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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  • anon

    I think it’s because WBC also blames the death of US soldiers on those things, something Dobson and other mainstream folks would never do. For them, the US military is sacred and God would never arrange for the death of US soldiers. For WBC, they are totally fine saying so and showing up at military funerals to say it. That is the difference. The mainstream folks won’t transgress the most sacred thing in the US – the military.

  • Ginny Bain Allen

    Life is what’s most sacred.  LIFE

  • VMink

    If life is what’s most sacred, what should the penalty be for someone who takes a life, any life? What should the penalty be for a woman who has an abortion in a jurisdiction where abortion is illegal?

    Come on, Ginny!  You can answer this!  It’s not hard.  Look, I’ll even do you a favor and not automatically assume that you want the mother put to death.  If you want to make something a crime, you have to attach a consequence (reparative, punitative, or rehabilitative) to that crime.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Not strictly necessary. I mean, there has to be an official penalty for anyone convicted, but that doesn’t mean anyone ever actually gets investigated, let alone prosecuted. (Financial crisis. Iraq war crimes.)

  • VMink

    Well, yes, that’s (unfortunately) true.  I should have added a ‘hypothetically’ there.

    Though I’m pretty sure Ginny wants there to be some sort of penalty, I suspect she, like so many others, either wants it to be death by stoning  (and will never admit it, because that’s seen by most others as barbaric, plus I recall a gentleman saying something about throwing the first stones or something) or just lacks the clarity of thought to realize that just saying something is illegal won’t make it suddenly, magically Go Away.

    (There’s those two words — “go away” — again.  Why do they always seem to make an appearance when dealing with hard-authoritarian reactionaries?)

  • EllieMurasaki

    just saying something is illegal won’t make it suddenly, magically Go Away

    Did we seriously learn nothing from Prohibition?

    Though we clearly learned nothing from the Great Depression and New Deal, so…

  •  That turns out not to be the case, actually.

  • Ginny Bain Allen

    If that’s truly your view, Dave, would you not be grieving had you lost a child at Sandy Hook? 

  •  As a general rule, anti-abortion hardliners want very much to forget that there is a woman involved at all. It’s all about an evil murdering doctor and a poor innocent baby. The woman is erased.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I assume you would want the Newtown shooter to be tried and convicted had he survived the shooting. Would you want the same penalty imposed on a woman who gets an abortion as on the Newtown shooter?

    Seriously, stop fucking equating a living breathing beloved first-grader with an unwanted and/or dangerous pregnancy.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I just realized something.

    The people debating this with Philip are me (female handle), Ross and Dave (male handles), and people with nongendered handles.

    The only one who’s gotten tone-policed by Philip? Me.

    I do know this happens all the time, but I don’t think it’s ever happened to me before.

  • Lunch Meat

    If that’s truly your view, Dave, would you not be grieving had you lost a child at Sandy Hook?

    Are you seriously saying that something is the most sacred thing ever or else it’s not sacred at all? Do you understand how comparatives and superlatives work?

  • Isabel C.

    And you’re getting yours where, exactly? Other than the obvious…

  • It is truly my view, Ginny.
    And I would be grieving had I lost a child at Sandy Hook.
    Indeed, I grieve the dead at Sandy Hook, despite their not being my children.
    As it happens, I grieve many of the dead not at Sandy Hook, as well.

  • Ginny Bain Allen

    I should not have posed that question to you, Dave.  I’m sorry about that, for you are the only one here kind enough to show empathy for me concerning the death of my first and only grandchild.  You get it that SOME grieve deeply, for that is how we are made.  However, I regret that you are not in agreement about the sacredness of all human life.

  • Ginny Bain Allen

    I live by a Biblical worldview, Isabel.  What about you?  What is your worldview?  Whom do you serve?

  • EllieMurasaki

    I’m at a loss for whether we should let you know we sympathize with you over the loss of your grandchild when you so loudly, vehemently, and repeatedly refuse to sympathize with anyone whose life or health is put at risk by continuing a pregnancy.

    What penalty should apply to a woman who gets an abortion in a jurisdiction where abortion is legally murder?

  • EllieMurasaki

    The Bible has a ritual to induce abortion in women pregnant through adultery. Do you approve?

  • I should not have posed that question to you, Dave.

    You are welcome to pose whatever questions you wish to me.

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

    I also recommend you pay attention to what I actually say in response. It makes communication a lot easier.

    In this case… you said “Life is what’s most sacred.  LIFE”
    I disagreed.
    You are mistaken to infer from this that I hold any particular position about the sacredness of all human life.

  • Ginny Bain Allen

    You obviously do not understand the wondrous tapestry, fraught with meaning, that is woven between the Old and New Testaments, Ellie.  You have a miserable view of the God of the Bible, and misery loves company.  I NEVER expected anyone like YOU to offer me any condolences over the loss of my precious little flower.  

  • Ginny Bain Allen

    What is more sacred than life, Dave?

  • EllieMurasaki


    11 Then the Lord said to Moses, 12 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him 13 so that another man has sexual relations with her, and this is hidden from her husband and her impurity is undetected (since there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act), 14 and if feelings of jealousycome over her husband and he suspects his wife and she is impure—or if he
    is jealous and suspects her even though she is not impure— 15 then he is to take his wife to the priest. He must also take an offering of a tenth of an ephah[a ] of barley flour on her behalf. He must not pour olive oil on it or put incense on it, because it is a grain offering for jealousy, a reminder-offering to draw attention to wrongdoing.

    16 “‘The priest shall bring her and have her stand before the Lord. 17 Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water. 18 After the priest has had the woman stand before the Lord, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the reminder-offering, the grain offering for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse. 19 Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has had sexual relations with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. 20 But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have made yourself impure by having sexual relations with a man other than your husband”— 21 here the priest is to put the woman under this curse—“may the Lord cause you to become a curse[b ] among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell. 22 May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries.”

    “‘Then the woman is to say, “Amen. So be it.”

    23 “‘The priest is to write these curses on a scroll and then wash them off into the bitter water. 24 He shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and this water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering will enter her. 25 The priest is to take from her hands the grain offering for jealousy, wave it before the Lord and bring it to the altar. 26 The priest is then to take a handful of the grain offering as a memorial[ c ] offering and burn it on the altar; after that, he is to have the woman drink the water. 27 If she has made herself impure and been unfaithful to her husband, this will be the result: When she is made to drink the water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering, it will enter her, her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry, and she will become a curse. 28 If, however, the woman has not made herself impure, but is clean, she will be cleared of guilt and will be able to have children.

    29 “‘This, then, is the law of jealousy when a woman goes astray and makes herself impure while married to her husband, 30 or when feelings of jealousycome over a man because he suspects his wife. The priest is to have her
    stand before the Lord and is to apply this entire law to her. 31 The husband will be innocent of any wrongdoing, but the woman will bear the consequences of her sin.’”
    The Bible has a ritual for inducing abortion in a woman pregnant from adultery. Do you approve?

    I am sorry for the loss suffered by your grandchild’s parents and other near relations when your grandchild died. I am not sorry for your loss, because–and only because–you want women who find themselves unwantedly pregnant or enduring a dangerous pregnancy to suffer and (if applicable) die rather than permit them to get a legal abortion without fuss.

  • Ginny Bain Allen

    If it were up to me, which it isn’t, I would not allow anyone to suffer, Ellie.  I do not WANT any pregnant females to suffer for any reason, but suffering is part of life in this world.  Out of the darkness of suffering can come great light, as it has in the death of my granddaughter.  

  • EllieMurasaki

    Patrick Henry said liberty. I don’t know if you’d recognize any of the names of people who say honor or people who say duty. (I admit I don’t know any such off the top of my head, either. But they do exist.) There’s lots of people who say love, and lots more who say other people’s lives.

    Numbers 5 has a ritual to induce abortion in adulterous women. Do you approve?

  • Ginny Bain Allen

    Liberty is the freedom to do that which is right,  Ellie.  

    God is love.

    It matters not what I approve.

  • Tricksterson


  • Lunch Meat

    “True freedom is doing what I tell you.” -Shift the Ape, The Last Battle

  • Tricksterson

    I don’t hold anything or anyone, including myself as sacred because that would mean holding it/them as beyond reproach and I’ve never ecountered a reason to hold anything or anyone beyond reproach.

  • Tricksterson

    I don’t “serve” anyone including my patron deity, nor would Trickster want a servant, certainly not one who obeyed him blindly.  I follow a path that is a lesson, keeping in mind that any path he lays out is bound to be filled with potholes, boobytraps and blind alleys.  Before you ask why I’d follow a path like that it’s because they’re all part of the lesson.


    What is more sacred than life, Dave?

    As a Christian, Ginny, I would think you could answer this yourself. The history of Christianity is full, after all, of martyrs who willingly give up their lives seeking something more sacred. The glory of God, for example.

    I’m not a Christian, and I think that to claim to know what the glory of God really is is nothing but arrogance.

    But I know that something is more sacred than life.

    How do I know that?
    Well, consider the following two scenarios.

    1: Earth has 7 billion living humans, many of whom have the opportunity to explore and grow and learn and experience glory and passion and fulfillment and delight and joy.

    2: Earth has 70 billion living humans, all of whom live lives of quiet desperation, in solitude and darkness, with no opportunity for exploration or growth or learning or glory or passion or fulfillment or delight or joy.

    Which is more sacred?

    It is clear to me that the second scenario has far less that is sacred than the first. (Do you disagree?) But it has ten times the human life. I conclude that it is possible to add life to the Earth and make it less sacred.

    Life is not the most sacred thing.

    You asked me a more specific question: what is more sacred?

    I’m not sure.
    I don’t have all the answers; not even close.

    But the first step in finding an answer is giving up the false belief that we already know it.

  • EllieMurasaki

    You can have any color car you want as long as it’s black, is that it?
    Numbers 5 entails forcing a woman to have an abortion on the grounds that the babydaddy is suspected to be someone not her husband. I find that abhorrent because it’s forcing an abortion, but because your morals are Biblical, you must find it the right thing to do in the circumstances, which requires you to admit that abortion is not always wrong.

    If you do not want anyone to suffer, why are you so vehemently opposed to measures that let someone suffering from being unwantedly pregnant move to the less-shitty situation of having just had an abortion?

    What penalty should apply to a woman who has an abortion in a jurisdiction where abortion is legally murder?

  • AnonymousSam

    Life is sacred according to the Bible? Why, then, does it prescribe death as the consequence for so many sins? What about Deuteronomy 13, which demands death for anyone who worships anyone other than YHWH, up to and including an insistence that immediate family members be the ones to murder their loved ones for this crime?

    And for that matter, why does it prescribe abortion as the consequence of adultery, if abortion is so wrong?

    I’m genuinely incapable of understanding how anyone can so incuriously ignore such things while insisting that the rhetoric has the exact opposite message.

  • > Liberty is the freedom to do that which is right

    That’s part of liberty, but not the entirety of it.

  • EllieMurasaki

    The only bit of the Bible that deals with abortion is the poem about God knowing that poet before forming him in the womb. What many many instances of admonition to help the poor and not hurt them?

  • Isabel C.

    Not your pleasure-hating, misogynist, vindictive excuse for a deity, that’s for damn sure.

    Far as I can tell, you and yours are no better than the cultists of the Great Old Ones in Lovecraft. You just make your human sacrifices more gradually: no blood shed, just the gradual grinding down of the human spirit to feed the hungry maw of your evil patron. 

  • AnonymousSam

    Quite a number, including that little inconsequential bit about how Jesus himself will judge our worthiness to enter Heaven based upon how often we perform such actions. And yet somehow, there are so-called godly men who teach that the exact opposite is true, and that wealth is God’s way of rewarding them for their faithfulness.

  • Isabel C.

    Also, when someone asks where you get a fact from and you say “I live by a Biblical worldview,” that’s…not an answer, so much.

    Especially because nowhere in the Bible does it say that a fetus is an independent person. 

    But also: you live by a Biblical worldview. Good for you. I don’t. Why do you think citing said Biblical worldview will convince anyone who isn’t at least marginally Christian? 

  • EllieMurasaki

    To be entirely fair, the Tanakh is central to Judaism and both it and the New Testament are respected by Islam.

  • AnonymousSam

    For that matter, it helps to quantify a Biblical worldview. If the subject were marriage and I were to say I believe in a Biblical worldview, what would that mean? That I believe in polygamy? Having a thousand mistresses? Having the ability to sell my wife into slavery? That’s all material supported by the Bible, so…

  • Isabel C.

    Fair point, that. And I respect them myself, for that matter–it’s just that I don’t claim them as support for national policy decisions. 

    I was grading papers for a class on magic in my younger years, and ran into one where the student added, as a footnote, “I was a siren in a previous incarnation, so I know this is true.”

    Now, I believe in reincarnation, in a vague “well, maybe” way. (I’m skeptical of people having been sirens, and I think anyone who’s that invested in finding out and talking about their past lives is probably fucking up their current one somehow.) But you still can’t use your past life as an academic citation.

    Same principle.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Yeah, and I wasn’t suggesting that Bible cites should be used in support of secular policy goals. (They can be, certainly, but only when there’s a secular justification for the policy goal as well as the religious justification, and only when addressing an audience that considers that text to have authority.) I was just saying Bible cites can be convincing to a broader set of the population than you said they can.

  • AnonymousSam

    If nothing else, because unsubstantiated first-hand accounts are barely more than hearsay. :p

    (Otherkin interest me. I’ve spent a fair amount of time studying the Otherkin culture, even attending a couple of gatherings. I still have to wrinkle my nose when I am informed that the person I’m speaking to is the reincarnation of a particular video game character’s lover, when I’m intimately familiar with that game and can say with some confidence that this role isn’t even possibly canon within the video game setting, much less our spectrum of reality.)

  • Ginny Bain Allen

    babydaddy is such an idiotic term

  • Ginny Bain Allen

    Eternal life is what is most sacred, Dave, and those who die as martyrs in Jesus’ name, go to experience it forever!  What an honor that would be!

  • EllieMurasaki

    Let me repeat myself, without the distraction of a term you object to.
    You can have any color car you want as long as it’s black, is that it?
    Numbers 5 entails forcing a woman to have an abortion on the grounds that the fetus’s father is suspected to be someone not her husband. I find that abhorrent because it’s forcing an abortion, but because your morals are Biblical, you must find it the right thing to do in the circumstances, which requires you to admit that abortion is not always wrong.

    If you do not want anyone to suffer, why are you so vehemently opposed to measures that let someone suffering from being unwantedly pregnant move to the less-shitty situation of having just had an abortion?

    What penalty should apply to a woman who has an abortion in a jurisdiction where abortion is legally murder?

  • EllieMurasaki

    So if every doctor performing an abortion says they’re doing so to ensure that the fetus (which is of course Christian, since nobody has yet told the fetus to be otherwise) won’t grow up Christian, all those murdered babies get whisked up to spend forever in joy in heaven?

    Why are you opposed to abortion again?

  • Lori

    Oh good lord, the idiot has escaped from her original enclosure and is now roaming in another thread. Her stupidity was mildly amusing when it was confined to one old thread defending a racist adulterer, but having her derailing other threads really isn’t funny.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Hasn’t she always been in multiple threads?

  • Ginny Bain Allen

    That is true that each of those precious babes get to spend eternity in the presence of Jesus, never having experienced pain, suffering, sadness, sin and temptation in this corrupt world.  The greatest blessing is that they never had the opportunity to reject Jesus, thereby spending eternity OUT of His presence, for that is what hell is – eternal separation from blessed Jesus!

  • EllieMurasaki

    So…why are you opposed to abortion again?