Voices of the 'parallel culture'

April 20, 1995|By Cokie Roberts & Steven V. Roberts

Colorado Springs, Colo. -- MENTION the name James Dobson in the media circles of Washington or Los Angeles and you're likely to receive a blank stare. One or two might think he was a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs, but that was Chuck Dobson. No relation.

James Dobson is a child psychologist and surrogate pastor, book writer and radio broadcaster, based in Colorado Springs. His daily, half-hour shows, called "Focus on the Family" (and nine other spin-offs) are carried 8,000 times a week on 1,500 stations.

Many of the stations are quite small, but about 5 million Americans regularly hear his calm, reassuring voice giving advice, easing fears and telling parents that the traditional, Bible-based precepts they grew up with still work.

One listener is Christine Biles, wife of an oil company scientist in Kingwood, Texas: "Dobson's message is simple: There are absolute rights and wrongs."

Right and wrong is not a popular notion in the secular capitals of Ivy-educated taste makers who cringe at the concept of absolutes and get positively queasy at the idea of sin. In their world, those who cling to such old-fashioned beliefs are clearly -- benighted and probably a bit tacky.

A senior official of the Clinton administration recently said that he didn't know a single person who attended church regularly. (He was wrong, actually, because he was sitting next to one of us, a devout Catholic.)

That official better start getting to know some believers. As GOP strategist Bill Kristol shrewdly observes, Mr. Dobson and his followers are part of a whole "parallel culture" with its own radio and TV shows, its own tapes and videos and magazines ("Focus on the Family" publishes 11). Mr. Dobson's 13 books have sold millions of copies, but they never appear on the New York Times best-seller list because many are purchased by mail or through Christian bookstores.

"Focus on the Family" has grown so rapidly because it fills such a need in the lives of its listeners. In Mr. Dobson's view, that need first appeared in the '70s, when the combined effects of no-fault divorce laws and "do-your-own thing" ethics undermined marriages at an alarming rate.

Modern psychology was helping to erode the confidence of young parents in traditional wisdom, and accelerating mobility was isolating them from friends and family just at the point when they needed a supportive voice to answer their inevitable and often tearful question: "What do we do now?"

In an interview, Mr. Dobson said these trends are aggravated by the pace of modern life: "When husbands and wives don't have time to talk together and be romantic together, and they're exhausted when they're home -- that has a way of undermining family life, and it also robs children of what they need. It takes an enormous amount of time to raise children correctly."

As the parents of two grown children we know he's right. And as reporters who talked to American voters last fall, we heard over and over again the complaints of overstressed and underpaid parents who desperately lack one of the most precious of all family values -- time with their children.

Mr. Dobson says he is being drawn into politics against his will because the government doesn't do enough to help these families. Lately he has been raising his voice against Republican leaders he feels should be doing more to promote tax credits for children, oppose abortion and expand religious expression in public life. He's even threatened to support a third party.

GOP officials know they cannot win without the sort of people who listen to Jim Dobson, but they are worried that if he and other conservative Christians push the party too far to the right, they will alienate moderates and give the Democrats a chance to reclaim the center.

When he talks about politics, Mr. Dobson's reasonable tone can indeed turn angry and self-righteous, and White House advisers are privately hoping that the religious right will provide their salvation in 1996 by coming across as wild-eyed extremists.

But there's more bad news than good news for the Democrats in the rise of Jim Dobson. He is speaking for millions of parents in this country who feel that their schools and their streets, their kids and their values, are spinning out of control. And increasingly, they believe that the Republican Party represents their views. (In 1992, 56 percent of evangelical Christians backed George Bush, his best voting bloc.)

The Democrats have to find a way to speak to this "parallel culture," and President Clinton made a start at his press conference by saying that family values means putting "children first." But his own life and associates, like the adviser who knows no churchgoers, don't support his words. Unless the president and his party can make a better connection, they will stay in the minority for a long time to come.

Cokie Roberts is a commentator for ABC's "World News Tonight" and "This Week With David Brinkley." Steven V. Roberts is a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report.

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