In spring 1998, James Dobson, founder and head of Focus on the Family, was mad, and he traveled to Washington, D.C., to vent his fury. Since its formation in the late 1970s, the Religious Right had helped elect every president, with the notable exception of Bill Clinton, and had boosted the Republicans into control of Congress. Yet by Dobson's reckoning, the Religious Right had precious little to show for its efforts. He complained about continued funding for Planned Parenthood and for safe-sex education and the distribution of condoms. He worried that the civil rights of gays and lesbians would win legal protection, and he lamented the failure to outlaw abortion.
Meeting with congressional leaders in the basement of the U.S. Capitol, Dobson repeated some version of the refrain he had used at a Religious Right rally in Phoenix. "Does the Republican Party want our votes—no strings attached—to court us every two years, and then to say, 'Don't call me. I'll call you,' and not to care for the moral law of the universe?" he asked. "If it is, I'm gone, and if I go—I'm not going to threaten anybody because I don't influence the world—but if I go, I will do everything I can to take as many people with me as possible."
Dobson's tirade left Republican members of Congress quaking in their boots. As Dan Gilgoff argues in The Jesus Machine, Dobson may not "influence the world," but he carries a lot of weight, especially among those associated with the Religious Right.
Gilgoff, a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report, was granted extraordinary (albeit intermittent) access to Dobson and to Focus on the Family. He recounts Dobson's background, his early years as a child psychologist, and his breakthrough book, Dare to Discipline, which challenged the permissive child-rearing techniques of Benjamin Spock. The book, published in 1970, encouraged parents to spank their children with belts or switches and to leave such items on the child's dresser to remind her of the consequences of challenging authority.
Though Gilgoff doesn't exactly say so, Dobson appears to have translated those principles into the operation of Focus on the Family and its related entities. Dobson demands loyalty and deference from his surrogates, and the picture that emerges of him in The Jesus Machine is that of a dedicated zealot, something of a reclusive martinet who brooks no dissent and is accustomed to getting his way. (When Focus on the Family learned of his book's title, Gilgoff reports, they sent him an e-mail, which the author characterizes as "the nastiest I've received as a journalist.")
THE JESUS MACHINE is the work of a reporter—in this case, a very good reporter—and that circumstance signals both the strengths and the weaknesses of the book. Gilgoff has done thorough research into an impressive array of sources, especially interviews with many of the principals of the Religious Right. His grasp of the history of evangelicalism, on the other hand, is spotty and doesn't extend back to the 19th century, let alone the 18th. The author's main source for matters historical appears to be a sociologist, and he manages to deprive William Jennings Bryan of two of his three campaigns for president as the nominee of the Democratic Party. Gilgoff also incorrectly identifies Michael Farris as a former Republican nominee for governor of Virginia (Farris ran for lieutenant governor). These quibbles may seem inconsequential, and perhaps they are. But they chip away at the credibility of what is otherwise a very impressive book.
The larger disappointment, however, lies in Gilgoff's credulity. For example, in recounting Tony Perkins' failed efforts in the Louisiana legislature to exclude lesbians and gays from protection from hate crimes, Gilgoff quotes Perkins as saying, "There was not a single person there working on behalf of families." Gilgoff suggests no sense of irony in that statement (gays don't care about families?), or even that it represented a colossal non sequitur.
Nor does Gilgoff interrogate the claims of Dobson and his confrères. How exactly does legal protection for gays or a civil union threaten my marriage? Or Dobson's? Gilgoff allows Religious Right activists to rehearse the abortion myth, the fiction that the Religious Right galvanized as a political movement in direct response to Roe vs. Wade in 1973, even though Gilgoff himself presents evidence to the contrary. And when Dobson, speaking about George W. Bush, declared that "This president is more actively pro-life and pro-family and pro-moral than any previous president," Gilgoff lets the statement pass without challenge.
Dobson has fashioned an entire career out of being "pro-life" and "pro-family." But how does he (or Bush) reconcile that with support for capital punishment, torture, or the war in Iraq, which utterly fails to meet just war criteria? The "wizard" behind the curtains at the controls of the Jesus Machine may be just a man after all.
Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest and professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University, is the author, most recently, of Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical's Lament.