Another Perspective

Gelernter and Dobson in the Public Square

Has James Dobson really made conservatives look bad?

By 8.11.05

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David Gelernter has penned a Wall Street Journal column in which he takes James Dobson to task for a failure to make moral distinctions. According to Gelernter, Dobson recently compared embryonic stem cell research to Nazi death camp experiments and that doing so is tactless and unfair. This mistake, Gelernter says, indicates Dobson has proven he doesn't belong "in the major leagues" of public discourse and should be "sent back to the minors." Gelernter makes the critique even though he, too, opposes federal funding of the research. He fears Dobson will damage the quality of discussion on the matter.

This episode of taking to task by Gelernter in the Wall Street Journal is interesting on a couple of levels. First, look at the substantive issue. Dobson was wrong, Gelernter says, to compare Nazi death camp research to embryonic stem-cell research because the stem-cell researchers are working to help mankind, whereas the Nazi researchers were working to help mankind with the exclusion of Jews.

At first blush, Gelernter appears to be absolutely correct. This is just an unfair comparison by Dobson. Take a second look, though, and things take on a different cast. If we broaden our inquiry just a little, we see that what the Nazis were engaged in philosophically and scientifically was not as fully distinguishable from our modern dance with bioethics as we like to think.

For example, the Nazis did not confine themselves to the extermination of Jews. They were also quite actively involved with ridding the world of the retarded and mentally disabled. They did not confine themselves to sterilization. In his powerful book The Pillar of Fire, the great Jewish psychiatrist and convert to Catholicism Karl Stern relates the story of a Lutheran pastor Bodelschwingh who saves his colony of "feeble-minded, epileptics, and idiots" from being killed only by protesting that he must be killed, too. His fame was sufficient to prevent the deaths. Stern indicates others were not so fortunate and that during the war "the Nazis carried out the slaughter of all mental patients."

Now, consider our current situation in which we boast of having decreased the incidence of Down syndrome without adding that the reduction has been due to counseled abortions targeting children likely to have the condition. Imagine if we went about reducing other social pathologies in this fashion. What other undesirable potentialities might we isolate? I maintain that if a gay gene is ever discovered and can be discovered in utero, the homosexual community will find itself suddenly very pro-life in its sympathies rather than see some parents abort because they'd really prefer to have a child who will marry a member of the opposite sex and bear children.

The point of this is simply to say that the Nazis didn't hate the mentally retarded and epileptics the way they did Jews. They thought they were building a better society and that if a price had to be paid in terms of innocent human life to achieve that, they were willing to pay it. That, too, was part of their great moral disaster. Our current regime of bioethics shares that same flaw. We are willing to destroy embryonic life in service of hopeful improvements and pay scarce attention to whether it may be a devil's bargain. Dr. Dobson (formerly a child psychologist for the University of Southern California medical school) perceives that fact and may be guilty of having expressed it imperfectly.

The second issue in this analysis is whether Gelernter is right to suggest that Dobson doesn't belong in the major league of public discourse. As an evangelical Christian who suffered long under the many missteps of our other "spokesmen," I have to wonder who Gelernter would prefer. The ascendance of Dobson to the public stage is actually a great improvement in what we've had in the past. Although Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were both capable of amazing performances at times, it has been too common to see them hurt their cause in public.

It is a happy fact, not a discourse-damaging one, that the American media have slowly begun to figure out that the real power among Christian conservatives lies with James Dobson of Focus on the Family and Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship. Both men represent the cause well. Those of us in the lower ranks may sometimes grit our teeth with certain disagreements or feel various nuances are inadequately presented by a spokesman like Dobson, but I recommend the complainants engage in the television and newspaper sound bite game and see how it feels. Under the circumstances, broad strokes are about the best one can achieve.

In addition, I think we need to make allowance for the heartfelt religio-ethical critique of society, particularly from the right. When an advocate of the left is a religious person, we often hear that the individual is speaking "prophetically from a critical stance" or that he/she is "speaking truth to power." In their case, the saltier and more cutting the words, the better. It is understood they are speaking against insensitive movements of the mass culture and that shock must be employed to inspire reflection. I am still waiting for someone to take that view of a man like James Dobson. Whether you agree or not, his attack on the mass culture in the name of the sanctity of life can easily fit within the honored tradition of religionists speaking truth to power. You know what they say about strong medicine: If it tastes bad, it's because it's working.

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About the Author

Hunter Baker is associate dean of arts and sciences and associate professor of political science at Union University. He is the author of The End of Secularism and winner of the 2011 Michael Novak Award. His personal website is www.hunterbaker.wordpress.com.