Preacher, Teacher, Nag: Dr. Laura Speaks

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With 18 million listeners a week on 452 stations, Laura Schlessinger is the most successful female talk-radio host in the country today. This fall the sharp-tongued psychotherapist is scheduled to bring her views to television with the syndicated talk show "Dr. Laura." But as its Sept. 11 premier date nears, she has been the target of a campaign by gay activists who are pressuring Paramount Domestic Television to pull the plug because of what they contend are her slurs against homosexuals. Procter & Gamble has backed out as a sponsor. In an exclusive interview with TIME, Schlessinger, 53, an Orthodox Jew, discusses the controversy as well as her new book, "Parenthood by Proxy" (HarperCollins, $24), and what she sees as a moral decline.

TIME: What do you think you're tapping into out there that's fueling your show's growth and your success?

A: A basic moral intuition about what's right and wrong. What I provide for people is argument and support. I cannot tell you how many women have said my pounding on about how the first priority in their lives ought to be the child has helped them. That pounding was met by some negativity at first, but now people say their lives are just elevated by doing what seems so simple but is counter to what's going on in society.

TIME: So we’re going to hell in a handbasket, and people want to turn things around?

A: They're struggling, and I help with the struggle because I preach, I teach — and boy, do I nag. I'm relentless about it. Everybody at home can make a decision to do or not do anything, but I nag. I have no power other than nagging.

TIME: But what qualifies you to be a moral authority?

A: I am just conveying my understanding of the deeply felt religious perspectives that are timeless. I struggle to put those in a context that makes sense for callers. What the brilliant rabbis have done is take certain laws from the Bible and values of responsibility and honor and apply them to modern ideas. I struggle to do the same — understand the religious Scriptures and apply them to the dilemmas we have today.

TIME: Can you set the record straight and explain your comments about homosexuals as "deviants"?

A: I never called homosexual human beings deviants. I have pointed out that homosexual behavior deviates from the norm of heterosexuality and is forbidden by Scriptures. That is basically the context... Even now I get hundreds of letters a week from gays and lesbians who realize the way I'm being presented is nowhere near the truth. I stand behind basic civil rights — where someone is able to live, and work at his job — and always have. The only place where there is a divergence is the issue that I consider sacred: marriage and family structure around children.

TIME: A homosexual couple can't be as good parents as a heterosexual couple can?

A: My point has never been that any individual, gay or straight, could or could not be a good parent. My concern is always the well-being of children. And since your average child human being is heterosexual, it seems to me self-evident that the best environment is with the polarity of a mother and a father joined in love, who raise that child with the image of what his future life will be. I say the same thing of straight, single women who have babies. It doesn't matter to me that you're a loving woman. You’re not providing a dad, and it's in the best interest of a child to have a dad.

TIME: You've said, "If you're gay or a lesbian, it's a biological error that inhibits you from relating normally to the opposite sex." Do you really believe homosexuals are biological errors?

A: We have vaginas and penises. We were biologically meant to give birth to more people. Not being able to relate normally to a member of the opposite sex is some kind of error. I do not see that as insulting at all. It is a statement of biological fact. When you read the whole thing in context, I'm anything but insulting to human beings. Some people just don't want to hear the truth.

TIME: As a deeply religious person, does it trouble you that your words hurt so many people?

A: What concerns me is the hurt and frightened feelings of gays and lesbians and their families who have heard this rhetoric, which is untrue, and that has caused pain. To me, the folks who have an objection don't really listen to the show and are being disingenuous about their objections. It's about dialogue, which is pretty much squelched with respect to certain things.

TIME: Should people be able to say whatever they want on the radio?

A: In the United States of America, we have freedom of speech. It doesn't matter what I think. The Constitution guarantees it.

TIME: Any regrets about some of your comments, given the outcry that has resulted and the attempts to abort the show?

A: I regret that my words were taken out of context, distorted and lied about so people were hurt from the lies. But that's not my action. Any time I was on the air, I had context, clarity and compassion. What is distilled out does not.

TIME: If a married man realizes he is homosexual, should he stay in his marriage?

A: I have had calls like that, and I come down hard on people, the same way I come down hard on the guy who says he has the hots for the neighbor next door who wears short shorts. To me, it's the same thing. You made a vow. You have children. They deserve your sacrifice so they can have what they need to grow up because you made your choices already. So, for straight or gay, I would say the exact same thing.

TIME: But living that kind of double life surely cannot be good for children, can it?

A: It’s not bad for children when someone does it for honor. There is always something more out there... but to just abandon and neglect your obligations and responsibilities — I can't go there.

TIME: Do you really believe everything you say, or do you just think it makes great talk radio?

A: That's insulting. The reason people like my show is they know there is no shtick. What I say, I mean deeply. I could not invoke the name of God or Scriptures if I was shticking. That's even awful to hear.

TIME: Has Paramount asked you to tone down your television show?

A: No. They hired me because I'm outgoing and direct. What's unique about this show is that the host will have a point of view.

TIME:What will your show be like?

A: The basic format of the TV show is completely different from the radio show... The thrust will be about things that impact you at home — as a mother, as a wife, as a citizen, as a child in the family — and things happening in the world that you may feel helpless to do anything about. The way the show is structured is that there will be a lot of people who have passion about an issue, whatever it is. And ultimately it will be a call to action. So at the end of each show, we will tell people what they can do, what Senator to write, how they can make things change.

TIME: Why did you write "Parenthood by Proxy"?

A: As a wake-up call for folks who are way off track. Moms and dads need to work together like a well-oiled machine to make sure the family's material needs are being met while still putting the kids first.

TIME: Over the past two years, on your radio show and in your new book, you seem angrier. Why?

A: The level of irresponsibility and selfishness, the degree to which people defend their own imagined rights and don't look at their responsibilities as the flip side of that, the impact that it's having on their children. You bet I've become more ferocious in response to what I see as society's giving up self-evident truths of goodness and kindness, compassion, caring and selflessness, the needs of children for nurturance, attention and support. The more those are disassembling, the more ferocious I'm getting in banging the pot to get people to realize what's happening.

TIME: How do you reconcile your harshness toward listeners over their moral lapses with your own, some of which have come out in the press?

A: I can extrapolate that no mathematician working at NASA should ever have got a C on a math test when he was learning. So what? I never said I was divine.

TIME: What's been the toll the controversy with the gay community has taken?

A: I've cried more at times than I would like to admit because to see my name, my character, my person come under attack... It's astonishing to have your name smeared with such vitriol. I wouldn't wish it on people I dislike. It's been agonizing.

TIME: Where would you like to be in 10 years?

A: Doing this 10-year anniversary interview because I'm still here and still cooking. I've found my place.