Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Books from the Religious Right: MARRIAGE UNDER FIRE by James Dobson

At several Religious Right events, I noticed free copies of James Dobson's 2004 book Marriage Under Fire: Why We Must Win This Battle. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, pours his antipathy toward LGBT rights into this small, 123-page book. Saturated with homophobia, Marriage Under Fire is an alarmist collection of stereotypes and scare tactics meant to reinforce the biases of its right-wing audience. For more progressive readers seeking to understand the religious right, the book distills common fundamentalist arguments against LGBT rights, exposing the hatred and fear behind them.

Dobson begins by waxing poetic about the heterosexual family. Claiming that something mystical and intrinsic in human nature draws men and women together, he asserts that passion finds its fulfillment in marriage. Dobson describes heterosexual marriage as a divinely-ordained institution that has formed the foundation of every society in history. (Marriage Under Fire ignores the fact that many kinds of family structures have existed throughout cultures and time periods.) None of the cultures that permitted homosexuality survived, he claims, citing Sodom and Gomorrah, ancient Greece, and Rome. The fact that societies decline for complex reasons, or that all societies rise and fall over time are ignored, as homosexuality is a much simpler scapegoat. Heterosexual marriage is the foundation of human social order, he insists, and "tampering" with marriage by allowing same-sex unions will utterly destroy civilization.

Dobson lambastes European nations that have permitted same-sex marriage, claiming that the institution of marriage is "dying" in those countries and mind-boggling percentages of children are being born out of wedlock there. His disgust also extends to feminists, "liberal lawmakers", and the entertainment industry who have supposedly chipped away at marriage.

After refusing to legitimize same-sex marriages and LGBT families, Dobson promotes fanciful gender stereotypes without providing evidence for his claims. Stating that "neither [sex] is entirely comfortable without the other", he tells readers that women supposedly have a deep longing that can only be appeased through a long-term romantic bond with a man. (Uh, Jim? I know several lesbian women who would disagree with you.) Women's self-esteem and fulfillment and derived from intimacy in marriage, he claims, disregarding the many other ways that real-life women find self-respect and happiness. Women, in Dobson's universe, long to be and find their existential purpose in being a man's other half. I can almost hear my female readers guffawing . . .

Dobson claims that wives are essential to men's stability because they motivate men to live responsibly. Without this feminine influence, he believes, men release their testosterone in destructive ways. In this manner, he insults men by stereotyping them as selfish animals when bereft of women's supposed civilizing influence, and he insults women by making them responsible for men's behavior. Dobson thus ignores both sexes' propensity for aggression, as well as both sexes' propensity for reason, cooperation, and self-discipline.

Dobson insists that social programs such HUD, food stamps, and social services made men superfluous in the home, resulting in violence, drug abuse, and absentee fathers in the inner cities. This swipe at helpful social services ignores the complex roots of urban poverty and social problems. Why delve into complicated economic and societal variables when it's easier to blame the big government boogie man?

Dobson wastes no time in lobbing straw man attacks at the LGBT community, accusing them of condemning marriage as an outdated Christian tradition, disregarding moral law, and engineering a master plan to utterly destroy the family. Homosexuals' goals, in Dobson's mind, include "muzzling" clergy and Christian media, indoctrinating children through public education, and overturning laws prohibiting pedophilia. Instead of recognizing LGBT people as fellow citizens seeking equal rights, Dobson dehumanizes them as monsters who want to brainwash and abuse children while destroying all family life. Instead of acknowledging that LGBT people have existed throughout history, he mocks homosexuality as modern "social experimentation". This over-the-top stereotype might be amusing if not for the scores of right-wing fundamentalists who imagine LGBT people this way.

Chiding lawmakers for their supposed callousness toward the family (translation: lack of overt homophobia), Dobson fumes over the marriage tax, no-fault divorce laws, and the antipathy of some policicians toward government-funded marriage initiatives. He lists such politicians by name, probably to discourage conservative readers from voting for them. Predictably, Dobson speaks warmly of state Defense of Marriage Acts (DOMAs).

In keeping with Godwin's Law, Marriage Under Fire is full of Nazi-based insults. Dobson caricatures same-sex marriage supporters as zealots determined to plough through any uncooperative democratic processes, comparing them to Adolph Hitler. More than once, he likens the struggle against same-sex marriage to World War II, demonstrating his penchant for hyperbole. Such demonization of LGBT people and their allies is not only absurd, but dangerous.

Marriage Under Fire makes the ridiculous assertion that LGBT people do not actually want to marry each other, as marriage would ensnare them in undesirable legal constraints. Rather, their supposed goal is to completely alter the country's legal structure so that all people can enjoy the legal benefits of marriage while indulging in polygamy and promiscuity. Dobson thus prevents LGBT people from speaking in their own voices and articulating their visions, insisting that, "no, they don't really want such-and-such".

The fear mongering continues. With no evidence for his assertions, Dobson outrageously claims that same-
sex marriage will rob children of stable families and render adoption regulations obsolete. To boot, he tells readers that Social Security and the health care system will collapse, as millions of new same-sex partners become eligible for coverage. Would he begrudge health care to these people if they were in heterosexual marriages instead of same-sex marriages, I wonder?

Finally, Marriage Under Fire asserts that same-sex marriage will somehow jeopardize religious freedom. Dobson frets that LGBT rights will somehow prevent families from handing down the Christian faith to their children, which assumes that Christianity and LGBT rights are incompatible. This assumption ignores the existence of LGBT Christians, open and affirming congregations, and queer theology, all of which integrate respect for LGBT persons and faith.

In conclusion, Marriage Under Fire is a sloppy, hysterical book promoting irrational fear of LGBT people. It refuses to let LGBT people speak in their own voices, preferring to demonize them as depraved monsters bent on destroying faith, family, and society. It allows for no meaningful dialogue with LGBT rights supporters, ignoring their actual goals and accusing them of sinister dreams. On one hand, such rhetoric is deeply disturbing in that it promotes homophobia among Christian fundamentalists, preying on their fears. Such homophobia promotes a cultural climate that is oppressive to LGBT people, a problem that we have yet to fully overcome.

On the other hand, the book's absurd claims may be its saving grace, in that they reveal just how ridiculous homophobic fear-mongering truly is. As fundamentalists encounter LGBT people, some will discover that LGBT folks are human beings who simply want equal rights, not the slime-dripping devils of Marriage Under Fire. Real life has a way of overcoming false assumptions, and hopefully, exposure to real LGBT people will undermine the influence of homophobic rhetoric on Dobson's readers.

Still, I wonder why I keep seeing this book being given away at right-wing events. Is it because it's small and therefore cheap to buy in bulk? Is it because the Religious Right realizes it is losing ground on the same-sex marriage issue, and it seeks to rile up its base? I don't know. I can only hope that readers of Marriage Under Fire will recognize its rhetoric as empty, someday choosing to co-exist with LGBT people instead of fearing them.

If you would like to read more commentary on James Dobson and Marriage Under Fire, Soulforce confronts Dobson's claims in A False Focus on My Family.

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