Just an Individual?

January 13, 2007

James Dobson has announced that he will not vote for John McCain for president. He said, “Speaking as a private individual, I would not vote for John McCain under any circumstances.” What I find most interesting about the statement is not his opinion of McCain. Instead, it is the notion that he is just speaking as an individual. Legally, Focus on the Family cannot officially speak for or against a political candidate, which is why Dobson attempts to make the distinction.

However, can he really separate the two? He attempted to explain the difference based on geography: “Well, let me say that I am not in the office. I’m in the little condo so I can speak for myself and not for Focus on the Family.” (I guess he never works at home.) Yet, the fact is that he was being interviewed because he is the head of Focus on the Family and not because he is a private individual. Additionally, this article introduces him as “James Dobson, founder of the Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family.”

I am not making a Dobson statement here because lots of other religious leaders attempt to make this same distinction (his is just the first one I’ve seen about the 2008 race). But it is important to note that there would probably not have been an interview or article if Dobson was just an average individual. Since it is the reason he was asked about the election and is what people know about him, it seems impossible for the two—the man and the position—to be completely separated. Thus, I wonder if it is right for religious leaders to even attempt to speak out politically as private individuals. They obviously have the right to, but I wonder if it is a wise idea. After all, Paul told us in 1 Corinthians 6:12, “‘Everything is permissible for me’—but not everything is beneficial.”

When well-known religious leaders speak out on politics, people will likely view it as the opinion of the leader of the religious organization or church and not just the opinion of a private individual. Thus, perhaps ministry leaders should keep their political opinions to themselves. It would be a real shame if someone’s individual endorsement or attack of a candidate drove someone away from the great work of the ministry. It would be a real shame if Dobson’s individual political comments undermined the work of Focus on the Family.