Praise the Lord…Or Else!

James Dobson isn’t afraid to dish out tough love.

Listen closely. Don’t sass back. Or else.

“When a youngster tries this kind of stiff-necked rebellion, you had better take it out of him,” he once wrote, “and pain is a marvelous purifier.”

The 69-year-old psychologist penned those words 35 years ago.

Standing up for “judicious” spanking launched him as a pop-psychology phenomenon _ a counterpoint to the kinder, gentler parenting gurus of the day.

Back then, Dobson prompted parents to restore the country’s moral underpinnings one rambunctious child at a time. Today, he translates his tough talk into politics.

Down-to-earth advice for Christian families is still Dobson’s main occupation. But over three decades, the founder of Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Focus on the Family has evolved into one of the most formidable political forces around.

He is known for his stern warnings, aimed not only at liberal foes, but also at nervous members of his own conservative family.

The message: live up to promises made to values-minded voters, or there will be swift discipline at the polls.

Dobson laid down the law after last year’s election. He and other evangelical Christian leaders helped President Bush and Republicans score decisive victories. For that, they demanded results.

Fight abortion. Block gay marriage. Stop embryonic stem cell research. Get tougher on obscenity. Keep God in the public square. And above all else, Dobson said, deliver new U.S. Supreme Court justices who will defend all of that in the courts.

If Republicans don’t deliver, Dobson told one interviewer, then “they’ll pay a price.”

The chance to reshape the nation’s courts represents Dobson’s greatest hope after 35 years of battling what he sees as society’s moral and cultural decline.

Dobson was happy with Bush’s nomination of federal Appeals Court Judge John Roberts to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Now he’ll jump into the fray by asking his millions of faithful listeners to hold senators’ feet to the fire during the confirmation.

Dobson’s words carry enormous weight. He is not a minister. He is not a politician. Yet today, he leads a grassroots-organizing machine as potent as any in politics.

Critics say he’s too powerful. Too strident. Too harsh with those who don’t toe his line. Defenders say he’s just standing up for millions of values-minded folks who expect politicians to live up to their words.

As longtime ally Gary Bauer puts it: “I think Jim, as a pro-family leader, feels an obligation to make sure that the people who listen to him are not being exploited or played for suckers.”

Dobson endorsed George Bush in his contest with John Kerry, but he didn’t stop there. He joined Bauer and other religious conservatives at mass rallies in the U.S. Senate battlegrounds of North Carolina, Louisiana and South Dakota.

He geared up a new political committee, Focus on the Family Action, organized hundreds of pastors to register voters, and sent 5 million letters, e-mails and postcards to voters in seven states, including Colorado.

“I used to say, if you could harness all the power of half the churches in America, the influence would be amazing,” said conservative lawyer and writer John Whitehead of The Rutherford Institute. “Dobson is coming close to doing it.”

The role of evangelical Christians in the last presidential election gave the national media a compelling story line. Though even Dobson doubts he played a decisive role, it gave him even more leverage to hold Republicans to their promises, particularly on judicial nominations.

He flexed muscle just days after the election, blasting the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, for suggesting he might oppose U.S. Supreme Court nominees who want to overturn abortion rights.

“The people who put President Bush back in the White House and expanded the Republican majority in the Senate weren’t voting for a party,” Dobson said in a statement. “They were voting for candidates who share their pro-family values.”

That attitude sets Dobson apart from other religious conservatives who have remained loyal to the GOP even when they have been disappointed by results, said political scientist John Green of the University of Akron, an expert on religion in politics.

“He’s much more issue focused,” rather than elections-focused, Green said.

“Dobson sees the Republican Party as a means to an end.”

Some Republicans fear the party is being set up for a crash.

Christine Todd Whitman, former New Jersey governor and EPA administrator, said religious conservatives such as Dobson have exerted influence that goes “far beyond what the numbers justify.”

She points to the fight earlier this year over the fate of Florida hospice patient Terri Schiavo. Dobson and others persuaded Congress and President Bush to intervene in a court case, hoping to restore the woman’s feeding tube.

“Because of very sophisticated tactics and the ability to reach the opinion-makers and the leaders of the Congress . . . they were able to get Congress to act quickly _ faster than they do on almost anything of national importance,” Whitman said.

Later, however, polls showed that a large majority of the general public opposed congressional intervention. Whitman said it suggests that the evangelical movement “may be a mile wide but an inch deep.”

Green said there’s a reason politicians can’t take people such as Dobson lightly.

“Names like James Dobson or Pat Robertson become a symbol for a broader group of people who are quite active politically and can bring a lot of pressure to bear on the government in a short period of time,” Green said.

How that plays out during the Judge Roberts’ Supreme Court confirmation process remains to be seen. This week, Dobson scheduled a nationwide simulcast in August from Nashville to promote Roberts.

In this spring’s filibuster fight, Dobson led a “Justice Sunday” simulcast from Louisville, Ky., prompting viewers at churches around the country to call specific senators and demand an up-or-down vote for judicial nominees. That was in addition to targeted newspaper ads and a busy e-mail and letter-writing campaign.

The aggressive tactics angered Sen. Ken Salazar, a Denver Democrat who called Dobson and his group “the Antichrist of the world” _ a comment he later retracted. But even Republican Sen. Trent Lott, of Mississippi, reportedly complained about Dobson’s “un-Christian tactics.” When asked about Dobson recently, Lott snarled: “Is he a Republican?”

Since his earliest days, Dobson has cared about something much bigger than party politics, his old friend Bauer said.

“He doesn’t yearn to be in the highest regions of the Republican Party as some sort of player or whatever,” Bauer said. “He just is interested in this set of issues and he wants something done about them.”

Focus spokesman Hetrick said Dobson will support “politicians of any stripe” who stand up for traditional values.

“His heartfelt desire is to promote a pro-family, pro-life agenda, not to engage in the game of partisan politics,” Hetrick said in an e-mail interview.

Hetrick said Dobson has repeatedly told politicians about millions of people who support traditional marriage, oppose abortion and support various conservative causes.

“Obviously,” he added, “if our elected leaders fail to take these millions of Americans into account, they can expect to suffer at the polls.”

(Contact M.E. Sprengelmeyer of the Rocky Mountain News at