Connect the Alpha Male dots

bushandchuckLast weekend, I poked the Los Angeles Times because it’s lede on the Dr. James Dobson retirement story went a bit too far. You may recall that it said:

James Dobson is stepping down as chairman of Focus on the Family, the conservative religious group announced Friday — a change that comes as the political movement Dobson has long embodied has been torn by questions over its direction and priorities.

I argued that Dobson certainly embodies the work of Focus on the Family, but that the term “political movement” — I assumed that meant the religious right, including all kinds of conservative religious believers — was way too broad if the newspaper was going to single out Dobson in that manner.

No doubt, the man has power with his supporters. But how about Catholics? Pentecostals? Lutherans? Orthodox Jews? Even Protestants of a more Reformed, Calvinist bent? These groups may agree on some crucial moral and cultural issues, because of centuries of doctrine and tradition on such matters. But there is less unity there than meets the eye, which means Dobson is a hero to some and an embarassment to others, to be perfectly blunt.

However, Dobson’s latest retirement announcement is important, especially when seen in a wider context among aging male evangelical Alpha Males. This is precisely what veteran Godbeat scribe Julia “friend of this blog” Duin did this week at the Washington Times.

I mean, look at the stark numbers behind the chorus of whispers:

… There are no obvious successors to the group of evangelical leaders who created massive organizations or built up media empires in the 1980s and ’90s. Mr. Dobson, 72, who resigned last week as board chairman of one of the country’s most influential evangelical organizations, is one of the last of a great generation of evangelical leaders.

Some have died: the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Moral Majority founder; theologian Carl F.H. Henry; Florida pastor D. James Kennedy; Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright; and Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer, who founded L’Abri Fellowship. Others have either retired or have passed on the bulk of their duties, such as the Rev. Billy Graham, 90; televangelist Pat Robertson, 78; author and activist Tim LaHaye, 83; and Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson, 77.

“It’s a changing of the guard,” said Brian McLaren, 52, cited in 2005 by Time magazine as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America. “There is a possibility the religious right will collapse on itself. Or someone will articulate a new religious center. The evangelical community has been slowly diversifying, and there may not be a center anymore.”

Throw in the name of another non-Protestant who certainly was a leader in the wider world of religious conservatism — Father Richard John Neuhaus, who passed away in January. I am sure that GetReligion readers will be able, in the comments pages, to add more names to these two lists, the list of the departed and the list of the past-retirement-but-lingering leaders.

Who comes next? Well, that’s a matter of opinion — if it is possible for such a broad and diverse movement to have one or two or even 10 front-line leaders. At the same time, Duin’s piece certainly notes a sea-change that is taking place with the passing of this pre-Baby Boomer set of Alpha Males.

The crucial point, again, is that these Alphas are leaders of religious movements that, in defending their doctrines and beliefs, end up taking stands in the public square. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, these leaders possessed unique talents that inspired their own troops. Those movements are all facing painful transitions and the clock is ticking, ticking, ticking.

White House photo: Colson and President George W. Bush, in the Oval Office.

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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.

  • Jerry

    Although google says that the phrase “alpha female” is a lot less popular than “alpha male”, if there is a new generation that emerges to take the place of the current one, I suspect there will be a number of “alpha females” in their ranks.

  • http://www.thechurchofnopeople.com Matt

    Funny that Brian McLaren is considered an ‘evangelical’ by Time’s standards. At my Baptist seminary, anyone who mentioned his name would get booed and hissed at!

    I think along with a changing of the guard, you’re going to see a changing of vocabulary. The term ‘evangelical’ almost seems to be dying (in some respects) with the people who embodied it.

  • http://kevinjjones.blogspot.com Kevin J Jones

    I suspect this is part of the fracturing of any “establishment” in the age of narrowcasting. Just as the big three television networks are receding to become just another option in the basic cable lineup, big evangelical leaders can’t be national conversation-setters.

    Perhaps we’ll see regional leaders emerge instead.

    The decline of prominent Evangelicals might make Catholic bishops fill some of their roles by default.

    Is anybody tracking which religious leaders are most quoted in a given year? Those metrics could be interesting.


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