God's own ZIP Code

Back at radio evangelist James Dobson's headquarters, a dedicated army of true believers is poised to breach the church-state line.

Published July 9, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Think of evangelists on the air, and a variety of unsavory images come to mind. Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, bawling for dollars. Oral Roberts, who once threatened that God would end his life if followers didn't pony up a multimillion-dollar sum. Ham-handed moralists like Jerry Falwell. Ambitious politicos like Pat Robertson, who recently warned that hurricanes or "possibly a meteor" would punish the city of Orlando, Fla., for its gay-pride celebration.

James Dobson, the force behind the radio-based ministry Focus on the Family, has a different style, nearly always presenting himself with an air of earnest, prudent authority. Whereas Dobson's colleagues have been trying for decades, with some success, to pull the center of political debate in America more firmly to the right, it is Dobson who now seems poised to have a serious impact on the nation's agenda. One sign came earlier this year when he lambasted the Republican Party for its insufficiently conservative agenda; soon after, he received high-level assurances at a meeting with Newt Gingrich and other party leaders in May that his concerns would be addressed.

So how has Dobson become so influential?

He portrays himself as a simple family man whose sole concern is to serve God and strengthen society's most basic institution. His technique is to parcel out a brand of levelheaded, country-doctorlike advice. A psychologist by training, Dobson wrote a conservative child-rearing manual in 1970 called "Dare to Discipline." He launched his flagship "Focus on the Family" radio show in 1977, and he now presides over a robust media machine that offers radio and TV programming, magazines and personal counseling services. His radio broadcast reportedly reaches a core audience of around 4 million, plus tens of millions more who tune in from time to time.

"I just felt that the family was unraveling," Dobson says of his life's work in a film shown to visitors to the Focus on the Family welcome center. "We have been very unfriendly to the family in this nation." Dobson gives the impression that he would gladly avoid the spotlight if his concern and his principles left him any other choice.

The truth about Dobson is a little more complicated.

I decided to pay a simple visit to the Focus headquarters' welcome center just off Interstate 25 on the north side of Colorado Springs. Dobson has turned the Focus campus into a kind of wholesome tourist trap, so one sunny Saturday morning, I drove in for a look.

The understated sign on the highway for Focus on the Family implies a modest building and a rack of free pamphlets. In reality, the Focus campus spreads over 77 acres with handsome new brick buildings, professional landscaping and even its own traffic signs. Thirteen hundred employees work here; Focus has its very own ZIP Code.

A brochure I had requested in the mail beforehand said that visitors would feel "like part of the family," and not long after arriving, I do. As soon as I walk in the door for the first hourly tour of the morning, I'm passed around by the staff like a long-lost cousin at a family reunion. A security guard personally introduces me to Steve, my guide, who gives me a name tag and puts me in the care of a young receptionist while he runs an errand. I try to keep out of her way by admiring a collection of antique radios in the lobby, but she doesn't neglect me for a moment.

"It's strange," she says to make polite conversation, "that more people haven't showed up. We're used to bigger groups."

"I'll bet," I say. Despite the parking spaces for buses and RVs in the lot, I'm skeptical about the mythic reach of Dobson's popularity.

We chat for a few minutes, but no other visitors show up this early. Steve returns, and we head off on my personal tour of James Dobson's evangelical stronghold.

Steve explains that the Focus welcome center was made possible by a donation from well-to-do visitors from Michigan a few years earlier. On a tour just like mine, a couple asked if handling all the sightseers in the main building wasn't a distraction for the staff. The staff admitted it was, and the couple later sent in a $4 million donation. Another visiting family donated seven miles of wood trim from its lumber business in Pennsylvania for the administration building.

Steve tells me this history in a businesslike conference room decorated with some of the donated trim, but he immediately seems concerned that I'll think Focus enjoys the kinds of extravagance that brought disgrace to televangelists like the Bakkers. "This is all thanks to the generosity of our supporters," he explains. The buildings and grounds are well-maintained and comfortable. If there is any ostentatious or corrupt influence here, it is nowhere in sight.

What is in sight, everywhere, is Dobson's mission statement, which appears on plaques and handouts throughout the complex. It calls for motivating "the people of God to practical action in their communities and our nation in defense of righteousness."

This sounds rather political to me for a tax-exempt organization -- as do Dobson's threats to leave the GOP and take his followers with him if the Republicans don't heel to his agenda. Steve deflects this concern, saying that Focus leaves its "educational" efforts to its sister organization, the Family Research Council in Washington. The FRC, headed by Gary Bauer, is known for its arch conservative stands on issues like abortion, sex education and euthanasia.

Steve assures me that Focus' work is primarily evangelical in nature, and, in the welcome-center film, Dobson emphasizes that the organization's No. 1 goal is "to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in spreading the Gospel." In addition to its "Focus on the Family" broadcasts, the organization does a radio show for kids called "Adventures in Odyssey," produces TV programs such as an abstinence-only sex-ed video for teens called "No Apologies" and publishes separate glossy magazines for doctors, teachers, parents, single parents and teenage boys and girls. The ministry casts a wide net.

We leave the conference room and Steve takes me upstairs to where the real work happens. We stop first in a viewing area for a room full of cubicles.

"A hundred and twenty people work here," Steve explains, "and all they do is answer Focus' correspondence."

The room is empty today because it's Saturday, but Steve says that during the week it brims with activity. He tells me how "Focus" listeners pour out their problems, ask for prayers on their behalf and seek advice about things like marital problems, depression and sons and daughters who are gay. "We receive about 10,000 letters a day," he says.

"Ten thousand?" I ask, and Steve tells me again that it's so. This sounds like a lot, and although Focus declined to provide a spokesperson to answer questions for this story, the number crops up again and again in Focus literature.

So that's why they need their own ZIP Code.

"Sometimes they send money," Steve admits, "but Focus doesn't require them to. Every letter gets an answer, regardless of who sends it." He points out that the correspondence staff takes the initiative to send out free literature, books and tapes of Focus broadcasts, even to those who don't donate. Focus also keeps a database with a description of everyone's problem, to refer back to if the person ever writes again. "The database," says Steve, "has 4 million names."

Four million. This may explain the Newt Gingrich connection.

"Isn't that a giant crayon?" I ask, pointing through the glass to a four-foot replica jutting up from one cluster of cubicles.

"That's our section just for correspondence from kids," Steve says, and with this demarcation I begin to appreciate the scope of the ministry's reach.

Dobson's organization has built a loyal following by demonstrating an active interest in the personal problems and social concerns of its conservative listeners and supporters. Like other teleministries, Focus is fueled by donations, but this is no obvious scam. Focus is more subtle -- and therefore more effective than a scam.

As the tour continues, I'm suddenly struck by reminders of tours in the former Soviet Union, back when nearly every library, subway, car factory and collective farm was named for Lenin. The Focus staff can barely speak without invoking Dobson's name. Steve refers to "Dr. Dobson" in just about every sentence. In the correspondence room, Steve explains that the counselors are trained in "Dr. Dobson's" philosophy. In the "chapelteria" -- a huge room where lunching employees say prayers en masse for people who have written to Focus -- Steve tells me that "Dr. Dobson visits with the staff whenever he can." A handout about gay rights I picked up earlier says, as if there is nothing more to discuss, "Dr. Dobson does not believe in the existence of a genetic predisposition to homosexuality." The keyword for the Focus area in America Online is "Dobson."

Dobson is the prime mover of all this righteous, revolutionary progress, and he is considered an authority on every subject. He has to be -- like Lenin's, Dobson's movement is not one that can tolerate controversy or originality. Its adherents are supposed to line up and know what to do without being told.

After passing through a long hall filled with dozens of Dr. Dobson's awards from Christian broadcast associations, we stop to examine a map of the world that is peppered with colored pins showing the reaches of Dr. Dobson's empire. Some 4,000 radio and TV stations in more than 40 countries carry "Focus on the Family" broadcasts, and many of them are translated into the local language. Since I've already been thinking about Lenin, I can't help but notice the number of pins in his old homeland.

"How ironic," I say, "that there are so many in Russia."

"Yes," says Steve, smiling. "Just a few years ago it was impossible for us to broadcast in the Soviet Union at all, but today the Russian Federation has one of 'Focus'' largest audiences."

Talk about the domino effect.

For the climax of our tour, Steve leads me to a small theater with a soundproof glass window looking directly in on Dobson's studio. The room is dark, but there's a handsome cherry desk with Dobson's microphone sitting on top of it. A light shines reverentially from above.

Neither Dobson nor an official Focus spokesperson responded to my requests for an interview for this article. A woman in Focus' media-relations department, when I used Salon's name, paused and asked, "That's not a Christian publication, is it?"

Dobson's critics, on the other hand, were more than willing to talk.

Barry Lynn is executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and a longtime Dobson watcher. He called Dobson "a genuinely megalomaniacal figure." In Focus' welcome-center film, Dobson does compare his decision to build the Focus on the Family campus in Colorado Springs to the founding of the Temple at Jerusalem. "He has a very strong belief in his own near infallibility," said Lynn. "Before you think he's just a grandfatherly figure who wants to help your kids grow up, you better know just how extreme his views are."

Even more critical is Gil Alexander-Moegerle, a Focus co-founder, former co-host for the radio show, and one of the most senior executives for the ministry during its first 10 years. Alexander-Moegerle called Dobson "a tremendous threat to the separation of church and state." He said that there is a "cultlike worship of Jim" within Focus, and last year he wrote a book called "James Dobson's War on America." "I must find a way to communicate my grave concerns about his politics," Alexander-Moegerle said in a recent interview. "As time went by, I thought it got downright weird."

Alexander-Moegerle said that Focus' original mission was one he supports: to create "communications products" that would help families to raise their children and build lifelong marriages. He also emphasized that he still respects much of Dobson's nonpolitical work. "Jim's work in the area of marriage and parenting has been a tremendous contribution, and in some cases it's been brilliant." But Alexander-Moegerle was adamant in his criticism of Dobson's foray into politics. "I think the kindest thing you can say about Dobson's politics is that he's very ignorant. It is also accurate, though, to say that he is mean-spirited, divisive and intolerant."

Alexander-Moegerle said that his friendship and working relationship with Dobson fell apart in the mid-1980s. He said that at one point, Dobson persuaded Alexander-Moegerle's marriage counselor, a mutual friend, to provide confidential information about the progress that Alexander-Moegerle and his first wife were making in an attempt to save their marriage. "Dobson panicked that perhaps the public would view him as not being the be-all and the end-all when it comes to saving marriages if his right-hand man's marriage went down the tubes," Alexander-Moegerle said. "When I confronted Jim about it, he was completely blind to the inappropriateness of it."

In another incident, Alexander-Moegerle suggested to co-host Dobson that they bring guests to the "Focus on the Family" radio show who were Christians but who nonetheless held opposing viewpoints. Dobson rejected the idea. "Jim's response was, 'That will never happen on this broadcast. This is my broadcast. It promotes my view, and Phil Donahue can do the kind of stuff you're describing,'" Alexander-Moegerle recalled. "I've always looked back on that moment as characteristic of the various pieces that go into the worldview of a megalomaniac ... I think 'megalomaniac' is not too strong a word to use."

When asked about these allegations, Focus' media-relations department said they were "false" and provided documents from Focus officials and supporters that express surprise, offense and disappointment with the content of Alexander-Moegerle's 1997 book.

Back at the Focus on the Family welcome center after my official tour ended, the prophesied rush of visitors had finally arrived. New staffers were on hand to greet them. A teenager in a tie greeted me at the door and shook my hand. He hadn't quite mastered the sincerity of his older colleagues, but he was working on it. He was polite and friendly, like a salesman who doesn't want you to know that he works on commission.

The boy showed me into the main exhibit hall, which has glittery exhibits and displays of free Focus literature. A giant globe shows Focus' ministries around the world. A bank of computers allows you to select and print out morsels of Dr. Dobson's insight into a vast array of social and religious issues. An upbeat electronic tune plays over and over again, seemingly timed to accompany the lights that radiate out from Colorado Springs on a wall-size map of the United States. Focus on the Family's campus is half Ministry of Propaganda, half theme park. There's even a three-story spiral slide that empties giggling children into life-size mock-ups of the sets for Focus' kids' shows.

I browsed the free literature. One article offered advice about how to make sure that your children don't see offensive videos in school or day care -- videos such as "The Little Mermaid," in which the heroine Ariel's rebellion against parental authority goes unpunished. A copy of Brio, Focus' magazine for teenage girls, offered helpful conversation starters for meeting the right boy, like, "Do you think you've ever had contact with an angel?" An issue of Focus' education magazine Teachers in Focus was devoted almost entirely to arguments against evolution. The cover story accused "Darwinists" of only paying attention to fossil evidence that supports evolution.

James Dobson clearly has tapped into the fears of his people. They're afraid for their families -- they're afraid for themselves -- in a world filled with Darwinists, Sodomites and Disney characters, but also filled with less imaginary dangers like violence, cultural and economic changes and spiritual cynicism. He's turned that unease into a media empire. Increasingly, he is heeded by conservative politicians, and he is held in esteem by millions of American voters.

As to whether all of this will translate into real political power, I don't know. I drove away trying to imagine Steve and all the other smiling staffers at Focus on the Family engaged in "practical action ... in defense of righteousness," wielding perhaps their giant crayon as a weapon. It wasn't a very pretty picture.

By Christopher Ott

Christopher Ott is a writer in Madison, Wis.

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