MORE

Focus Pocus

Perhaps you weren't listening to Focus on the Family's weekday radio show one day last November when James Dobson, the sixtyish head of the religious right's media giant, dropped broad hints about what a wonderful president of the United States he would make. Millions of other people were. And don't count them out.

That's the warning from Gil Alexander-Moegerle, the first ex-Dobsonite to write a book about the Colorado Springs-based ministry.

By some standards this tell-all on a preacher is tame. Dobson apparently is no sex-crazed hypocrite a la Jimmy Swaggart or Jim Bakker. In James Dobson's War on America, Alexander-Moegerle paints a picture of an arrogant, angry, self-righteous marketing genius, a Mercedes-driving religious zealot fueled by contempt toward people whose values differ from his own. And this critic was in a position to know: Twenty years ago in California he launched the radio career of Dobson, then a psychologist and family counselor. Alexander-Moegerle produced Dobson's first radio broadcast and spent a decade as his on-air sidekick, boardmember and chief aide.

"In many ways, I gave you James Dobson," Alexander-Moegerle writes. "Now I wish it were possible to take him back." The book, which will be published later this month by Prometheus Press, marshals statistics and testimony that Dobson's political influence is rising: His radio show is heard on 3,400 stations worldwide, 1,500 of them in North America. His media conglomerate, exempt from taxes as a religious organization, takes in $125 million a year, five times that of the better-known Christian Coalition. Focus gets at least 10,000 letters and 3,500 phone calls a day. And that's not all that comes into Colorado Springs. Thanks to Dobson's grassroots organizing, his followers have garnered so much power within the Republican Party that all of the contenders for the 1996 GOP presidential nomination trekked to Dobson's bunker for his blessing. Last December Newsweek called Dobson one of America's five most successful radio personalities, ranking him with Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern, Dr. Laura Schlesinger and Don Imus.

But of those, only Dobson wields his listeners as a political hammer. After moving to Colorado in 1991, he poured money and air time into the successful battle to pass the anti-gay-rights Amendment 2, which later was overturned by the courts. A couple of years later, when a U.S. House bill threatened restrictions on home schooling, Dobson told his listeners to complain to Congress. They caused the biggest switchboard jam in congressional history, and the bill was changed. Focus also turns complainers into political activists by conducting "community impact seminars" and strategy sessions throughout the country.

Alexander-Moegerle's complaint is that Dobson is accountable to nobody but a rubber-stamp, hand-picked board. Less visible in the mainstream than Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, Dobson refuses to debate or discuss issues with his critics. He shuns practically all contact with the press, which he condemns as hopelessly liberal. (Focus officials, who once sicced security guards on a Westword reporter trying to attend a meeting between Jack Kemp and Dobson, didn't return phone calls for this story.) You're not likely to see Dobson on Nightline anytime soon. Instead, at least for now, he just preaches to the choir.

Alexander-Moegerle portrays Dobson as a Type-A workaholic infatuated, by nature, with political power and afloat in a sea of praise from his devoted flock.

"I applaud the man as a family helper," Alexander-Moegerle tells Westword. "His books on parenting and marriage have been a tremendous help. And if he wants to take the message of Jesus Christ to the world and he wants to say 'You must all bow,' he has the right to do that. But if someone with that mentality goes to Washington and tries to make public policy based on his religious sectarian view, it's a violation of the separation of church and state. We'll never make it that way. We argue what is right based on American values, not religious values. I may want an America that doesn't abort its babies, but I don't want it to wind up like Northern Ireland. Dobson has the potential to lead us into sectarian religious violence."

Dobson's defenders probably will consider the book sour grapes. After all, Dobson fired Alexander-Moegerle in 1987 after the latter got a divorce and fell in love with a co-worker; Alexander-Moegerle unsuccessfully sued Dobson for his firing. The book describes that situation in more detail than the reader may want or need, but the former Dobsonite contends that he's more than just a disgruntled ex-employee. "I would certainly plead guilty to being a concerned ex-employee," he says. "Disgruntledness is an emotion. People have to read the book. Would they say I was driven by bitterness or that I raise good concerns? Everybody has to make that determination on their own.  

"I'm a Christian, always have been," adds the 53-year-old Alexander-Moegerle. "But watching Dobson in action has given me serious questions about whether I want to be that type of Christian. I do not want to be driven by hate and divisiveness."

Dobson's holier-than-thou attitude can be attributed in part to his upbringing as a stubborn only child of a Nazarene preacher. In that moralistic sect, notes Alexander-Moegerle, people can become "purified" after they come to Jesus. Dobson apparently reached that sanctified state years ago. Once, co-host Alexander-Moegerle shared with radio listeners the standard Christian line about how "we're all sinners," only to get a rebuke from Dobson, who certainly didn't regard himself as a sinner.

Alexander-Moegerle sees the Dobson broadcasts as carefully crafted infomercials. When he was Dobson's radio sidekick, the chief wrote scripts in which Alexander-Moegerle was to ask questions and then express "Appropriate Awe," or "AA," in response to Dobson's answers. Others truly were awed. Dobson's ministry grew rapidly, and as the hosannas and money poured in, Focus executives would gather at the end of each workday to marvel at their wonderfulness and "God's work."

The power trip was intoxicating. "When I was in the thick of it--a senior vice president getting fan mail--the adrenaline rush was the greatest experience of excitement, ego gratification and ego fulfillment of my whole career," says Alexander-Moegerle, who now works for a California utility. "When I was in it, I loved it. Now that I'm out of it, I'm embarrassed. I'm embarrassed about how groupthink dominates that staff and board. How arrogant I was, and we were, about people outside our group. Dobson would say of our opponents, 'Those evil people,' and I never questioned it for a minute. I never doubted the validity of his description. Now that I look back on it, that was stupid. To be in a group that demonizes one's opponents is just to be in a stupid group."

That stupidity extended to racism and sexism, Alexander-Moegerle contends. One particular incident in November 1986 stands out to the ex-Dobsonite. It occurred during a regular Wednesday afternoon meeting of Dobson's "cabinet," during a discussion of pornography. Dobson was bemoaning the lack of hard evidence that pornography was dangerous. He reasoned that such research could be done but that most behavioral scientists were secular liberals who weren't interested. And this wasn't the only instance of liberal bias among scientists, he told his executives. Weren't black Americans the descendants of slaves, who were bred for physical strength? And didn't it make sense that blacks, while becoming physically superior, had become intellectually inferior? Research to prove that, he lamented, wouldn't be done because it smacked of racism. Just then, Focus executive Rolf Zettersten told a joke about a black child who was asked to use the word "before" in a sentence and who responded, "Two plus two be-FO!" Dobson and everybody else howled with laughter, says Alexander-Moegerle. Toward women, Dobson had a similarly patronizing view, privately regarding himself as a protector of the naturally weaker sex and publicly declaring that feminism was the bane of Western civilization.

All the while, Alexander-Moegerle writes, Dobson continued to feed on his accumulated wealth and power. And unlike the image he likes to portray as being one who was "forced" into politics as a "defensive" move against those who would destroy family values, Dobson was drawn to politics early on. In 1979, his audience only two years old but growing, he connived his way onto President Jimmy Carter's Conference on the Family. Virtually unknown to most of the country at the time, Dobson told his listeners that the upcoming conference, like most others, would be dominated by "Eastern establishment, liberal, secular humanists." He urged them to write Carter's conference director and ask him to invite Dobson. Alexander-Moegerle says an estimated 80,000 Focus listeners did just that, and Dobson got his invitation. "Jim was bitten and smitten," he writes, "with the infection called Potomac fever, the symptoms of which are a rash of wild feelings that there is power in Washington to solve the nation's moral problems." When Dobson returned from D.C., the focus of Focus shifted from merely selling Christian educational products and offering help with marriages. "We repeatedly acknowledged to each other during those early days of political activism," Alexander-Moegerle writes, "that it was a remarkably effective fundraising technique to talk to our constituents about the great danger secular humanists in Washington represented to their families and to offer our services as a shield against that danger. We witnessed a much larger financial return on appeal letters requesting a ten-dollar donation to keep the nation's liberal monsters away from the donor's children than resulted from asking them to send a donation to help us print a new pamphlet on sibling rivalry."  

The language of fear soon became the norm at Focus. Although Dobson would smirk about his opponents and talk about "guerilla warfare," this wasn't crass manipulation, says Alexander-Moegerle. The executives sincerely believed in what they were saying. They also believed in their method. "We learned," says Alexander-Moegerle, "that it is very easy to frighten people in this society if you have the adroit verbal ability that Jim has and if you yourself are genuinely frightened of the future, as Jim is."

Alexander-Moegerle credits Dobson with the birth of Focus's grassroots organizing. And pretty soon, the political dialogue between Dobson and his listeners became a two-way street. "Little groups of conservatives like Jim would write to him: 'We're here in Iowa fighting the ACLU.' We started to get letters like that," Alexander-Moegerle says. "And we started to prepare broadcast segments for, say, Iowa. As different little groups put their issues on our table, slowly the idea dawned on him to organize them all. We began a deliberate strategy to organize all those groups. He'd say to them, 'Let me help. We will do an insert in our Citizen magazine just for the zip codes in Iowa promoting issues you in Iowa are working on.' After he has done that, step two is for him to ask of them to help him."

Focus started producing helpful tips on how to write letters to the editor and get politically involved in such issues as abortion, homosexuality and home schooling.

For several years Dobson has been declaring that a "civil war" of moral values has broken out. But according to Alexander-Moegerle, Dobson started the war himself with his combative personality and his refusal to compromise about practically anything.

"It's been a dangerous error that he has made the move into public policy," says Alexander-Moegerle. "He has so little skill as a statesman--he's over his head. But it's worse than that. He's one of these bullies who doesn't know how to handle power well."

Visit www.westword.com to read related Westword stories.


Sponsor Content

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >