Dobby disses Fred

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Below I'm going to try to provide some cultural context for James Dobson's comment casting doubt on Sen. Fred Thompson's Christian faith (while applauding serial bigamist Newt Gingrich). But first, these folks had some worthwhile things to say on the subject:

See-Dubya:

Dobson has alienated a lot of people with his comment and he's also set up the biggest Sistah Souljah moment of the upcoming race. Fred ought to use this as a chance to talk about his faith, and also to differentiate himself from shrill voices like Falwell and Dobson.

Allahpundit at Hot Air, where See-Dubya has this to say in the comments:

Speaking as someone who was baptized in the Church of Christ myself, [Dobson] has just used up every last bit of goodwill I had for him. It’s sanctimonious jackass spokesmen like Robertson, Dobson, and Reed who are making Christian conservatism irrelevant and driving us into the arms of mushy-headed Rick Warren feelgoodism.

In the comments of the same post, blogger Right Wing Sparkle defends Dobson's career, but not his comments in this situation.

Karol writes:

Much as my instinct is to lash out at Dobson (I mean, who is he to say who is or is not a Christian) I know that he is quite a big deal, especially in the swing state of Colorado. I don't know what he has against our man Fred, but I do hope he cuts this nonsense out.

The USA Today article included a quote from a Dobson spokesman that may be difficult for non-evangelical readers to parse:

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."

Let me try to translate and provide some context, without justifying Dobson's comment.

Evangelicals draw a distinction between nominal Christians and committed Christians. Within the evangelical subculture, the bare word "Christian" means someone who has a personal relationship with Jesus, someone who has had a conversion experience, someone who has asked Jesus to come into his heart, someone who has been born again. (As I write those phrases, I'm struck by the difficulty of explaining the concept to people who aren't native speakers of evangelicalese.)

While other branches of Christianity define being a Christian in terms of participation in the sacrament of baptism, which they regard as objectively making a person a Christian, evangelicals understand being a Christian in experiential terms -- making a decision to follow Christ, having a conversion experience.

The pietistic predecessors of modern evangelicalism looked at the institutionalized churches of the 17th century and saw a dead orthodoxy -- the form of religion was there, but the life-changing power of the resurrection was absent. America's Great Awakening in the early 18th century was not about converting pagans but about calling a nation of outwardly moral, faithful churchgoers back to a lively personal faith in Christ.

From the evangelical frame of reference, it makes perfect sense to ask the question, "Is he a Christian?" of someone who was baptized and has gone to church every Sunday morning of his life. As the saying goes, being born in a Christian home doesn't make you a Christian any more than being born in a garage makes you a car. The reality of your faith and the security of your salvation is suspect if you can't point to a date and place when you came to faith.

I can remember, as a Campus Crusader in college, being very suspicious of people who claimed that they couldn't remember a time when they weren't Christian. There were a number of students in our group who grew up in Christian homes and had been baptized as infants, but they had conversion experiences in college. Many chose to be baptized as adult believers, because only now did they consider themselves Christian. Their earlier church involvement was mere religion, not living faith in and a vital personal relationship with Christ.

To bring this back to politics: Here in Oklahoma, even our Catholic politicians are expected to be born again. When a Republican politician from a liturgical background runs for higher office, you can expect to see an interview with him in a magazine like Community Spirit, in which the pol tells of a personal conversion experience and describes his devotional habits of prayer and Bible reading. (Extra points for being part of a Bible study or prayer group with fellow politicians.) Evangelical voters are reassured to hear a politician talk in this way: He must really be saved, and therefore he has the spirit of God dwelling within him, and therefore he can make godly decisions as a government official.

The demand to hear a conversion story can have comical results. I can't find the exact quote, but I recall that the elder George Bush, a lifelong Episcopalian, had a typically awkward answer when asked, during his campaign for the White House in 1988, whether he was born again. He knew he had to say yes, but it was clear that he didn't really understand the question.

While Dobson might be upset that Thompson hasn't come to pay his respects, I suspect Dobson's main problem is that Thompson doesn't wear his faith on his sleeve, that he doesn't talk about his prayer life or having a quiet time or being in a Bible study or listening to Christian radio. The problem with that is that it mistakes the talk for the walk. It puts Dobson (and those he influences) at the mercy of whoever can make the most convincing use of the standard evangelical buzzwords, which doesn't necessarily correlate with genuine devotion to Christ.

UPDATE: Mollie Hemingway at Get Religion gets it. She agrees that the follow-up quote from Schneeberger is the key to understanding what Dobson said:

I also think it’s worth highlighting that what we’re seeing here are classic distinctions in how various Protestants define Christian.

Whether they admit it or not, many Americans adopt a view similar to that held by Dobson: Christianity is mainly about behavior and feelings. Christians of all stripes — as well as folks who don’t define themselves as religious — tend to judge Christians’ fidelity to their faith (and adherents of other religions) by their actions. Many of them incorporate personal testimonies into the equation as a means of speaking to behavioral change or a change of feelings. I bet that many readers are nodding their head and saying, “And what’s the big deal about this?”

Well, this view is extremely different from that held by other believers, myself included. In my church body [Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, one of the most conservative branches of American Lutheranism] we don’t really speak of personal behaviors or statements — as Dobson seems to have done — to determine someone’s religious status. Instead we point to whether they’ve been baptized.

ALSO: Barb the Evil Genius, a Lutheran blogger, initially thought I was defending Dobson and wondered if I still held the opinions that I say I held as a Campus Crusader in college. You can see my response, plus some additional thoughts, in the comments below. If you can't imagine that someone can be a genuine Christian without a crisis conversion experience, you need to read Barb's thoughts on the subject.

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Below I'm going to try to provide some cultural context for James Dobson's comment casting doubt on Sen. Fred Thompson's Christian faith (while applauding serial bigamist Newt Gingrich). But first, these folks had some worthwhile things to say on the s... Read More

4 Comments

David VanRisseghem said:

I remember How Ronald Reagan dealt with this issue.
He was far less "preachy" in his expressions about his faith.

He avoided the phrase "born again", because he says it wasn't a word that was used in his religious upbringing(1984 presidential debate).

Folks like James Robison & Jerry Falwell had no problem supporting Reagan back then.

I doubt they'd be as satisfied today by Reagan's "dancing around" the issue if he were running for president today.

I'm far more concerned by a candidates actions;... than his rosie words.

I want good government. Bill LaFortune's administration taught me that Religious talk doesn't make a candidate competent.

So where do you stand now on the evangelical issue? This asked by a Lutheran who has received the sacrament of baptism and can't remember a time when she wasn't Christian.

RIchard said:

I thought by your headline that this had something to do with house elves v. Weasley brothers....

Wondered who'd pick up the Harry Potter reference! "Oh, Dobby is very sorry for any disrespect shown toward young master Fred...." A battle between Dobby the House Elf and Fred Weasley would likely be a draw. A very exciting and destructive draw, but a draw nevertheless.

I responded to Barb's question on her blog:

Barb, I thought I came off as mildly snarky toward Dobson, rather than as a defender. I'm hoping for Fred Thompson to get in the presidential race, and I thought Dobson's comments were off base.

As for my current views, I no longer subscribe to the "decisional regeneration" of my upbringing. Then again, as a Calvinist, I don't subscribe to baptismal regeneration either.

It was in college, while I was still a Campus Crusader, that I began to read some of Luther's works, which shed some new light on the ideas about salvation that I'd grown up with.

I no longer judge a person's Christianity based on whether he had a crisis conversion experience, whether he uses the right Christian buzzwords in his conversation, whether he keeps his radio tuned to the Christian talk station.

But there are still a lot of people who do, especially where I live. And so you have the sometimes humorous phenomenon of liturgical Christians in politics who are expected to explain their faith in terms that evangelicals accept as valid.

David's mention of former Tulsa Mayor Bill LaFortune is a good case in point. During his 2002 campaign for mayor, LaFortune, a cradle Catholic, made the rounds of the charismatic megachurches, and at some point he left the impression that he'd had some sort of conversion experience. And perhaps he had, but I always had the sense that some of his born-again religious talk was borne of his strong need to be liked -- he wanted his megachurch pastor friends and the evangelical and charismatic grass-roots Republican activists to think of him as a good born-again Christian, just like them.

It would be a tricky thing for a politician who isn't from the dominant religious subculture to express his personal faith in a way that is true to his convictions but in terms that are familiar and comfortable to his potential voters. That would be a challenge for an evangelical campaigning in Boston, a Catholic campaigning in Tulsa, and a Mormon campaigning anywhere except Utah.

One more thing specifically re: Thompson and Dobson: I'll bet a lot of politicians who meet Dobson go out of their way to try to impress him with how devout they are. "Brother Jim, this morning in my quiet time, I was meditating on 1st Hesitations chapter 6...." Thompson doesn't strike me as the type to go out of his way to impress anybody. I'd hope that Dobson is sophisticated enough to know when a pol is blowing smoke up his cassock, but this incident suggests that he isn't.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on March 29, 2007 10:25 AM.

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