“He has the benefit of not being a partisan voice. He is the single most credible figure within the evangelical community.”
When James Dobson arrived in Montgomery in August 2003, the symbolism of the location was not lost on him. He had come to call for the return of a two-and-a-half-ton Ten Commandments monument to the Alabama Supreme Court. It had been wheeled away a day earlier in accordance with a federal judge’s ruling that the statue represented an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion. More than a thousand Christian demonstrators had gathered in the plaza outside the courthouse to call for its return, and Dobson flew to Montgomery to address the crowd. He opened his remarks by noting that Rosa Parks had launched her bus boycott in the same city nearly half a century earlier. “She had no power,” Dobson told the crowd, dotted with umbrellas opened against the 90-plus-degree midday sun. “She had no influence. She had no money. . . . But she saw something that she felt was evil. It was imposed on her and all black people by the rule of law.”
Of course, white evangelical Americans, for whom Dobson had become the top political spokesperson, had helped form the backbone of opposition to the civil rights movement that Parks’s 1955 boycott set in motion. Jerry Falwell condemned civil rights activists from his Virginia pulpit and opposed the Lyndon Johnson–era civil rights laws as “a terrible violation of human and private property rights.”1 Jim Crow proponents opened Christian schools to avoid subjecting their children to integration.
In Montgomery, though, Dobson drew a direct parallel between Parks’s civil disobedience and that of Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore. An evangelical Christian who’d been elected to his post by campaigning to “restore the moral foundation of law,” Moore had been suspended from the bench by a state judicial ethics commission for flouting the federal order to remove the monument he’d installed two years earlier. But Dobson said Moore’s suspension and the court-ordered removal of the Commandments were an attack on Christians, just as Jim Crow laws had attacked African Americans. “We as people of faith are also being sent to the back of the bus,” he told the crowd in Montgomery.
Despite his passion for Moore’s cause, Dobson was initially reluctant to journey to Montgomery. Not more than four months earlier, he’d stepped down from the presidency of Focus on the Family, the $130 million, thirteen-hundred-employee media ministry he’d founded in the late 1970s. And at sixty-seven he was war weary. “I can’t fight every battle,” Dobson remembered thinking, in a later interview in his Colorado Springs office. “This one is not mine.” It was also true that many of the nation’s most prominent evangelical leaders had publicly criticized Moore’s intransigence. Richard Land, leader of the political wing of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Ted Haggard, then president of the National Association of Evangelicals—both usually in Dobson’s corner on political matters—said that Moore was out of line in defying a federal order. The long evangelical tradition of deference to government authority, which included opposing the tactic of civil disobedience, had partly explained evangelical objections to the civil rights movement. Even the director of Alabama’s Family Policy Council, a kind of state-level Focus on the Family affiliate, said that Moore was wrong.
To Dobson, though, the removal of “Roy’s Rock,” as the granite Ten Commandments monument had come to be known, and Roy Moore’s suspension were the last straws in a decades-long campaign by the courts to expel religion from the public square. And the organizers calling from Montgomery needed him. A modest but growing assemblage of mostly evangelical Christians was keeping vigil outside the Alabama Judicial Building, praying for the return of Roy’s Rock and planning a climactic rally to focus the attention of the national news media. Moore himself refused to appear, saying that the protest should focus on the Commandments, not on him. Dobson was being asked to fill the keynote speaker’s slot. No other Christian Right leader would have the same impact or would attract as much attention within the huge evangelical subculture. “It is not an exaggeration to say that he is to some people a Martin Luther King, Jr., crusading for the liberation of people who can’t help themselves,” said the National Association of Evangelicals’ Ted Haggard, whose organization includes thirty-five million Americans, before gay sex and drug-use allegations forced him to step down in late 2006. “Martin Luther King helped African Americans unlike anyone in a hundred years, and Jim Dobson is the leader for civil rights of people who can’t speak for themselves: unborn babies.”
Reluctantly, Dobson boarded a plane.
His Montgomery speech walked the crowd through what Dobson called a forty-year record of transgressions by the federal judiciary, beginning with the Supreme Court: its 1962 decision ending officially sanctioned school prayer, its 1963 decision that ended devotional Bible reading in public schools, and, of course, 1973’s Roe v. Wade. Dobson cited eighties- and nineties-era Supreme Court rulings that barred prayer at graduation ceremonies and ended the mandatory posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools. He pointed to a recent decision by a federal appeals court in California which found that the recitation of the pledge of allegiance in schools represented an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion because it included the words “under God.”
And just a couple of months before, Dobson noted, a 6 to 3 vote by the Supreme Court in the case Lawrence v. Texas struck down the country’s last state sodomy laws. In his dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia warned that the ruling threatened to undo the state-level bans on gay marriage that Dobson and his vast national activist network had helped pass in the 1990s. Particularly galling to Dobson was that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Reagan appointee, had cited a European court’s ruling in his majority opinion in Lawrence. “I just returned from Europe,” Dobson told the crowd, “and I’m telling you, that is a very pagan place.”
In fact, it is fair to say that in Montgomery, Dobson perceived that America had arrived at a historic crossroads, with nothing less than the survival of Western civilization hanging in the balance. Down one road lay a nation where a Christian God was acknowledged as the foundation of government, family, and morality—the kind of nation that Dobson believed America had been for two hundred years and had begun to drift from only in the 1960s. Down the other lay America as contemporary Europe, home to the planet’s most secular society. The courts, Dobson believed, were gradually steering the country down this latter course, against the people’s will, by scrubbing religion from public life, striking down abortion restrictions and anti–gay rights laws, and otherwise thumbing their noses at God’s law.
But in Montgomery, Dobson also glimpsed the possibility of deliverance from the judicial oligarchy. For one thing, he was freer than ever to parlay his national influence into political clo