James Clayton “Jim” Dobson (1936- ), was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, the only child of a Church of the Nazarene evangelist and his wife. Although his father was a traveling evangelist, young Dobson spent most of his childhood in Bethany, Oklahoma. Upon graduation from high school Dobson went west to California to enroll in the Church of the Nazarene’s Pasadena College (today’s Point Loma Nazarene College in San Diego) where he majored in psychology and was captain of the tennis team. Convinced that God wanted him to study psychology, he was accepted into the child development program at the University of Southern California (USC), receiving his doctorate in 1967. Dobson was then hired as an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the USC School of Medicine while also serving as a member of the staff in the division of child development at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles.
An active layperson and increasingly frequent speaker on family and childcare issues in evangelical circles, Dobson’s first book, Dare to Discipline (Tyndale House) was published in 1970 and quickly became a long-term bestseller in evangelical bookstores across the country. Coming amid the whirlwind of changes affecting families in the late 1960s and 1970s, Dobson’s common-sense approach to child-rearing balanced love and discipline with a dose of moderate corporal punishment that resonated with many Americans as a counterpoint to the permissiveness perceived in the writings of many secular child experts such as Dr. Benjamin Spock. A flurry of books followed thereafter including Hide or Seek (1974), What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women (1975), Preparing for Adolescence and The Strong-Willed Child (both 1978) that cemented Dobson’s reputation as evangelical America’s authority on the family.
In early 1977 Dobson began his syndicated radio program “Focus on the Family.” At first a weekly 15-minute program, it quickly became a 30-minute daily staple in evangelical homes across the nation, eventually airing on 3,000 stations in North America. A seven-part film and video series recorded in 1979 extended Dobson’s reach and was viewed by tens of millions of American churchgoers in the 1980s. In 1983 Focus on the Family magazine became the first of several specialized magazines put out by Dobson’s organization. While family counseling and child rearing remained Dobson’s core concern, increasingly in the 1980s his radio program, publications, and organizational influence turned towards cultural and political issues associated with the agenda of the so-called “Religious Right” and as such became ever more identified with conservative Republican politics. From a massive new headquarters erected in Colorado Springs in 1993, Focus on the Family directed not only the organization’s huge broadcasting and print operations, but became a key cog in the efforts of the pro-life movement as well as attempts to battle gay rights, same-sex marriage, and efforts to influence the curriculum in the nation’s school systems. One of American evangelicalism’s most powerful leaders in the late 20th-century, by the first decade of the 21st-century Dobson had become one of its most divisive and controversial figures both inside and outside the subculture.
For further reading see Dale Buss, Family Man: The Biography of James Dobson (Tyndale, 2005) and Dan Gilgoff, The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family and Evangelical America Are Winning the Culture War (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008).