward toward global warming or back toward more traditional issues, one thing is certain: The evangelical movement has been effective. The questions of the hour are, Come 2008, who will be driving the Jesus Machine? And what direction will it be headed?