Why James Dobson is unable to speak of the actual murder of actual children

Dr. James Dobson is a popular, influential and revered evangelical author, radio host and political activist.

On his radio program Monday, Dobson offered his explanation for the massacre Friday at a Connecticut elementary school:

Our country really does seem in complete disarray. I’m not talking politically, I’m not talking about the result of the November 6 election; I am saying that something has gone wrong in America and that we have turned our back on God.

I mean millions of people have decided that either God doesn’t exist, or he’s irrelevant to me. And we have killed 54 million babies and the institution of marriage is right on the verge of a complete redefinition. Believe me, that is going to have consequences, too.

And a lot of these things are happening around us, and somebody is going to get mad at me for saying what I am about to say right now, but I am going to give you my honest opinion: I think we have turned our back on the scripture and on God Almighty, and I think he has allowed judgment to fall upon us. I think that’s what’s going on.

(Audio here.)

I feel bad for Dobson.

Like most of us, he is rightly horrified by the slaughter in Newtown. He is reeling, recoiling, and struggling to come to grips with the shock and sorrow he feels in response to the murder of 20 children, all aged 6 and 7, and of the teachers and school leaders who cared for them.

But Dobson has no way of expressing this horror and sorrow — not even to himself. He has elsewhere expended the vocabulary that would allow him to speak of it, or even to think of it, and it has left him with no words to articulate, to grasp or to convey the deep sadness he is feeling.

That sadness is right and true and appropriate. It is a proper human response to the murder of children.

But for Dobson, “the murder of children” refers not to Sandy Hook, but to abortion. Hence the weird assertion on his radio program Monday that the murder of 20 schoolchildren is somehow God’s judgment falling on America because of the murder of “54 million babies.”

The incoherence there comes from Dobson’s heartfelt and undeniable recognition that the Newtown massacre was far, far worse than any number of abortions. He knows that. He feels that.

But Dobson has painted himself into an ethical and rhetorical corner and so he cannot allow himself to admit that.

For decades, James Dobson has insisted that abortion is “murder,” that it is “killing babies” and that no distinction — ethical, moral, theological, legal — can be allowed between those “unborn babies” and actual babies. Like most evangelicals and many Catholics, Dobson has always fiercely maintained that the killing of unborn “children” is no different from the killing of actual children.

But whenever horrible crimes like this one occur, then Dobson, just like the rest of us, beholds what has happened and recognizes that it is vastly different and wholly incomparable.

Dobson knows this. Decades of rhetorical obfuscation have deprived him of any way of expressing it or of admitting it, but James Dobson still knows this.

All that talk has left him unable to describe what he is feeling or why. He doesn’t know how to name the sorrow he feels on the news of the actual murder of actual children.

But he knows that this is a different thing. He knows that his revulsion at this crime is nothing at all like the opposition he has always expressed to abortion, even though for all these years he has used identical language demanding that we all regard the two things as identical and equivalent.

But they are not identical and they are not equivalent. Dobson knows this. Every moral intuition he has screams that these things are not equivalent.

We all know this. All of us. Even those of us who have staked our rhetoric, our politics, and our moral reasoning on the glib pretense that it is not so.

Every “pro-life” evangelical, every Operation Rescue picketer, every March for Life participant, every Christianity Today editorialist, every Catholic bishop, priest and pope knows that the murder of 20 children is essentially different and far worse than any 20 abortions. All their beloved rhetoric of “abortion is murder” and “abortion kills unborn children” turns to ashes in the wake of incidents like the slaughter in Newtown.

It seemed so simple. Declare that “personhood begins at conception” and everything clicks neatly into place. You can then insist that no ethical or moral distinction exists between a fetus and a child, between a zygote and a 6-year-old. And ethics seems so much simpler when we don’t have to make or acknowledge distinctions. Then we can have thick black lines and unambiguous rules. We can make sweeping ethical claims with the certainty and clarity we have always coveted.

That certainty and clarity is a delicious indulgence. It means we don’t even have to listen when others point out the distinctions that might threaten our clear, bold lines. When others try to argue that a fetus has great value, but not the same value as a child or as a mother, we can dismiss them as apologists for “murder.”

The simplicity and clarity of this claim of personhood-from-conception is so appealing that most of the time it more than makes up for the persistent nagging intuition that it’s not true. The appeal is almost enough to overcome the sense we can never be rid of that a zygote and a 6-year-old are obviously different, and that pretending the two are equivalent is deeply offensive to some moral intuition that we can never wholly silence.

And when, as on Friday, something horrific happens to force us to remember that, then even someone like James Dobson — one of the most forceful and vocal proponents of the “abortion is murder” claim — is unable to maintain the pretense.

That pretense is corrosive. It is rotting the hearts, minds, souls and tongues of good Christian people. And it has to stop.

Read the names of the slain children — the precious persons murdered Friday in Newtown.

Then go ahead and give it your best shot. Try to sustain the pretense. Try to tell yourself that this is no different from 20 abortions. Try to tell yourself that every fetus, every zygote, every frozen embryo at a fertility clinic, is morally and ethically and theologically and legally identical to these 20 children. Try to tell yourself that every abortion does and should sadden you just exactly as much as the cruel snuffing out of each of these sacred young lives.

Can you do that? Can you sustain that pretense?

Poor Dr. Dobson gave it his best shot, but he failed. I don’t think you can do it either. I don’t think you should.

  • Lori

     

    I apologize for not having a definitive opinion on this, and the clarity
    of thought to know that everyone who disagrees with me is an idiot. 
    I’m funny that way.   

    It doesn’t matter whether the people who disagree with you, or with me, are idiots. It matters whether or not the idea being put forward is a good one. The ideas I’ve heard from the cold dead hands folks since this shooting, and after every other mass shooting we’ve had in the last couple of decades, have not been good. It doesn’t take extraordinary clarity of thought to see the problems. What it takes is starting from the position that the goal is to have fewer mass shootings instead of starting from the position that the goal is to have zero new regulation of civilian firearms.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Bill-Everman/1464936167 Bill Everman

    The real problem is the inability of government-worshiping Americans to recognize that  some problems cannot be solved by legislation.  First, mass casualty shootings are rare events, and appear to be declining on a per capita basis, so it’s not cost-effective to undertake huge programs to protect ourselves from them.  Gun control meaningful enough to actually change the likelihood of incidents like Sandy Hook would require mass confiscation…which would doubtless trigger numerous violent confrontations and many times more deaths than the shootings they would prevent.  Want armed guards in the schools?  Great.  But since school is the safest place most kids will be all day, are you going to put armed guards in the playground, on the ride home, at the corner store and in all their houses, too?  Or do you only care about kids dying at school?  Want to tighten up our mental health system and make it harder for people with mental illness to get guns? Okay, I like that…but if you push too hard, you may discourage people from seeking treatment for fear that they will lose their ability to have a gun.  And remember, as we watch the dust-ups in the wake of the DSM-V’s publication that mental illness is largely a politically defined thing.  If we put in place such restrictions forty years ago, might your gay friends be legally restricted from buying a gun due to their “psychological issue”? 

  • EllieMurasaki

    FYI, there hasn’t been a single mass shooting in Australia since Australia decided it wasn’t going to let civilians have guns without a really fucking good reason.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Gun control meaningful enough to actually change the likelihood of incidents like Sandy Hook would require mass confiscation

    Urban Legends Central just revoked your licence, buddy.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    The real problem is the inability of government-worshiping Americans …

    Wow, your argument turned to shit after only 10 words. That’s quite impressive!

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    mass casualty shootings are rare events

    Rare as in several times a year? Let us know how frequent spree killings need to become before they’re worth preventing at the expense of Rambo’s ego and we’ll get back to you.

  • Lori

    The real problem is the inability of government-worshiping Americans to recognize that  some problems cannot be solved by legislation. 

    1. Not wanting to die at the hands of a mass murderer with enough firepower to start a small war =/= government worship.

    2. If mass killings are a problem that cannot be solved by legislation why does the US have a mass killing rate and an overall homicide rate that dwarfs that of other countries which are, in all relevant ways save the issue of gun ownership and regulation, pretty much like the US?

    In formulating a response to #2 you need to take into account at least 2 things. First, the absence of mass shootings in countries which enacted stricter gun control after experiencing mass shootings. Second, the fact that the UK has an overall violence rate that’s actually a bit higher than ours, but a homicide rate that’s far, far lower and no mass shootings at all since they changed their gun laws (see issue #1).

    You want to treat mass shootings as if they can’t be prevented because then you won’t have to face the fact that you’re willing for innocent people to die in order for you to retain unlimited access to guns and ammunition. That doesn’t make it true.

  • Lori

     

    Gun control meaningful enough to actually change the likelihood of incidents like Sandy Hook would require mass confiscation…   

    This isn’t true either. We could go a long way toward making ourselves safer by restricting purchases of high capacity magazines, making private guns sales subject to the same rules as dealer sales and probably placing some limits on new purchases of some kinds of guns. Attrition will take care of the rest because gun ownership is declining. We have a staggering number of guns in circulation, not because our gun ownership rates are so terribly high, but because we have a core of gun owners who each own a lot of guns.

  • AnonymousSam

    I’m not sure what to think of the focus on mental illness. Has it even been confirmed that Lanza suffered from any form of mental illness?

    I may not be the best person to speak of mental illness and access to guns anyway, as a diagnosed sociopath who wouldn’t trust xerself with a gun on even the best days of the week. Regardless of my philosophical decision to pursue pacifism as the preferred response to selfish violence, I have fight-or-flight instincts like everybody else, problems with impulse control, am quick to rage and am incapable of suffering any pangs of conscience before or afterward. No matter how firm my convictions to never cause harm to anyone if it can possibly be avoided, I don’t trust myself to adhere to them if push came to shove.

    That makes me a bad person and thus not someone who should ever touch a firearm.

  • Lori

     

    Has it even been confirmed that Lanza suffered from any form of mental illness?   

    No. People who knew him have talked about ways in which he was an odd young man and his brother said he had “autism or Asberger’s or something”. Hardly a confirmed diagnosis of mental illness.

    People generally seem to believe that no one could possibly do such a horrible thing unless he was “crazy”, but that’s one of those circular arguments that isn’t remotely useful for creating policy.

    No matter how firm my convictions to never cause harm to anyone if it
    can possibly be avoided, I don’t trust myself to adhere to them if push
    came to shove.

    That makes me a bad person and thus not someone who should ever touch a firearm.  

    What that makes you is pretty much like everyone else.

    Setting aside the folks who meet the legal definition of insanity (unable to tell right from wrong) the person I trust least with a gun in the person who trusts him/herself too much.

  • AnonymousSam

    Don’t poke holes in my self-pity paradigm. :P

    But in all seriousness, the fact that I have emotional issues which I know would override any and all judgment is something I can’t overlook. The fact that I could do a terrible thing and it being “terrible” would be an intellectual decision after the fact disturbs me far too much to trust myself to buy/handle/own something I could misuse.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    That makes me a bad person and thus not someone who should ever touch a firearm.

    It doesn’t make you a bad person. I think we’d be better off if most people never touched a firearm, so the more that make that decision for themselves the better as far as I’m concerned. But you said yourself that your higher order preference is for non-violence. The fact that, like everyone to varying degrees, your higher order preferences don’t always win doesn’t make you a bad person.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I’m not sure what to think of the focus on mental illness. Has it even been confirmed that Lanza suffered from any form of mental illness?
    Not that I’ve heard. I did see something going around on Tumblr, though: black shooter, Muslim shooter, Latino shooter, TERRORIST CRIMINAL. White shooter, OH HE MUST BE MENTALLY ILL TROUBLED CHILDHOOD MISUNDERSTOOD GENIUS.

  • Beroli

     You apparently have the “clarity of thought” to know that everyone who disagrees with you is a government-worshiping American. That only differs from “an idiot” in that the one sounds better in your serious argument and the other sounds better in your strawman.

  • Lori

    I think you’re absolutely right not to have firearms and it’s good that you’re self-aware enough to know that. T. here are plenty of other people who also shouldn’t have guns. Sadly, some of those who shouldn’t have any actually have quite a lot.

    Something I think is worth making clear—-mental illness is not the only reason a person shouldn’t have a gun. Take me for example. I don’t have the sort of mental health issues that would preclude safe gun ownership, but the world is still better off with me not owning one. I respect the rules needed to handle guns safely, but I’m just not focused in the way required to carry out those rules on a practical level. I know that sooner or later any gun in my possession would end up unsafe in some way. Most likely that would play out as it being lost, as in “I know it’s around here somewhere. I swear I left it right there. Where the hell did it go?” Guns and Lori are not mixy things.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    However, I regret that you are not in agreement about the sacredness of all human life.

    So, you’re a pacifist?   Opposed Bush War 1 and 2, as well as Obama’s drone-attacks?  Against the death penalty?

    Or are you one of those tedious fetus-worshipping hypocrites who acts like they think life begins a week before conception and ends at birth?

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    If it helps, which I doubt it does, in subsequent discussion she clarified that respecting the “sacredness of all human life” she and I aren’t in agreement about didn’t preclude killing humans (of any age); what she apparently meant here was something to do with one’s relationship with Jesus, not one’s metabolic status.

    That said, I wouldn’t suggest counting on that staying true as the conversation continues.

  • http://www.dandleblog.com/ Thedandler

     I absolutely agree with you. It’s an arrogant way to argue, for sure, and I don’t think there’s any backing for this blogger to just assume Dobson’s attitude or beliefs without asking him for his justification.

  • http://www.dandleblog.com/ Thedandler

    I see a lot of logical fallacies in this blog article. I think if accusations  are being made against Dobson’s stance they should be articulated well and concessions should be made.

    I’m no Dobson fan, but I would think that Dobson would argue something a
    BIT more intelligent than what this blogger has attributed to him. For example, I do believe that what happened in Newton is morally equivalent to the evil committed in abortion, even though the pain caused by the event is much greater than the pain caused by abortion. This is not a contradictory stance. But it does allow someone like Dobson to make the equivocation between both actions and yet leave room for the existence of more pain and evil being derived from one action as opposed to the other.

    The
    logic isn’t that hard to see. Killing living children that you can see
    may not be the same CONSEQUENTIALLY as abortion, just as murder is not
    the same as hatred, which is murder committed in the heart
    (according to Christ), just like actual adultery isn’t the same as lust technically speaking, though Christ equates both.
    Not too many people would argue that if you’ve committed adultery in
    your heart you might as well just go ahead and do the deed because it’s
    all the same, so in a sense there is definitely a difference we all
    recognize between the unseen murder of unwanted children and the seen
    murder of living children. However, (I would hope – in order for him to be logically consistent in his theology) Dobson would argue that both are
    morally equivalent in the eyes of God, just as lust in the heart is
    morally equivalent to actual adultery in the eyes of God, even though the consequences and
    pain caused by the actual deed is much, much worse.

    It’s just that when abortion happens we can easily “put it away” and
    ignore it’s happening, whereas the evil of human beings who want to
    eradicate children is clearly seen and the consequences felt in the murder of children who are
    walking around and living their lives. In both cases the same essential desire is expressed (the eradication of children for whatever reason), but one has consequences that are more easily seen than the
    other.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Not too many people would argue that if you’ve committed adultery in your heart you might as well just go ahead and do the deed because it’s all the same

    No, that’s really common, actually.

    Know what I don’t see any mention of in your post? Pregnant people.

  • The_L1985

    “I’m no Dobson fan, but I would think that Dobson would argue something a BIT more intelligent than what this blogger has attributed to him.
    [...]
    Not too many people would argue that if you’ve committed adultery in your heart you might as well just go ahead and do the deed because it’s all the same.”

    You don’t know Dobson and his ilk very well, then, because I have heard this identical argument. It’s been used quite commonly by the sort of person who believes that hugging or kissing before marriage is the same thing as going to the altar pregnant.

    “In both cases the same essential desire is expressed (the eradication of children for whatever reason.”

    And here’s where we run into a full-on logical fallacy, because I am a strong supporter of legal abortion, for reasons which have nothing to do with wanting babies dead. The simple fact of the matter is, women still die in childbirth quite often. If a pregnancy is highly risky, I’d rather a woman have the chance to say, “This particular pregnancy is too dangerous.” Women don’t get abortions because they hate babies! If they hated babies, they’d get themselves sterilized* so they couldn’t get pregnant in the first place.

    * or at least, try to. When one doesn’t already have children, it’s hard to convince a doctor that one isn’t going to change one’s mind about this sort of thing down the road.

  • Kellynorthcott

    If the aborted babies had names would that make a difference.
    If the zygote or embryo was put in a casket would that make a difference.
    Remember God knew you before you were formed in your mother’s womb.

    Kelly Northcott

  • EllieMurasaki

    What does God knowing us before our respective fathers ejaculated have to do with the legality of forcing women to endure an unendurable pregnancy?

  • AnonymousSam

    No, not really. What it would do is add even more unhappiness to an already unhappy necessity.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    That’s okay, I didn’t know God back then.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     Nope, nope, and OK.


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