The Jesus Machine


I just finished reporter Dan Gilgoff's account of Focus on the Family. When Focus learned of his book's title, his contacts at the organization abruptly severed his access (a response not atypical of evangelical organizations' interactions with reporters and academics). Fortunately, he didn't respond with excessive irritation -- his book is, by and large, a fairly even-handed portrait of James Dobson and Focus.

Although The Jesus Machine is not an in-depth history of Focus on the Family and too quickly summarizes Dobson's pre-political career (it would be nice if more reporters and writers were interested in religion for its own sake, not just for its political implications), it's a fine if not carefully organized read. The book is full of evangelical nuggets: the fact that Focus on the Family has "its own zip code," that evangelicals persuaded states like Louisiana to introduce "covenant marriage" laws, and Focus's expertise in marketing (such as advertising on Supernanny).

Although some sections of the book's discussion of evangelical politics are derivative, the portions on the 1990s and 2000s are detailed and contained much information that was new to me. Furthermore, the account of Kerry campaign's near-complete tone-deafness to "religion" would shock many of those already familiar with the theme. For example, the campaign wouldn't return Christianity Today's phone calls, which not surprisingly encouraged the magazine to write a skeptical profile of the Democratic nominee. Were it a sporting event that attracted gamblers, John Kerry might have been accused of throwing the 2004 election. Much of this chapter is excerpted in U.S. News.

Gilgoff's book made for a good complement to David Kirkpatrick's recent article in the New York Times magazine, highlighted by Paul below. As Jacob Heilbrunn questioned in his review of Gilgoff(also in the Times), you have to wonder if Gilgoff still thinks evangelicals "Are Winning the Culture War" (his book's subtitle). They may have won some political victories along the way, but I don't know any evangelical who thinks the movement has even partly redeemed American culture or really turned the political tide on such issues.

Even though it is public knowledge that Focus on the Family did not encourage its employees to add Gilgoff's book to their vacation reading lists, it was impossible for me not to at least partly admire Dobson by the end of the book. The man sticks to his guns, even if it means offending friends and potential allies. He comes across as authentic and unostentatious compared to many evangelical leaders. And he amassed his political clout because of his family-themed radio shows, not primarily out of partisan guile. As Kirkpatrick observes, the evangelical movement is poised to lose yet another of its political kingmakers. As Dobson ages, Focus on the Family is "expected to tack toward the less political family advice that is its bread and butter." Falwell, Robertson, Dobson -- who's next?