January 13, 2007

Just an Individual?

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.

5 comments:

  1. For this reason, when either my wife, Kate, or I have been on a church staff, we made sure to have zero political bumper stickers and no candidate's signs in the yard. Neither of us would wear campaign buttons, either. I have been almost as strict when I have been in the classroom--even in teaching ethics. ("We can speak about issues, but not about particular candidates.")

    This past November, neither of us were on a church staff. So, I had a Yarmuth for Congress sign in the yard (and he won!). It felt good that we were able to speak just for ourselves. For ministers or staffs of religious organizations that doesn't happen often.

    (How does one criticize a war, for instance, without being critical of the politicians in favor of it?)

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  2. Anonymous4:53 PM

    Hum..

    Some good points are made here. The comments are insight full and well thought out.

    I will focus on the intent of the column. I believe that as Christians we should be heard based on our beliefs. It is more important now than ever before when any man or woman who is a "True Blood bought and totally sold out for Christ Christian" can use his or her "1st amendment rights" and speak out against anyone or anything that may "disrupt" our way of thinking or our way of life; also to tell us what is going on. Each person has a right to have an opinion and voice it in a forum, column or on the street corner. I'm glad that this man who is a responsible Christian.

    (Remember no-one who is human is perfect. We all are striving and we all fall short of our goal Christ Jesus.)

    As a man who is employed by "Focus on the Family" has a right to speak. Just the fact that the "business" F.O.T.F (Focus on the Family); is always looking out for the common man/Christian. Thru efforts that keep us informed as to what is happening on the "hill" what congress people are doing and what each bill really means to us on the street.

    I can also understand the concern of how his comments while in office and he is speaking for "Focus on the Family" how this might bring the wrong 'light' on his cause. But… this
    Isn’t the case. He is not in office at the time of this column. He states that plainly ( I think he is on a much need rest away from work, on a holiday, on leave, convalescent leave or something to this wise) He is not speaking as the leader of the “F.O.T.F.” but as a private citizen.

    There comes a time when we as Christians cannot "play/Be safe" we must enter the Lyons den and let the GOD that saves and loves us all decide who is doing his will under the right conditions that have been set in motion by his careful hand and how the message will be received for good or for bad. We have a responsibility to "speak" in season or out of season. Consider the words of the “3 Hebrew boys” and how mad it made the king of that day and age. Sometimes we can’t always “sit on the fence” sometimes we must stand up for the right no matter the cost. Sometimes the price is high and based on what we might pay is not worth a fight. But stand we must... That our choices be few... Stand we must..

    Because what we do each day will echo into eternity. When people ask after we are gone…”what did they stand for and what did they do?” Let the pages of truth speak for me.


    Michael A. Williams

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  3. Thanks Michael & Michael for the comments! This is an issue that is important but not quite completely clear.


    Westmoreland-White: I think you all have been very wise and set a good example for how church staff members should act.

    As for the question you ended with, it troubles me because I don’t have a good answer. One must definitely stand for important moral issues. And yes, those cannot be completely separated from the candidates responsible. I do think, though, that one can focus on the issue and people will be able to think for themselves as to the implications for specific candidates.


    Williams: Yes, we must stand up. However, we must not marry ourselves to a certain political party or certain candidates. FOTF has important and great ministries. It would be sad if personal political choices messed that up. I still do not think you can separate the man and the position.

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  4. Jeff Coulter9:31 AM

    Talk about a rock and a hard place! While I believe that Mr. Dobson has not forfeited his right to free speech by becoming the leader of a Christian organization, I am concerned about the impact of comments such as the one referenced.

    While he may be speaking as a private citizen, will the congregations that look to him, and to FOTF, make that distinction?

    My fear is that is not the case, and that even speaking as a private citizen, Mr. Dobson has in fact "advised" an extremely large group of people how to vote.

    I have to agree with Mr. Westmoreland-White. Perhaps christian leaders should speak to issues rather than to candidates.

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  5. Jeff: Thanks for the comment. I think your first line summed up this issue very well. I do not want to say that Dr. Dobson and other religious leaders should not have the right to speak. But I do think they have more important things to do and should honor God with the influence they have been given.

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