Dobson Says Fred Thompson Not Real Christian

Focus on the Family’s James Dobson told U.S. News that Fred Thompson would have a hard time getting the Republican nomination, since he’s not really a Christian.

“Everyone knows he’s conservative and has come out strongly for the things that the pro-family movement stands for,” Dobson said of Thompson. “[But] I don’t think he’s a Christian; at least that’s my impression,” Dobson added, saying that such an impression would make it difficult for Thompson to connect with the Republican Party’s conservative Christian base and win the GOP nomination.

Mark Corallo, a spokesman for Thompson, took issue with Dobson’s characterization of the former Tennessee senator. “Thompson is indeed a Christian,” he said. “He was baptized into the Church of Christ.”

In a follow-up phone conversation, Focus on the Family spokesman Gary Schneeberger stood by Dobson’s claim. He said that, while Dobson didn’t believe Thompson to be a member of a non-Christian faith, Dobson nevertheless “has never known Thompson to be a committed Christian—someone who talks openly about his faith.”

“We use that word—Christian—to refer to people who are evangelical Christians,” Schneeberger added. “Dr. Dobson wasn’t expressing a personal opinion about his reaction to a Thompson candidacy; he was trying to ‘read the tea leaves’ about such a possibility.”

The great irony is that Dobson goes on to heap lavish praise on that paragon of moral virtue Newt Gingrich.

Dobson’s remarks are drawing criticism from all over the political spectrum. Roman Catholic conservatives Andrew Sullivan and Steve Bainbridge are not pleased, with the former arguing this amounts to “a religious test for public office – clearly stated by the GOP’s most powerful base figure” and the latter saying, “I gather Mormons and Catholics need not apply, eh?”

From the other side of the aisle, John Aravosis claims “Dobson is the most powerful religious right leader in the Republican party. He is THE leader of the entire movement. He is THE man that Republicans turn to when they want to talk to the religious right.” He wonders, “Who does Dobson think he is, Jesus Christ himself?”

Digby thinks all will be forgiven because “Thompson will make a pilgrimage to one or more of the high priests and proclaim his hostility to activist judges and everybody will get along just fine. That’s how St John, Rudy and Newtie did it and matinee idol Fred has to do the same thing.”

The whole thing is quite odd. Dobson strikes me as something of a kook, but then again so do all the post-Billy Graham teevee preachers. He’s got a right to his views on this and people have a right to take those views into consideration when forming their own.

From my perspective, it seems preferable that people act morally than loudly proclaim their belief in a faith whose tenets they don’t actually follow. Then again, I don’t have a teevee show with millions of devoted followers sending me checks, so what do I know?

UPDATE: I wonder what the fallout of this will be. Specifically: Will this do more to damage Thompson’s potential White House bid or Dobson’s following?

UPDATE: Steven Taylor believes “Dobson offered insight into Dobson far more than he offered insight into the candidates” and that this once again illustrates “the problems some (many?) religious leaders get into when they start trying to be political brokers.”

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Blogosphere, Religion, , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anderson says:

    We use that word—Christian—to refer to people who are evangelical Christians

    Of course they do. But not many non-evangelicals know that.

    Will this incident help show the country how kooky Dobson is? Let’s hope so.

  2. Minor corrections: Dobson is actually radio and print-based, not TV and technically he isn’t a preacher. He basically runs a non-profit interest group. I would put him in a different category than, say, Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell (and we shan’t even speak of the TBN crowd).

    Having made said corrections, however, I am pretty much in agreement with the sentiments of the post. Dobson has long been on my nerves for a variety of issues.

    I’ll have a post up on this shortly.

  3. James Joyner says:

    I figure since he calls it a “ministry” he’s a preacher, but I take your point.

    He does claim to be “seen on approximately 60 television stations daily in the U.S.” although, you’re right, his primary focus is radio.

  4. I think he does some brief TV commentary things. I don’t think he has a “show” per se, but I could be mistaken.

    I would agree that in terms of popular conception, he’s a preacher. It is just when I think “preacher” I think “has a church”. Or, with TV preachers, pretend like their audience is their congregation.

    I will allow that I am splitting hairs to some degree.

  5. Anderson says:

    He does claim to be “seen on approximately 60 television stations daily in the U.S.”

    He does a “Focus on the Family” spot that some local news stations run in the morning. He generally manages to say something sensible on those, and I suspect that lots of people mainly know Dobson from that.

  6. B. Minich says:

    Ahh, Dobson. First off, I’m one who should squarely be in his camp – evangelical Christian with views many would consider “kooky”.

    However, he seems to have gotten stranger with age. I’m glad for some of the things he’s done – Focus on the Family runs some great programs that are really helpful. However, Dobson himself isn’t helping us that much. Why comment on someone who isn’t running yet? Its not like he’s going to be out of time to comment on Thompson if he ever declares. And while I would agree that Thompson isn’t a Christian in the sense that Dobson means, the whole Newt Gingrich thing has made his standing on this issue interesting. I’ve seen nothing in Newt to indicate to me that he’s a Christian in the sense Dobson means – or that anyone in the Republican field is, for that matter. I’m not saying that these people aren’t Christians – but I am saying that I don’t care if they profess to be Christians or not for the Presidential campaign. What is important to me is their stance on important issues – my criteria for a President aren’t the same ones I’d have for my pastor.

  7. As someone who I think even Dobson would acknowledge as a Christian, “Judge not least ye be judged.” There is no vacancy in the Holy Trinity and the position of Judge has already been filled.

    I think he could have gotten his point across by saying he would prefer that Thompson was more open and sharing in expressing his faith. The sin Jesus spends most of the Gospels talking about is the sin of self righteousness. I think Dobson my do well to re-read some of those segments.

    As to whether this will help or hurt, I suspect a little bit of both. If Dobson really pushes hard he could hurt Thompson, especially n the primary. But I suspect that as many people like James Joyner will also look at this as a stamp of approval (“If Dobson isn’t to keen on him, there might just be something worthwhile there”)

  8. yaj, I think you are very much on target here, both in terms of politics and theology:

    I think he could have gotten his point across by saying he would prefer that Thompson was more open and sharing in expressing his faith. The sin Jesus spends most of the Gospels talking about is the sin of self righteousness. I think Dobson my do well to re-read some of those segments.

  9. Looks like I need to re-read the Gospel’s myself. I judged Dobson on judging. Fortunately, the blood of the lamb covers all sins.

    From a political standpoint, this may rebound in Fred’s favor. The “I don’t like Dobson” crowd will see the original report and likely not bother hearing the clarification, so they will see it as a left handed endorsement of Fred.

    The “I like Dobson” crowd will hear of the clarification if the subject of the original report comes up, so aren’t likely to hold it against Fred.

    Dr. James Dobson clarifies his comments about Sen. Fred Thompson in statement released by his office:

    “We welcome the opportunity to clarify Dr. Dobson’s remarks that were first reported in Dan Gilgoff’s online article titled ‘Dobson Offers Insight on 2008 Republican Hopefuls: Focus on the Family Founder Snubs Thompson, Praises Gingrich.’ At the outset, it’s important to note that this headline is an outright mischaracterization of the views Dr. Dobson expressed. His words weren’t intended to represent either an endorsement of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich or a disparagement of former Sen. Fred Thompson. Dr. Dobson appreciates Sen. Thompson’s solid, pro-family voting record and his position that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided.

    “In his conversation with Mr. Gilgoff, Dr. Dobson was attempting to highlight that to the best of his knowledge, Sen. Thompson hadn’t clearly communicated his religious faith, and many evangelical Christians might find this a barrier to supporting him. Dr. Dobson told Mr. Gilgoff he had never met Sen. Thompson and wasn’t certain that his understanding of the former senator’s religious convictions was accurate. Unfortunately, these qualifiers weren’t reported by Mr. Gilgoff. we were, however, pleased to learn from his spokesperson that Sen. Thompson professes to be a believer.
    “With regard to Mr. Gingrich, while Dr. Dobson spoke positively about his intelligence and his ability to articulate conservative values, he expressed concern about the former speaker’s past moral failures. You may be aware that Mr. Gingrich recently appeared on a Focus on the Family broadcast to discuss America’s Christian heritage and the threat posed by radical Islam. Prior to the interview, Dr. Dobson asked Mr. Gingrich if he’d be willing to talk about his family life on the air because he felt our friends deserved an explanation. Those who listened to the exchange heard nothing indicating that Dr. Dobson excused Mr. Gingrich’s past indiscretions. The former speaker was offered a chance to address the subject openly and honestly, and he did so, stating, ‘I have turned to God and have gotten on my knees…and sought God’s forgiveness.’ Dr. Dobson firmly believes that Scripture teaches there is redemption available through Christ for those who confess their sins — were it not so, we’d all be in a world of trouble. Of course, only the Lord knows the condition of individual hearts.

    “In conclusion, we would caution friends of our ministry not to believe what they read about Dr. Dobson in the secular media today. Never in the 30-year history of this ministry has there been more misreporting and outright distortion of his beliefs and teachings. It is apparent that those who represent a liberal worldview seek to marginalize him and confuse our friends. Anyone who ever has a question concerning what they read about Dr. Dobson or Focus on the Family is encouraged to contact us for clarification. The chances are they have been misinformed.”