I have heard several sermons—and I’m sure many of you have too—in which the speaker looks back with admiration at the early church as it is depicted at the end of Acts 2. In this ideal moment at the beginning of the Christian church, believers self-sacrificially gave up their own comforts in order to ensure that other believers in crisis were looked after. As much as we like to praise this as a picture of the love and generosity of genuine Christianity, putting anything like this sort of attitude into practice is far rarer.
James Dobson was a hero of the church tradition that I grew up in, and he really seemed like someone who was passionate about preserving Christian truth and seeing families brought to Christ. His most recent newsletter, however, did some low-level trending on Twitter this week for all the wrong reasons, and I wanted to make a longer response to it. If I am now calling him out by name, it is not because he is particularly in the wrong, but he is representative of a broader Christian approach to social issues that I am finding more and more disturbing, and the contrast with my opinion of him as a youth is just so stark.
I also don’t want to imply that solutions to social problems are ever easy or that putting Acts 2 into practice is without complication. Nevertheless, if I were to ask you to mine Scripture—the Torah in Deuteronomy; Christ’s teachings; Paul’s letters—for a general perspective on how we should view the poor, the outsider, the refugee, what do you think you’d come up with? Not least, surely you’d include that the Bible commands love for the outsider by reminding believers that we were all slaves given freedom by grace, and that at the heart of true religion is looking after the vulnerable and those who are unable to repay us.
If I asked you to give a biblical perspective on how important culture and race and nationality are to the Christian’s identity, I’m sure we’d conclude that these are not important at all. Culture is neutral unless it imposes idolatries on us, and race and nationality have been dissolved into a gospel that shows love to all and despises favouritism. Indeed, Twitter is awash with white Christians who tell black believers exactly this—they apparently don’t even see race.
But when James Dobson hits the border camps, why does so much of this basic Christian teaching evaporate? Why is there fear of the outsider and insistence upon the sanctity of comfortable American culture? To be sure, his newsletter regularly affirms how much he grieves with and loves these people (“Tears flooded my eyes as I stood before them… ‘Please tell them that God loves them… tell them that I love them, too.’”), and I am in no doubt that the problems that he describes are very real and very serious. But there are several attitudes evident in this newsletter that I can’t understand.
Demonising foreigners: Criminals and illiterates
There are several studies that deal with problems of racial bias in corrupting the memory of eye-witnesses. For example, Pacific Standard Magazine details how stereotypes play a role in altering how witnesses remember the facial features of a perpetrator, and there are accounts of witnesses incorrectly identifying a white perpetrator as black due to the assumption that a criminal is likely to be black, or black suspects being remembered as particularly large or especially threatening. In short, xenophobia is a dangerous sin, and stereotyping plays a major role in perpetuating injustices against those who are considered other.
Yet without presenting any statistical evidence, whether it be about criminal records of those applying for asylum or the comparative rates of crime committed by immigrants versus American citizens, Dobson is quick to characterise (albeit “some”) migrants and refugees as criminal by virtue of their otherness. He says:
“An unknown number of these men are hardened criminals and drug runners, and they are difficult to identify. Most make their way across the border.”
“The border patrol agents are so busy caring for refugees seeking entry to the United States that they have very little time to police the borders. It is so porous that huge quantities of contraband, including all kinds of narcotics, flow into this country every day. Then it is transported northward to America’s cities to be consumed by adolescents and millennials. Lawless gangs, such as MS-13, are also pouring into the culture, making violence for inner cities a way of life.”
Of course he’s not accusing every migrant of being criminal, but notice how the language is always extreme: it’s huge quantities of drugs flowing in through porous borders; it’s lawless gangs pouring in and making violence a way of life. (He even manages to shoehorn millennials in there, in case there weren’t enough groups for him to vilify in one letter.)
The presentation of these people as vile and parasitic culminates in his conclusion:
“I can only report that without an overhaul of the law and the allocation of resources, millions of illegal immigrants will continue flooding to this great land from around the world. Many of them have no marketable skills. They are illiterate and unhealthy. Some are violent criminals. Their numbers will soon overwhelm the culture as we have known it, and it could bankrupt the nation.”
I find it abhorrent that in view of a serious refugee crisis from countries to the south, Dobson’s concern is not with need or gospel, but that “the culture” of his “great country” will be overwhelmed by swarms of dirty illiterates.
Demonising the left: Democrat Plots
In the process of making his dehumanising characterisation of the refugees, he also decides to add to the polarisation of America’s political and social landscape by blaming this problem on Democrats. He says:
“The refugees quickly give themselves up to agents. That is why they have made this journey. They know they will be fed, medicated, and treated humanely, even if they are in holding areas while they are in our custody. Then they will be released on American soil. This is the system set up by a liberal Congress and judges… Democrats want massive numbers of immigrants who will someday become voters. Some Republicans support the policies because they want cheap labor for agricultural purposes. The border could be fixed, but there are very few in authority who seem to care.”
Whatever the socio-political causes of high refugee numbers, and whatever has motivated the laws that insist on humane treatment of refugees and disallow their repatriation, Dobson ensures the agreement of his readers against the needy by portraying the impulse to help them as “liberal” and by sweeping all humanitarian impulses behind these laws into a cynical Democrat plot to bolster their voter numbers by naturalising foreign children. Dobson seems unable to conceive of the possibility that laws might have been made to protect these people from exploitation and mistreatment—the very impulse that his Christian faith should produce in him—rather, good treatment of refugees must surely have been motivated by a sinister Leftist power-grab and should therefore be opposed.
(It gives him no pause—but it should—that he assumes non-whites will vote Democrat.)
Excusing inhumanity and family breakdown
In contrast with the sweeping and emotive language that he uses of these migrants, when it comes to the conditions in which these people are held, Dobson becomes noticeably measured and impassive. The controversial zero-tolerance enforcement of the policy of separating children from their parents—pursued inter alia as a means of punishing migrants and deterring others from coming—is something that has horrified humanitarians, and several reports have revealed shocking cases of neglect and even deaths. But for Dobson:
“they are segregated by sex and age and placed in the fenced-in areas to be held for the next 20 days until they are processed and given a Notice to Appear. If that sounds inhumane, what would you or I do? There is simply no other place to ‘house’ them.”
For someone who has made a name and a fortune as the founder of Focus on the Family, it is alarming that there is absolutely no concern for these families. Not only does he not love them enough to criticise the practice of family separation, it doesn’t even get flagged as an issue. It’s an inevitable result of a housing shortage, that’s all.
Inconsistency that seems xenophobic
Another point at which Dobson’s newsletter is insensitive to its own xenophobia is on the matter of “anchor babies”. Dobson is concerned that allowing one illegal to slip through the cracks and to get established in the country then promotes the migration of the whole family, exacerbating the immigration problem. He says:
“The vast majority [of immigrants released with a court date] are never seen again. Most then become ‘anchor babies’ who are citizens with rights to bring members of their families.”
Well enough. But he then can’t resist adding something that betrays a different concern than for lawlessness and economically unproductive immigrants:
“In addition to this influx of people from places around the world steeped in poverty and despair, Senator Chuck Schumer authored and helped pass a ‘lottery’ system, whereby winners are brought to the United States. They become permanent residents, who then begin bringing their families to our shores. Thank you, Senator.”
My question is this: is the problem that immigrants are poor and uneducated and a drain on resources, or is the problem that they are not your people? Because the only friend I had who entered the US as a lottery winner was university educated when she left here. If she started importing her family, they would be educated and economically productive. Senator Schumer is deserving of the sarcastic “thanks” for what reason? Without looking, Dobson knows that these outsiders to your proud “nation of immigrants” are bad. On what grounds except prejudice?
Promotion of Trump
Speaking of immigrants, Trump and his family also get another stunning free pass from Dobson. After Dobson swayed evangelical voters by insisting that Trump prayed the prayer and is a “baby Christian” right before the election, and Grudem likewise ignored every biblical criterion of leadership to declare him a good moral choice for president, Dobson continues uncritically to promote Trump and his policies. If characterising Mexicans as violent, drug-carrying rapists weren’t on-brand enough for a Trump promoter, he adds:
“The situation I have described is the reason… [Trump’s] border wall is so urgently needed.”
“He seems to be the only leader in America who comprehends this tragedy and is willing to address it… I know of no one with political influence besides the President who seems to care about the crisis at the border.”
“He is facing enormous opposition from both political parties, the mainstream media, the entertainment industry, the judiciary, portions of agriculture, powerful lobbies, and virtually every dimension of the culture.”
“[Political fat cats], and their friends in the fake media, have told the American people that there is no crisis at the border! Shame on them all.”
Dobson does not acknowledge that the wall is often opposed because it is expensive and fairly ineffective. Dobson turns a blind eye towards the clamour of voices who do care about the crisis at the border, but just not in Trump’s xenophobic way. Dobson parrots the extremely dangerous lie that the media who report inconvenient details are fake news.
I am struggling to find an explanation for how a Christian leader who devoted his life to healing families can be invited by the White House to evaluate internment camps that aim at breaking up families, and his verdict is virtually a point-by-point endorsement of Trump and his keynote issues: violent Mexicans, the plan for a wall, his alleged persecution, and his go-to excuse that the free media is corrupt and bad.
A problem ignored is a problem solved
Finally, let us not miss Dobson’s own heart for the poor and the outsider. He explicitly states his own preferred solution to the refugee crisis, which is that they should go somewhere else:
“Lest I be misunderstood, let me make clear that I am among the majority of Americans who want the border to be closed to those who attempt to enter illegally. There has to be a better solution than this. I have wondered, with you, why the authorities don’t just deny these refugees access to this nation. Can’t we just send them back to their places of origin? The answer I received was ‘No,’ [because US law doesn’t permit repatriation].”
For Dobson, the main problem is not the poverty and hopelessness of people arriving at America’s borders. The problem is not in the destruction of families, or the physical and psychological depravation of children being caged without their parents. The problem is not even illegality, since it is not necessarily illegal to apply for refuge, and there is certainly no question of illegality in the lottery system, which he also grouses about. The problem, for Dobson, is that they’ve brought their problems to America, and that will harm “the culture as we have known it”.
As Dobson says in his conclusion, “America has been a wonderfully generous and caring country since its founding. That is our Christian nature.” That Dobson could talk about the virtues that are at the heart of Christian nature and immediately follow it with a “But…” and explain that the poor are too much of a threat to his culture and comfort says far too much about what matters to “conservative” Christianity in Dobson’s America. Whatever Dobson is trying to conserve, it is not the gospel.
Christianity is neutral about our culture unless it imposes idolatries on us. The idolatry of “our America” and “the prosperity that our hands have built” is insidious and nasty. The gospel calls us to love, and to service, and to self-sacrifice. That Dobson has put his culture first makes me wonder if he isn’t also just one of those baby Christians.