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.

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

    [20] But if you have gone astray, though you are under your
    husband’s authority, and if you have defiled yourself, and some man
    other than your husband has lain with you,
    [21] then’ (let
    the priest make the woman take the oath of the curse, and say to the
    woman) `the LORD make you an execration and an oath among your people,
    when the LORD makes your thigh fall away and your body swell;
    [22]
    may this water that brings the curse pass into your bowels and make
    your body swell and your thigh fall away.’ And the woman shall say,
    `Amen, Amen.’
    [23]”Then the priest shall write these curses in a book, and wash them off into the water of bitterness;
     [24]
    and he shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that brings
    the curse, and the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and
    cause bitter pain.
    [25] And the priest shall take the cereal
    offering of jealousy out of the woman’s hand, and shall wave the cereal
    offering before the LORD and bring it to the altar;
    [26] and
    the priest shall take a handful of the cereal offering, as its memorial
    portion, and burn it upon the altar, and afterward shall make the woman
    drink the water.
    [27] And when he has made her drink the
    water, then, if she has defiled herself and has acted unfaithfully
    against her husband, the water that brings the curse shall enter into
    her and cause bitter pain, and her body shall swell, and her thigh shall
    fall away, and the woman shall become an execration among her people.
    [28] But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be free and shall conceive children

    This is the exact text from the Revised Standard Version.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I quoted her the NIV earlier. It’s less euphemismy.

  • Lunch Meat

    Y’all are all missing the point by quoting Bible verses at Ginny to prove whether or not God is opposed to abortion. Remember in the other thread where she was telling us who is and is not a real Christian, despite the fact that judging whether other people are acceptable to God is expressly forbidden by Romans 14? Clearly God is talking to her directly and telling her these things, so God has clearly also told her that she needs to oppose abortion.

  • Lori

    Ah, the Almighty talks to her directly. That explains why she doesn’t need to go to church.

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

    Is that the way of things? God tells Brady what is good! To be against Brady is to be against God!

    That ran through my mind when I saw your post. :)

  • Lori

     Oh, good reference.

  • P J Evans

    Ah, the Almighty talks to her directly.
    … with about as much success as talking to all those candidates who said that God had told them (severally) to run for president.

  • Lori

    This also would seem to contradict the anti-choice position that a fetus is super special and precious no matter who fathered it, and therefore clearly women should be forced to give birth to their rapists’ children. 

    ETA: Obviously they can get around the contradiction if they go with the notion that a man committing rape is less bad than a woman committing consensual adultery, but if that’s the rule the anti-choicers need to own it out loud.

  • AnonymousSam

    God has spoken to me directly as well. Either that or I had a hallucination brought on by illness and sleep deprivation. One of the two!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.


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