The Far Right Rev. James Dobson, exorcist

exorcism2Maybe, just maybe, there is something about the charged atmosphere that surrounds evangelical Alpha Males that makes the pens and audio recorders of mainstream journalists go bonkers.

Or maybe not. Do you remember that hilarious correction in Newsweek last February, the one attached to the story about the excellent debate team at the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University? Here is a flashback:

In the original version of this report, Newsweek misquoted Falwell as referring to “assault ministry.” In fact, Falwell was referring to “a salt ministry” — a reference to Matthew 5:13, where Jesus says “Ye are the salt of the earth.” We regret the error.

That was one of the LOL gaffes that inspired a post or two that led me to write a Scripps Howard News Service column that evolved into a lecture at USA Today that then turned into an op-ed piece in that newspaper’s Monday religion series.

Sometimes you just have to laugh, unless you are the reporter watching the copy desk fire up a correction for one of your stories.

This brings me to the latest howler, which was sent in by GetReligion reader Diane Fitzsimmons. This mistake was so huge that it even made it into the Rocky Mountain News headline: “Dobson: Haggard not a hypocrite, just in need of exorcism.”

I hope you weren’t drinking coffee when you read that one! So what, you ask, did reporter Hector Gutierrez write?

Let’s go to the correction box:

This story incorrectly stated that James Dobson, founder and chairman of Focus on the Family, believes people who don’t practice what they preach should undergo an exorcism. His quote, in a TV interview about reaction to the firing of evangelical leader Ted Haggard for “sexual immorality,” was: “Everybody gets exercised (worked up about it) when something like this happens, and for good reason.”

And here is what that looked like in the story:

Dobson, the founder and chairman of Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, told CNN’s Larry King Live that evangelicals are not perfect, and when they don’t practice what they preach they need to undergo an exorcism.

“Well, he obviously was, again, at war with himself,” said Dobson, a child psychologist and Christian media advocate.

The question that Dobson supporters will ask is this: Why did the journalist hear the word “exorcism” in that quotation? “Everybody gets exercised when something like this happens” is a perfectly ordinary use of a common phrase. Why would someone think that a man like Dobson — a conservative with advanced degrees from mainstream institutions, such as his doctorate from the University of Southern California in child development — believes that sinful people automatically need to line up for exorcisms?

Well, at least the Rocky didn’t call him the Rev. James Dobson. Not that anyone ever makes that mistake.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    A stupid mistake, no doubt, and made for all the wrong reasons. But your tone is a little off, Terry, when you scoff at the idea that any informed reporter might suppose that Dobson believes in or winks at exorcism. After all, Haggard did. Several small groups in his church practiced “deliverance” ministries, by which they meant the practice of banishing demons possessing people. I spoke to several New Lifers involved with this practice, including Linda Burton, quoted in my article in the May, 2005 Harper’s. I also asked Ted and associate pastors about the practice — all said this was well within the acceptable range of the church’s theology. Burton said Ted had visited and participated in her small group.

    A believable claim — in his book, Primary Purpose, Ted wrote of a demon called “Control” that used to prank call and threaten him, and a witch who attacked him with a knife, under satanic control. He also wrote there and in other books about the use of “prayer walking” — walking and praying through a neighborhood one feels is under spiritual assault — to banish evil forces, both material and spiritual.

    So this reporter got it wrong, badly wrong, but in your defensive maneuvers on behalf of maligned evangelicals, you imply that exorcism is all in the imagination of a MSM that exoticizes Christian conservatives. The respectful approach, I’d argue — and I suspect you would, too — would be to acknowledge that most religious communities engage in practices that look downright weird to those not within the community.

  • Don Neuendorf

    Not to pile on, but the mistake in this case didn’t originate from a lack of knowledge about Christian faith, or about evangelicals. At least the reporter knew what exorcism is!

    No, the mistake made here was on the more mundane level of not recognizing an older way of speaking in the language we allegedly share. It’s not common anymore to say that people “get exercised” about something, but a journalist (someone who presumably does a good deal of reading) really ought to have understood the idiom.

    If an exorcism is needed here, it’s more along the lines of those offered by Dogbert in the Dilbert cartoon series – driving out the demons of stupidity.

  • Martha

    Ah, that’s lovely. “Exercised, exorcised, what’s the difference?” Actually, it is an easy error to make in the context and we can laugh but not mock. Though I suppose it does demonstrate that we hear what we expect to hear.

    Now, if he’d been interviewing Archbishop Millingo, that would have been a whole other kettle of fish.

  • rw


    The quote was about Dobson, not Haggard. It would be a mistake, common to those who do not understand Evangelicalism, to equate the approach of Dr. Dobson, the sober Nazarene, with some of the more expressionistic forms of spirituality within Evangelicalism.

    Your comments reaffirm that liberal reporters have a syndrome that compels them to lump all Evangelicals together, glossing over the differences in theology, expression and even political views. Evangelicalism is a big movement, with lots of subcategories. You would do well to dig a little deeper before equivocating.

    Terry, who seems to “get” Evangelicals, is well grounded in his astonishment about the word “exorcism.” A well informed reporter would know the difference between where Dobson and Haggard are on the Evangelical spectrum.

    Jeff, have you considered that Dobson and other Evangelicals may consider some of Haggard’s church practices downright wierd? From your side of the fence, do all Evangelicals look like “Jesus Camp” fundies?

  • Jon Swerens

    Terry, your scoffing is completely on target. There is no excuse for the major media in Colorado to have no clue about the religious distinctives of the major religious figure in Colorado.
    It’d be like the Boston Globe saying the local archbishop offered an altar call, or spoke in tongues. It’s media tone deafness and ignorance.

  • tmatt


    Believes in and assumes that all sinners need one are two different things.

    However, others in this thread are absolutely correct in saying that some of the last people IN THE WORLD who would stress exorcism — as a liturgical rite or as some kind of charismatic prayer warrior gift — would be the Nazarenes.

    I cannot imagine a similar level of mistake about any other of the, oh, most powerful 25 or so people in Colorado.

  • Jon Swerens

    Wow. I mentioned The Boston Globe above in almost a complimentary fashion. I spoke too soon.

    Correction: Because of a reporting error, an article about the making of “The Nativity Story” in yesterday’s Weekend section incorrectly used the term “Immaculate Conception” to refer to the virgin birth of Jesus Christ.

    The correction’s here.

  • Jon Swerens

    Sorry: Hat tip for the above is to Regret The Error.

  • Bob Smietana


    ““Everybody gets exercised when something like this happens” is an awkward phrase. Have you ever heard or read that particular use of exercise before? Not to excuse Dobson, but he wasn’t exactly clear.

    At least now Dobson has one thing in common with Al Gore.
    During the 2000 election, Gore was speaking about pollution and referred to Love Canal, NY, saying “That was the one that started it all.”

    But the Washington Post reported that Gore said, “I was the one who started it all” and the report became part of the Gore’s “Pinocchio problem,” one of many things that undermined his campaign.

  • Larry Rasczak

    “Maybe, just maybe, there is something about the charged atmosphere that surrounds evangelical Alpha Males that makes the pens and audio recorders of mainstream journalists go bonkers.”

    I would speculate as follows

    A) if you come back from an interview with one of these “Evangelical Alpha Males” wherein they come across as sober, reasonable and intelligent that is one thing.


    B) if you come back with a quote that makes them look stupid, foolish and backward, which you can spin into a “gaffe” story that is good for at least two or three news cycles that is a whole different kettle of fish

    and that B makes one more popular with the editors and at the local press club’s “gridiron dinner” than A does.

  • Donna Marie Lewis

    It isn’t just Evangelicals that get this treatment. In its coverage of the late Holy Father’s funeral, the International Herald Tribune referred to ” the silver staff, called the crow’s ear, that he had carried in public.”

  • Bell of Winnipeg

    I also wasn’t familiar with the “get exercised” phrase, and I read a lot, all the time.

    But also, “salt ministry” was unfamiliar to me, while “assault ministry” sounded deliciously apropos.

    While I was listening to a sermon one Sunday, a lay-speaker used a phrase I’d never heard. Since I was taking notes of the sermon for my deaf friend, I wrote what I thought I heard — our guest calling himself a “hat eating evangelical”. I hadn’t the slightest idea what he meant, but I just loved the image.

    Later we puzzled it out – he meant “camp-meeting evangelical”.


  • Jeff Sharlet

    RW — You’re quick to circle wagons, but not so quick on the draw. I suggested that one might make a mistake about Dobson based on an awareness of Haggard’s beliefs not because I lump all evangelicals together, but because A) Dobson was talking about his role or lack thereof in Haggard’s “restoration”; B) Haggard and Dobson worked together as a team politically and, in many regards, theologically. Haggard insisted to me that he did not disagree with Dobson on anything important; indeed, he claimed the only difference between them was tone. He played “good cop,” he said, while Dobson played “bad cop.” Often enough, this was a calculated strategy.

    Yes, Dobson is, technically, a Nazarene; and Ted’s an odd mish-mash of charismatic denominations, with emphasis on Assemblies of God.

    But anyone with any awareness of Colorado Springs knows that those denominational markers mean less and less over the years. That’s not an aspersion; that’s what Ted and Dobson, and plenty of less political, less conservative people want. That was, for that matter, the whole point of the NAE when it was founded in 1942.

    Terry — your distinction is correct, of course, but rather off the point of my point. I was emphatic in saying that the reporter screwed up. But it seemed to me that you were implying that he was outlandish in his mistake, that it was absurd to think that Dobson might use the word “exorcism” in regard to Haggard.

    Of course Dobson would never use THAT word; but he would certainly sign off on Ted’s personal decision to pursue deliverance from demonic assault, if Ted and the other members of his “restoration” team concluded that was necessary.

    My larger point, amply illustrated by RW: Those who think the world can be divided into one side of the fence and the other are always quick to assume that those who may disagree with them on political grounds simply don’t know what they’re talking about. Someone who’s critical of some aspect of evangelicaldom must be basing his entire analysis on “Jesus Camp.”

    RW, for all I know you’re well-informed about the varieties of evangelical experience. Why do you assume I’m not? Why not argue the point itself?

  • rw

    Jeff “quick draw” Sharlet,

    Whoa pardner – You drew first, but your shot went wild. I think its time to come off the range for a little sunday school lesson.

    What both of your posts fail to recognize is that not only are there many wagons in Evangelicalism, there are also different wagon trains.

    Dobson and Haggard may cooperate politically, but they come from much different backgrounds when it comes to “charismatic prayer warrior gifts” as Terry described them. The denominational markers you mention mean a great deal when you are talking about the debate within Evangelicalism over speaking in tongues, charismatic “gifts” and such.

    Consider this:

    Wagon Train A: The National Association of Evangelicals. The core of this organization has been, from the very start, Pentecostal and (later) Charismatic churches. Lately, non-charismatic churches ranging from the Mennonite Bretheren to Prebyterian Church in America have joined this train, but the membership roster is overwhelmingly Pentecostal/Charismatic.

    Wagon Train B: The Southern Baptist Convention and other theologically-conservative, non Pentecostal denominations. The SBC has never been a member of the NAE. These denominations often guard themselves against Pentecostal/Charismatic incursions as vigorously as they battle secularists. (The day the SBC embraces speaking in tongues is the day the Four Horsemen saddle up). Nazarenes may have a Pentecostal history, but shrink from the wild side of the Charismatic movement as much as the Baptists.

    Understanding the difference between these two groups is Evangelicalism 101 – something a reporter doing a religion story in Colorado should know well. And really, Jeff, knowing James Dobson would not suggest that people who don’t practice what they preach deserve an exorcism is Dobson 101. You say Dobson is “technically” a Nazarene. I have a feeling he, his father, and grandfather would take issue with that aspersion.

    A good reporter should know that where one worships and which political rallies one attends are two different things. Evangelicals may circle the wagons on common political issues, but denominational and “wagon train” differences are still very important – and perhaps longer lasting.

    The exorcism gaffe is a downright goofy mistake. Is doesn’t deserve an “aw shucks, you Evangelicals all look the same to us” defense. Standing by this defense makes you look like are not well-informed about Evangelicals.

  • Bob Smietana

    Terry asked question:

    “Why would someone think that a man like Dobson — a conservative with advanced degrees from mainstream institutions, such as his doctorate from the University of Southern California in child development — believes that sinful people automatically need to line up for exorcisms?”

    The reason is pretty clear. Dobson said, “Everybody gets exercised when something like this happens”–and “excercised” and “exorcised” sound similar and the Haggard affair, in the end, is a National Enquirer style story.

    Bush Buddy drops meth with hooker sounds like it’s from the supermarket tabloids–not the religion section. So Dobson Performs Exorcism sound perfectly reasonable.

    The reporter goofed up. And someone at the copy desk should have noticed, and asked, “is this really what happened?.” But the Newsweek correction about “assualt ministry” seems much worse than the exorcism.

  • Jon Swerens

    But why did the reporter goof up? In each case, one simple follow-up question:

    * You mean a real, holy-water exorcism?
    * Wait, what’s an assault ministry?

    … would have fixed the folly.

    But why would a reporter not ask a follow-up?

    The nefarious answer is that the reporter is looking for a great quote and isn’t about to mess it up with the facts.

    But more likely, the reporter doesn’t have a well-tuned crap detector on religious issues, and the reporter doesn’t want to look stupid by asking for clarity. The reporter asking the most questions is the reporter who knows the topic best. The dumdum reporters are in the back, trying not to be noticed. Kinda like high school!

  • Jeff Sharlet

    Thanks for schooling me, RW. Too bad your facts are wrong. The NAE most certainly did not begin as a mostly pentecostal/charismatic organization. See Joel Carpenter’s balanced and respected “Revive Us Again” for a history lesson on that subject.

    Your politics/religion distinction doesn’t hold water with regard to Haggard and Dobson, two men who embraced a theological conflation of two spheres they argued are only understood as separate spheres because of liberal secularism’s divide-and-conquer approach to faith.

    As for strict denominational boundaries: Haggard boasted to me that some large sum of his New Lifers were Catholic. They attend mass, then they go to New Life. Ted himself has come miles and miles away from his early theological positions. So has Dobson. Both men were/are engaged by a political theology of coalition-building which at the very least prevents them from denouncing practices they might otherwise view as heretical. It’s a fair argument to say that it drives them into the creation of new, hybrid theological positions. Take a look at Paul Apostolidis’ book, Stations of the Cross, which includes an extensive study of the development of Dobson’s media persona.

    But before you go to the stacks, get off your high horse. It must be hard to see the nuances from up there.

  • rw

    Wow, Jeff

    Defensive, aren’t we?

    Just a quick note on the NAE – just read the historic and current roster of who is, and who is not, a member. That should clear up your misunderstandings about the general character of the membership.

    Also, politics and religion are ABSOLUTELY intertwined for both Dobson and Haggard. However, beliefs and practices about charismatic gifts between the two men are simply not the same. Those who report and edit religion stories out of Colorado Springs should know that. They should also know that Dobson would not subscribe to “exorcism” as mentioned in the article.

    New Life is able to draw Catholics – Bully for them! There has long been a Pentecostal/Charismatic stream in Catholicism that would make the transition not that surprising. (BTW: You say Haggard boasted to you about this. Did you bother actually speaking to any of these Catholic/New Life worshippers? Haggard has lately been known as someone who, ahem, has not been completely forthright about things.)

    What would be more surprising is if a lifelong Nazarene like Dobson would suddenly take on a Benny Hinn-like spirituality.

    My point stands – Dobson and Haggard would indeed build each other up in the sphere of political coalition-building. But that doesn’t change their preference in worship, any more than it changes their preference in ice cream.

    In your latest response, you again fail to see past the united political front. There are lots of things Evengelicals disagree on, and will continue to disagree on. There are also some fundamental distinctions within Evangelicalism that a Colorado reporter should know before saying Dobson advocates exorcism. Its really silly to continue defending that kind of gaffe.

    You are absolutely right Jeff, nuances matter. That’s why its important to lift your head out of the pages to see what’s really going on. It’s not, after all, completely academic.

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