Dob­son’s re­tire­ment ends era for evan­gel­i­cals

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY JU­LIA DUIN

The long-ex­pected res­ig­na­tion of Fo­cus on the Fam­ily’s James Dob­son high­lights an open se­cret among Amer­ica’s roughly 70 mil­lion evan­gel­i­cals: There are no ob­vi­ous suc­ces­sors to the group of evan­gel­i­cal leaders who cre­ated mas­sive or­ga­ni­za­tions or built up me­dia em­pires in the 1980s and ’90s.

Mr. Dob­son, 72, who re­signed two weeks ago as board chair­man of one of the coun­try’s most in­flu­en­tial evan­gel­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tions, is one of the last of a great gen­er­a­tion of evan­gel­i­cal leaders.

Some have died: the Rev. Jerry Fal­well, Moral Ma­jor­ity founder; the­olo­gian Carl F.H. Henry; Florida pas­tor D. James Kennedy; Cam­pus Cru­sade for Christ founder Bill Bright; and Chris­tian philoso­pher Fran­cis Scha­ef­fer, who founded L’Abri Fel­low­ship.

Oth­ers have ei­ther re­tired or have passed on the bulk of their du­ties, such as the Rev. Billy Gra­ham, 90; tel­e­van­ge­list Pat Robert­son, 78; au­thor and ac­tivist Tim LaHaye, 83; and Prison Fel­low­ship founder Chuck Col­son, 77.

“It’s a chang­ing of the guard,” said Brian McLaren, 52, cited in 2005 by Time mag­a­zine as one of the 25 most in­flu­en­tial evan­gel­i­cals in Amer­ica.

“There is a pos­si­bil­ity the re­li­gious right will col­lapse on it­self. Or some­one will ar­tic­u­late a new re­li­gious cen­ter. The evan­gel­i­cal com­mu­nity has been slowly di- ver­si­fy­ing, and there may not be a cen­ter any­more.”

The Rev. Rick War­ren, pas­tor of Sad­dle­back Church in Lake For­est, Calif., and the man picked to de­liver the in­vo­ca­tion dur­ing the inau­gu­ra­tion of Pres­i­dent Obama, seems an ob­vi­ous choice to fill the void.

“But I don’t know if he is the guy,” said John White­head, 62, founder of the Ruther­ford In­sti­tute in Char­lottesville, who was an at­tor­ney for Mr. Scha­ef­fer in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “He doesn’t seem to be gar­ner­ing a huge fol­low­ing, and he doesn’t seem to want to be in the spot­light.”

Evan­gel­i­cals also lack a gal­va­niz­ing is­sue th­ese days, Mr. White­head said.

“It used to be the pro-life move­ment,” he said, “but I am not sure there is an is­sue now. The is­sue evan­gel­i­cals key on is the gay move­ment, but they have lost that is­sue. There is no cause for a leader to emerge in now.”

That may be a re­sult of Amer­i­can evan­gel­i­cals be­ing a dis­parate group with lib­eral and con­ser­va­tive wings, Mr. McLaren said.

“James Dob­son was never a leader of evan­gel­i­cal­ism as a whole, but he was a leader of the con­ser­va­tive side,” he said. “The ques­tion is: Who will fill those shoes on the con­ser­va­tive side? I won­der if Rick War­ren will take that man­tle. He strikes me as a good can­di­date.

“The more moderate or pro- gres­sive side doesn’t need the au­thor­ity fig­ure in the same way,” he added. “There tends to be a kind of col­le­gial­ity among us — a lot of good leaders, rather than just a few.”

An­other pos­si­bil­ity is Tony Perkins, 45, head of the Fam­ily Re­search Coun­cil, founded by Mr. Dob­son in 1983 as the Fo­cus on the Fam­ily’s pol­icy arm.

“He is tele­genic, he’s young, he has all the cre­den­tials for the con­ser­va­tive wing of Amer­i­can evan­gel­i­cal­ism,” said D. Michael Lind­say, Rice Uni­ver­sity so­ci­ol­o­gist and au­thor of “Faith in the Halls of Power,” a book about in­flu­en­tial evan­gel­i­cals.

Other pos­si­ble suc­ces­sors in­clude politi­cians, such as for­mer Arkansas Gov. Mike Huck­abee, 53, or Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, 45, both of whom cam­paigned un­suc­cess­fully for the White House last year.

“Huck­abee is do­ing an in­ter­est­ing thing with this TV show,” said Mr. Lind­say, re­fer­ring to Mr. Huck­abee’s weekly Satur­day talk show on the Fox News Chan­nel, “and build­ing his fan base.

“He’s got that sort of cos­mopoli­tan air, and he ap­peals to var­i­ous bases. He plays the bass gui­tar, and he also goes hunt­ing.”

Other fa­mous evan­gel­i­cals who have drifted in and out of na­tion­wide ex­po­sure in­clude the Rev. Kir­byjon Cald­well, 55, a men­tor to for­mer Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush; apol­o­gist and philoso­pher Ravi Zacharias, 62; rock band U2 vo­cal­ist Bono, born Paul Hew­son; Ethics and Re­li­gious Lib­erty Com­mis­sion Pres­i­dent Richard Land, 62; So­journ­ers Pres­i­dent Jim Wal­lis, 60; evan­ge­list Franklin Gra­ham, 56, the el­dest son of Billy Gra­ham; and the Rev. Joel Hunter, 60, an evan­gel­i­cal me­gachurch pas­tor from Florida.

“There’s no one with quite the niche Dob­son has,” said Mr. Land, who also made Time mag­a­zine’s list. “He’s not a min­is­ter but a psy­chol­o­gist. That puts him in a unique cat­e­gory. No one per­son will suc­ceed him. You’ll see a broader group of leaders with their own con­stituen­cies, but not a nar­row band.”

But, he cau­tioned, “Any­one who thinks evan­gel­i­cals are go­ing away as a so­cial force is smok­ing some­thing il­le­gal.”


Step­ping down: James Dob­son

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