I’m reading Dale Buss’s Family Man: The Biography of Dr. James Dobson. It is a touching book, for it narrates how Focus on the Family has helped numerous families throughout the world.
As I was reading it, however, I was thinking about authenticity. Here are a few parts that disturbed me:
1. The chapter “The Velvet Microphone” traces the origins of Dobson’s radio program. Here are some excerpts:
“…Dobson works hard to make the honing of his delivery come across as unscripted. ‘He said being natural means you’re going to repeat, stumble around, sometimes rephrase things–not be perfect, like reading a script,’ Gary Bender says. ‘When he first started, he said, he had a terrible time trying to be natural, to be a communicator who didn’t sound as if he was reading something. But he got to the point where he understood who he was, that he could do it, and do it in a special way'” (81).
“‘Usually if [Dobson’s] critiquing me,’ [radio associate Paul] Maier says, ‘he’ll say the content was great, very educational–but where’s the pathos, the heart, the emotion? Recently I was doing a show on foster care, and he complimented me on the show. But then he played the tape back and said, ‘Right here,’ when the woman said such and such, ‘you could have said something empathetic like how hard that must have been for her.’ He said, ‘Make sure you go for the pathos. That’s what makes good radio'” (82).
I don’t know. That just disappoints me. Dobson has to work hard to be authentic? So all that warmth and empathy are part of an act? I remember this one episode of Focus on the Family in which a minister broke down crying as he recalled his dad’s mistreatment of him as a child. Dobson then said in a solemn, compassionate manner, “Isn’t that amazing? How these memories can impact someone after so many years?” Was that an act?
I don’t want to imply that Dobson doesn’t care about people. Of course he does. He works hard, day in and day out, to meet the specific needs of every family that contacts him. He takes his work very seriously. He’s practically a perfectionist! But it bothers me when I read that someone is deliberately trying to sound authentic. It’s almost like he’s an actor.
But does anyone of us act differently in this regard? Those are what social skills are: trying to act in a way that puts people at ease, whether we feel happy and cheerful or not. I’m trying to learn such skills myself. In fact, I’ve said on James’ Thoughts and Musings that I have to work extra hard to write in a conversational manner, since that is what reaches people. And that’s probably what Dr. Dobson is doing: he wants to communicate his message to people to help them out, but he realizes that there is a specific way to do that effectively.
2. The chapter “The Political Animal” is about Dobson’s involvement in the Republican Party. In 1996, he was initially excited about Phil Gramm’s run for the Presidency. That was before he and other Christian conservatives actually met with Gramm. Dobson told Gramm the following:
“Senator, there are millions and millions of people out there, good family people, trying to raise their kids, trying to keep them moral, trying to teach them what they believe, who are very agitated and very concerned because they don’t hear anybody echoing what they believe…If you would hone in on those people and speak their language and talk to their hearts and identify with the things they care about instead of just talking about taxes, the economy, and money…you will have millions of people following you” (161).
“I’m not a preacher and I can’t do that,” Phil Gramm replied. “I’m not running for preacher. I’m running for President. I just don’t feel comfortable going around telling other people how to live their lives.”
Dobson then told him, “Senator, you will never reach our people.”
But at least Phil Gramm was authentic. What did Dobson want Gramm to do? Pretend like he was an evangelical to reach out to Christian conservatives? How’s it help anyone–Christian conservatives included–for a candidate to act like someone he’s not?
In virtually every Presidential election year (except when the nominee is a true believer, like Reagan or George W. Bush), Dobson threatens to form a third party if the G.O.P. doesn’t include a strong anti-abortion plank in its platform. But what’s such arm-twisting accomplish? If a candidate isn’t firmly committed to the pro-life cause, putting words on a piece of paper won’t do anything. Again, does making people inauthentic lead to genuine change?
I like Dr. Dobson, and I’m not saying these things to be hip among evangelical intellectuals–the types who try to act cool by criticizing Christian conservative leaders. I also believe that, in many respects, Dr. Dobson is authentic. He genuinely cares about families and the condition of our country. When he says something, you can be sure that he truly believes it. But public relations and politics involve a lot of inauthenticity, which is sometimes good, and sometimes bad.