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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  • Ginny Bain Allen

    Well, well, well, we meet again.

  • Ginny Bain Allen

    “Although the threads of my life have often seemed knotted, I know, by faith, that on the other side of the embroidery there is a crown..” ~Corrie ten Boom   :)

  • Ginny Bain Allen

    Because God Almighty is…..duh!

  • Lori

     I only remember her from the racist adulterer one. Have their been others and I missed them? If so, I was truly blessed and just didn’t know it.

  • Lori

    You’ve now sunk to the level of a B movie villain. That’s just pathetic.

    So, will you be attending church this Sunday Ginny? It’s Christmas, time for the unfaithful to make one of their 2 annual appearances for appearances’ sake.

  • Lori

    If the book you claim to follow is actually true then God Almighty is far more concerned about other things, so shouldn’t you be too?

  • Oh!

    So, by “life” in this exchange, you don’t mean the thing that distinguishes a human being from a human corpse, you mean eternal life: the thing that goes on after my brain decomposes into dust, the thing that God knows before gestation.

    Glad we cleared that up; I’d misunderstood.

    I don’t have an opinion about whether anything is more sacred than eternal life… you may well be right that it’s the most sacred thing.

    That said… while I am incarnate on Earth, I have choices that affect my (non-eternal, incarnate) life. I can choose to degrade others, or I can uplift them; I can harm others, or I can help them; I can pollute my environment, or I can purify it; I can subvert justice, or I can seek it; I can act selfishly, or with compassion. Put more simply: I have the choice of whether or not to work towards a better world.

    In Judaism this idea is known as tikkun olam, but it’s
    hardly unique to Judaism.

    And when we live our (non-eternal, incarnate) lives for the sake of tikkun olam… that is, when we live them seeking to uplift and help others, seeking to purify ourselves and our environment, seeking justice and compassion, working towards a better world… that’s plenty sacred enough for this life, as far as I’m concerned.

  • Ginny Bain Allen

    I am realistically concerned about many things, but GOD IS IN CONTROL.

  • Ginny Bain Allen

    Merry Christmas, Lori!

  • EllieMurasaki

    God Almighty, in Numbers 5, mandates abortion for women who are pregnant by a man not their husband.

    Why do you oppose abortion again?

  • Ginny Bain Allen

    For whom, and how we live, in this dark world determines whether or not we will be experiencing eternal life.

  • You quoted Corrie ten Boom. Do you believe she should have lied to the Nazis?

  • Ginny Bain Allen

    Your memory doesn’t serve you well, Ellie.

  •  No, that isn’t true.

  • EllieMurasaki

    God Almighty, in Numbers 5, mandates abortion for women who are pregnant by a man not their husband. This strongly implies that there are circumstances under which God does not forbid abortion.

    Why do you oppose abortion again?

  • [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;
    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;
    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.

  • AnonymousSam

    You do realize ten Boom’s particular flavor of Christianity had a huge emphasis on forgiveness, right? That there is no crime so tragic that God cannot forgive it, to the extent of invoking his grace to forgive the Nazis who murdered so many friends of her family?

    I just ask because you haven’t shown many signs of understanding that love and forgiveness require some effort on behalf of the worshiper.

  • AnonymousSam

    God’s miraculous powers are channeled to perform abortions in Numbers 5, so, um.

  • Lori

    If God is in control then you should butt out and leave him to it.

  • AnonymousSam

     And just to ensure there is minimal chance of missing it:

    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.

    The magic potion she is forced to drink disfigures her womb and destroying the fetus within. God’s involvement is explicit:

    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 … may the Lord cause you to become a curse among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell.

    I think you most certainly can be a Christian and oppose abortion despite this being in the Bible. You can argue that Jesus revered life of all kinds (although there is material to contradict this). You can argue that he abolished the old laws (although there is material to contradict this). You can argue that God, as the incarnation of love, would never demand this of his people (although there is lots of material to contradict this). Either way, you have to admit that the Bible is far from a straightforward reading for guidance on this subject.

    The lessons I took home from the Bible were that love and forgiveness trump everything. If someone has sinned–and Jesus is very clear that I’m not the one who gets to decide this, let alone punish it–then God will mete out judgment as he sees fit, regardless of how I feel about it. All that’s left to me is to decide how I feel about it, then, and that means I have a choice between being a jerkass and adding misery upon misery… or I can do just the opposite and do what I can to alleviate suffering.

    I think it takes a special kind of person to decide that making people miserable is what God wants. I also think that if God exists, he’ll have interesting judgment to make about those people.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Just to be absolutely clear: The woman who is made to drink that shit is suspected of adultery. Whether she is convicted depends on what happens next.

    Ain’t no possible way for an abortifacient of any nature to distinguish between a pregnancy where the fetus’s father is the woman’s husband and a pregnancy where the fetus’s father is not married to the woman. The priests and the husband are counting on God to know the difference and to let the abortifacient do its work if and only if the woman had sex with someone not her husband.

  • 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

    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.

  • Lori

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

  • AnonymousSam

    That’s if we assume the waters have any effect of their own, which going by the recipe, doesn’t seem like it would be the case. In reality, I would assume that unclean water, sanitation in general, nutrition and a thousand other natural biological factors compounded by ignorance of the body and pregnancy probably caused miscarriages all the time. Jewish texts elaborate a bit upon the ritual, explaining that the period of time after the waters have been drunk until the woman is considered innocent could vary from a matter of weeks to years after the birth (so if the child suddenly died at the age of 5, she was a adulterous witch and should be punished).

    Also, deliberate choice of words: “until the woman is considered innocent.” The same texts also explain that the ritual entailed the exact same treatment as a prostitute, entailing that she be stripped bare to the breasts with her hair let down, exactly in the manner of a woman already considered guilty. This ritual wasn’t to establish guilt, but to establish innocence: she’d be considered guilty until God proved otherwise.

    Whiiiiich is why I don’t consider the Bible a good book for exemplifying human judgment, let alone by Biblical standards.

  • 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!

  • Lori

    Yeah, this is why I added the note about these people thinking that a woman committing consensual adultery is worse than a man committing rape. Because their point was, is and always will be hating women and wanting to control them.

  • 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.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I don’t know shit about abortifacients prior to modern medicine, so I’ll take your word on that.

  • The_L1985

    I’m not Isabel, but I figure it never hurts to add another perspective. :)

    As a Neopagan, I value the 1st Amendment freedom of religion here in the US a great deal. I feel that all Americans should be free to follow the dictates of their conscience and their religion. Christians already have that freedom, and they should continue to enjoy it, but should not force others to obey YOUR God over our Gods. He is your God; he’s an ok fellow, but I don’t mesh with him that well, and I get the feeling that both He and I are happier for me to be with the Lord and Ladies who make me happy and fulfilled.

    WRT abortion, different faiths have different priorities. Many branches of Judaism, for example, teach that if a woman’s life is endangered by a difficult pregnancy or birth, then doctors must do everything in their power to try to save her life so that she can try again to have more children in the future if she wants–even if that means having an abortion. In such a case, abortion is considered by many Jews to be THE morally-right thing to do, because the fetus, while human, does not yet have the breath of life described in Genesis and other parts of the Bible. (The soul is identified with the breath in many places in Hebrew Scriptures, but this is less clear in English than it is in the original Hebrew.)

    Also, if you ask 10 different Christians what a “Biblical worldview” is, you’ll get several different answers. If you ask 10 Jews, you’ll get 10 more. If you ask 10 atheists and Neopagans, you’ll get another 10 answers, but I’m afraid most of those 10 will probably be a bit less flattering. Many of us have had bad experiences with people who are Christians, but don’t seem to pay much attention to what Jesus actually said.

  • AnonymousSam

    Numbers 5 gives it as “some holy water in a clay jar and dust from the tabernacle floor.” Unless we assumed that filthy, unwashed farmers had been tracking in fecal matter or other godawful things on the floor and that eventually became reduced to a powder, it doesn’t seem like the combination would be all that toxic — at least, not more so than things the woman would be likely eating and drinking anyway.

    Given that the time of Moses also set up the priesthood as Holier Than Any Man*, I find it doubtful that people would be tracking that kind of filth onto the tabernacle floors, so it’s more likely that the mixture contained nothing worse than what would be found in any well (which could still be bad; they didn’t exactly know about e.coli back then). I have no doubt that many women did sicken and become severely ill and have miscarriages, but probably it had less to do with God than it had to do with life in general, especially among people under that particular priesthood.

    * Seriously have a look at the latter half of Exodus starting at about Exodus 25; it is disgusting. “God” decrees that the priesthood is to commission and have made, for his [and their] exclusive use, many solid gold, silver and precious gemstone items, the best and quite a lot of food, wine and incense, and a constant influx of tax monies. The penalty for not providing any of these? DEATH.

  • EllieMurasaki

    …this is what I get for skipping the details of how the abortion is induced, isn’t it. Ew, and also, yes, not actually abortifacient.

  • AnonymousSam

    BCE mysticism, indeed. Every part of this ritual speaks of superstitious barbarism and misogyny, especially the fact that if the woman was innocent, no penalty befell her husband for accusing her and no restitution would be granted. Guilty until proven innocent, and the assumption of guilt could last indefinitely until her husband was finally satisfied (after however many years) that the child was in fact his.

    So what if the child was born with, say, different colored hair and eyes?

    I have no doubt that some women were guilty until the nearest convenient excuse to put them to death.

  • Lori


    If you ask 10 Jews, you’ll get 10 more. 

    I believe the standard math on this is “ask 10 Jews, get 11 opinions” :)

  • EllieMurasaki

    No, it’s ask two Jews, get three opinions, so with ten Jews there ought to be at least fifteen opinions.

    Though I’ve heard it with lots of different people nouns. The way it shakes out, I understand, is ‘whatever the first speaker says ze believes’, ‘the diametrically opposing opinion endorsed by the second speaker’, and ‘what the second speaker actually believes’. There’s room for the first speaker to say and believe different things, but nobody seems to think that happens.

  •  I was kind of wondering if the active ingredient was ash. During this period, they would have still been doing animal sacrifice. At least in principle, the potassium in ash could induce hyperkalemia, which has been shown to sometimes cause placental hemmorage. Of course, it would be heavily dependent on what and how much they’d been burning and what kind of shape the woman was in beforehand.

    Of course, absent modern medicine, pretty much anything that would have the effect of mildly poisoning a pregnant woman could have abortifacient effects. Could just as easily be that they were using something mildly toxic to polish the floors.

  • EllieMurasaki

    My brother’s wearing a “Pro-Life Vanguard” T-shirt with the little footprints in the logo, which reminded me of something.

    You know those Precious Feet pins, the ones sized to match the feet of a ten-week fetus? (I think it’s ten weeks. Not relevant, though.)

    I had one of those on my purse for years.

    I would have saved Savita on the grounds that live mother and dead baby was better than dead mother and dead baby. I would have permitted abortion to someone with a pregnancy gone wrong in one of the shitty ways that doesn’t result in a live one-year-old no matter what one does. (Age chosen arbitrarily, I admit.) If it was only the mother’s health at risk, I would have needed more details before deciding. Rape exception? That’s stupid. Not the baby’s fault who their biodad was. Too poor to raise a baby? No such thing–haven’t you heard of churches and food stamps?

    Then I started meeting feminists on the Internet.

    Know why I spend time on the Internet trying to show people who are against legal abortion what harm is done by making abortion illegal and/or difficult to safely and quickly get and/or by requiring anyone other than the pregnant person and their doctor to have a say in whether the pregnant person gets an abortion?




  • Ginny Bain Allen

    You are arguing for process, rather than point of origin.
    That is your choice, but I’d like to show you why it isn’t
    the superior line.
    For example, it cannot fit the Christian model.  We do not
    find, in Genesis, the metamorphosis from single simple
    molecule to man.  Instead, we find instant creation.  And,
    that is quite logical, because God thinks of the idea,
    speaks it forth, and it becomes an object.  No, the Christian God does not create incrementally, because how would anything survive while awaiting the systems necessary to live?
    Psychologically, you are arguing that persons develop
    after birth.  No, the Bible’s position is that personality and
    character are inborn.  What you are seeing as development is maturation and knowledge.  Your son most definitely knew right from wrong, although he may not have known why.  It is maturity and experience that grow.
    But, I believe that people have motivations to what they
    believe.  So, I am wondering what yours is to take the
    position you do.  You are trying to prove something,
    not from reality, but to make your concept of reality come
    true.  Why?

  • EllieMurasaki

    You are trying to prove something, not from reality, but to make your concept of reality come true. Why?

    Oh look, an explanation for why Ms. Allen is ignoring basic evolutionary biology and human psychology.

  • AnonymousSam

    You are reminding me of a seventeenth century argument: if a child was taken soon after birth and locked away in a room with absolutely no human contact until the age of manhood, would they come out of the room speaking Latin, or Greek?

    Some of us eventually learned the answer to this question.

  • Lori

    No, the Bible’s position is that personality and
    character are inborn.   

    Please provide the book, chapter & verse that states this position.

  • The_L1985

    True, but I didn’t want to break her brain too much.

  • Lunch Meat

    For example, it cannot fit the Christian model.  We do not find, in Genesis, the metamorphosis from single simple molecule to man.  Instead, we find instant creation.  And, that is quite logical, because God thinks of the idea, speaks
    it forth, and it becomes an object.  No, the Christian God does not
    create incrementally, because how would anything survive while awaiting
    the systems necessary to live?

    That’s actually the complete opposite of true.
    -God creates light before a sun to give it.
    -God creates plants and trees before animals to fertilize them and insects to pollinate them.
    -God creates owls and eagles before small mammals to feed them.
    -No word on when God created bacteria, but unless they were created first, nothing could have survived without them–every living thing depends on bacteria.
    -Most importantly, God explicitly creates humans as a process. God does not say “Let there be humans.” God picks up some dirt and starts molding it. And the human does not become a human once the form of the human is there; no, the human does not become a living being until God breathes life into him. Genesis explicitly ties breath to life, and as we all know, babies do not start breathing until they are born.

  • It is a fallacy that “everyone was armed” at Fort Hood.  No one was armed; the weapons on military bases are locked up except when needed for training, etc.  At best there may have been a few armed guards near the gate.  The police who eventually arrived at the scene were the first armed people there.

  •  Despite my correction, I completely agree that arming teachers is a bad idea–at least requiring them to be armed.  There might be very specific circumstances in which trained, armed volunteers might be a good idea, but I’m not sold on it yet.  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.

  • AnonymousSam

    The reference isn’t completely inappropriate, though. It’s not that one expects that there would be soldiers milling about with guns of their own, it’s just the combination of things one would expect to be advantageous (guns, training, and an abundance of both). The fact that a responsible gun owner keeps their firearms away from casual access goes completely over the head of the average gun nut. In their minds, having a gun automatically makes one into a hero waiting to happen. A whole base full of people who couldn’t possibly be better chosen for this possibility — and an ensuing massacre in which this didn’t happen, is still a pretty good argument for why “guns + training = kills the bad guys” is fail logic.

    In reality, teachers would almost certainly have to keep their firearms locked away as well, not just to prevent them from being a distraction to students and a target of curious fingers, but–in the worst and unfortunately common scenario–to prevent them from being stolen. I just don’t see them being an effective deterrent to another shooting. After all, given how many of the shooters kill themselves as the authorities are arriving, I don’t think the prospect of being killed really matters to them — and only one side of these hypothetical shootouts needs to worry about aiming carefully. The whole concept is just rife with horrible potential.

    “Fortunately”, the NRA and their supporters have shifted away from “arm the teachers” to “let’s have armed guards in the schools,” which I don’t think is a much better solution. I can’t imagine it would be very cheap (and our schools are in no position to squander money), and the implementation itself leaves me with concerns. How many guards would we have? Would they just sit in their office until needed? Would they patrol the halls? How ready would their access to firearms be?

  • Lori

    Unless you want to advocate having unlocked weapons around young children then arming school personnel would end up being not all that different from Fort Hood—guns present, but not readily usable in an emergency.

    Having an armed security guard in every school isn’t going to do the trick either, Columbine showed us that.  The Columbine shooters were well aware of the school’s guard and targeted him as soon as they saw him approach the building, before he could even get a sense of what was happening. That day he just happened to be outside. If he had been in the cafeteria as usual and they had shot him there it’s not likely that he could have done much to stop them and worst case scenario his death would simply have provided them with yet another gun.