Is Dobson's Obama Hit Backfiring?

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Left; Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME: Alex Brandon / AP

James Dobson, left, and Barack Obama.

After years of attacking Democrats with relative impunity for their supposed moral failings, Evangelical leader James Dobson surely didn't expect to suffer much of a backlash when he trained his sights on Barack Obama. Over the years, the party had practically cowered in fear and gone into radio silence when the head of Focus on the Family targeted one of its standard-bearers. So in a campaign that has already proved to be anything but predictable, the counterattack on Dobson this week epitomized the new, fraught political climate that Christian Right leaders like himself face.

Earlier this week, Dobson used his popular Christian radio program to denounce a 2006 speech the Illinois Senator gave about the place of religion in public life. He took personal offense at the fact that Obama had referred to him by name in the same breath as Al Sharpton, using the two to illustrate the range of differences that exist within Christianity. But he also expressed outrage at Obama's assertion that individuals can be moral without being religious. "He oughta read the Bible," said Dobson. Obama, he charged, was "deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own worldview."

But less than 24 hours after Dobson's radio broadcast, was up and running on the Web. The site displays both Dobson's charges against Obama and Obama's own quotes from the 2006 speech. It also features a statement condemning Dobson that reads in part: "James Dobson doesn't speak for me when he uses religion as a wedge to divide; he doesn't speak for me when he speaks as the final arbiter on the meaning of the Bible."

The website was the handiwork of a coalition of Christian leaders headed by Kirbyjon Caldwell, the Texas pastor and Bush family friend who led the benediction at George W. Bush's first Inauguration. The group came up with the idea for the site a while ago, and figured it was just a matter of time before the good Dr. Dobson would give them an opportunity to unveil it. And they're not the only ones pushing back against the Christian Right leader's broadsides. The Matthew 25 Network is a political action committee formed in early June by Mara Vanderslice, a Democratic strategist who oversaw religious outreach on the 2004 Kerry campaign and remembers well the perils of remaining silent in the face of attacks on that candidate's Catholic faith. Within hours of Dobson's program, the PAC had raised $4,000 for radio ads that will run next week in the Colorado Springs market, Dobson's home turf. Vanderslice and her co-producers at the Eleison Group, a new Democratic consulting firm founded by Hillary Clinton's former religion adviser, Burns Strider, plan to expand to other stations that carry Dobson's Focus program.

It's hard out there for a Christian Right leader. Last December came and went with barely a peep about a grinchy liberal "War on Christmas." The Republican nominee, John McCain, has refused to make the pilgrimage to Colorado Springs, telling the Focus on the Family leader to come to him instead. But the biggest problem is that Democrats — and Barack Obama in particular — are determined to make a play for a bloc of voters over whom Dobson and his colleagues have traditionally maintained exclusive control. And those voters seem willing to listen.

Obama's willingness to talk about his faith, including his decision to become a Christian as an adult, has resonated even with religious conservatives who disagree with him politically. Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals was part of a gathering of Christian leaders Obama convened earlier this month, and he says, "There was no way I could leave that room not knowing this was a fellow brother in Christ." The Democratic candidate has also been an outspoken critic of what could be termed "certainty" theology — the idea that real Christians have no doubts about their rightness.

This language, combined with the Obama campaign's aggressive efforts to reach out to religious voters, has made it hard for the Christian Right to paint Obama as a secular bogeyman. His opponents have numerous lines of attack — is he a secret Muslim? A black nationalist Christian? A wishy-washy liberal Protestant? — but all seem to accept the basic premise that Obama is religious, which is key in a country where 70% of voters say they want their President to be a person of faith, according to Pew Research polls.

Obama's theological beliefs are clearly more liberal than those on the Christian right. But it's the beliefs of the latter that are fast becoming a minority. A new Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey of 35,000 Americans reports that 70% agree with the statement "Many religions can lead to eternal life," including 57% of Evangelicals. No less a figure than George W. Bush responded "no" when asked in 1999 if he believed heaven is open only to Christians. Those evolving, more relatively open-minded attitudes are one reason Dobson's organization has steadily lost members and revenue over the past five years.

Dobson and his colleagues have also been stymied by a new generation of Evangelical leaders who stubbornly refuse to join the political fray. When Saddleback pastor Rick Warren welcomes Obama to his church with open arms or Mike Huckabee declares that Obama's religion and his former pastor should be irrelevant issues in the campaign, they undercut the criticisms made by their elders in the Christian Right. In 2004, there was near-universal agreement by religious conservatives that their "non-negotiable" issues were limited to abortion, stem-cell research and gay marriage. But Warren and others now insist that the environment and poverty and health care reform are legitimate concerns as well, and the people in the pews increasingly agree with them.

So it's no surprise that the old lions of the Christian Right are suddenly sputtering. "This is raising my blood pressure," admitted the normally calm, Mr. Rogers-sounding Dobson at the end of his radio show on Tuesday. Just a few weeks earlier, the conservative columnist and former Moral Majority vice president Cal Thomas wrote an essay calling Obama a "false prophet." Placing Obama's "Christianity" in quotes, Thomas charged that the candidate's statements about religion — including his belief that non-Christians can get to heaven — prove that he does not understand what it means to be a Christian.

But if the grassroots reaction is any indication, the attacks on Obama have been largely self-defeating. After Thomas' column ran, dozens of regional papers that carry it were flooded with letters to the editor — and they were hardly in liberal bastions. In places like Augusta, Georgia, and Lubbock, Texas, people wrote in to criticize Thomas' attack on Obama. "To suggest that anyone is not a Christian because they do not adhere to Cal Thomas' narrow interpretation of what a Christian should believe," wrote one Texan, "is extremely intolerant, ignorant, and downright insulting." Barack Obama couldn't have said it any better himself, and this election year he may not have to.

Sullivan's new book, The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap (Scribner), was published in February