On the March 30 edition of American Family Radio's (AFR) Today's Issues, co-host Tim Wildmon -- president of the conservative American Family Association (AFA) -- and Focus on the Family's Tom Minnery suggested that Focus on the Family chairman James C. Dobson's comment questioning the faith of possible 2008 presidential candidate and former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-TN) occurred in the context of "a private conversation ... between two friends" and should not have been reported. In fact, Dobson was speaking with a man he knew was a reporter for a national newsmagazine, and Minnery and Wildmon did not claim that Dobson had stipulated his comments were not for publication.
Minnery is senior vice president for Focus on the Family Action, a lobbying organization that describes itself as a "cultural action organization" legally separate from Focus on the Family and serves as "a platform for informing, inspiring and rallying those who care deeply about the family to greater involvement in the moral, cultural and political issues that threaten our nation."
On March 28, U.S. News & World Report correspondent Dan Gilgoff reported that Dobson had said of Thompson: "Everyone knows he's conservative and has come out strongly for the things that the pro-family movement stands for. ... [But] I don't think he's a Christian; at least that's my impression."
After a spokesman for Thompson rebuked Dobson, asserting that Thompson was baptized and is a member of the Church of Christ, a Focus on the Family spokesman, Gary Schneeberger, stood by Dobson's remarks and told Gilgoff: "We use that word -- Christian -- to refer to people who are evangelical Christians. Dr. Dobson wasn't expressing a personal opinion about his reaction to a Thompson candidacy; he was trying to 'read the tea leaves' about such a possibility."
Gilgoff wrote in his article that Dobson's comments about Thompson were made during an unsolicited phone call Dobson placed to him. Gilgoff wrote that the two had not communicated in two years, the last time occurring when Gilgoff was writing a book about Dobson and his organization, The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical America are Winning the Culture War (St. Martin's Press, March 2007). According to Gilgoff, Dobson "agreed to answer only written questions for the book."
On March 30, two days after Dobson's remarks, Minnery, appeared on AFR's Today's Issues. Minnery backed away from Dobson's comments, stating, "As it turns out, he [Thompson] is a member of the Church of Christ, been baptized, so he's a Christian man." At the same time, Minnery suggested Gilgoff was out of line for reporting Dobson's criticism of Thompson. Minnery claimed Dobson "hadn't talked to Dan in a little while so he called him up just to chat and see how he was doing and Dan immediately pounced on that as an opportunity for an interview." He went on: "So Dan wrote an article saying Dr. Dobson does not believe Fred Thompson is a Christian. I don't think it was a proper thing for Dan to do because it was a personal phone call and they were talking offhandedly." Minnery left out the fact that Dobson had not communicated with Gilgoff for two years, and that even then, the two had corresponded only in writing regarding Gilgoff's book.
Wildmon echoed Minnery's distortion, claiming without basis that Dobson and Gilgoff were engaging in friendly banter. Wildmon said: "[I]f we were all quoted on things we say during the course of a day, offhanded, off the top of our head -- and I know he's talking to a reporter, but this is a private conversation on the phone between two friends, not a 'OK, can I record you now? OK, we're on the record.' "
Also on March 30, Focus on the Family issued a press release "clarify[ing]" Dobson's remarks, stating, "Dr. Dobson told Mr. Gilgoff he had never met Sen. Thompson and wasn't certain that his understanding of the former senator's religious convictions was accurate. Unfortunately, these qualifiers weren't reported by Mr. Gilgoff." The press release added that "we would caution friends of our ministry not to believe what they read about Dr. Dobson in the secular media today. ... It is apparent that those who represent a liberal worldview seek to marginalize him and confuse our friends."
From the March 30 edition of American Family Radio's Today's Issues:
MINNERY: You don't have to guess with Dr. Dobson. He's consistent because his moral beliefs are absolute and he never wavers, and he has a great capacity for taking criticism. He said a long time ago -- I'll never forget this -- this was back in 1987 when we decided to get into formal public policy issues. He was warned by a lot of people, "Don't do that because they'll drag your reputation in the mud." And he said this, he said, "My reputation is given to me by the Lord. It's a blessing. I will not hoard the reputation. I'll spend it in the cause of righteousness." And that is why he's willing to be criticized because he knows that's the price of standing up, and so he's a very consistent guy.
WILDMON: This latest thing the past couple, three days, what was that about? Because he got criticized about some remark about Senator Thompson or something like that --
MINNERY: Yeah. Fred Thompson, former senator from Tennessee, has announced that he's interested in being president, and he's exploring that as so many others are. And Dr. Dobson made a phone call earlier this week to a man named Dan Gilgoff. Dan Gilgoff is a reporter with U.S. News & World Report, a man that we had worked with before because Dan wrote a cover story for U.S. News & World Report on Dr. Dobson a number of years ago and it was very fair, so we've been friendly to Dan.
Dan recently wrote a book about Focus on the Family called The Jesus Machine. We think that title is a bit blasphemous, but nonetheless, it was about Focus on the Family. And it says -- the subtitle is "How Focus on the Family and the Religious Right" -- no, it's "How James Dobson, Focus on the Family and Religious America are Winning the Culture War." I'm not sure we're winning, but it's a pretty fair look overall at Focus on the Family. And Dr. Dobson hadn't talked to Dan for a while, so he called him up a few days ago just to chat and see how he was doing, and Dan immediately pounced on that as an opportunity for an interview. He asked about presidential candidates, particularly Fred Thompson. Dr. Dobson said, "Well, I don't know, I'm not sure he's a Christian." And so Dan wrote an article saying Dr. Dobson does not believe Fred Thompson is a Christian. I don't think it was a proper thing for Dan to do because it was a personal phone call and they were talking offhandedly, and --
WILDMON: Yeah, so that was, you know -- when you're making a -- you know, when you -- if we were all quoted on things we say during the course of a day, offhanded, off the top of our head -- and I know he's talking to a reporter, but this is a private conversation on the phone between two friends, not a "OK, can I record you now? OK, we're on the record." You know? And what Dr. Dobson was saying, what you just said, I don't see anything wrong with it necessarily. He wasn't making a judgment about the guy's soul, he was just saying, "I'm not so sure" -- and I don't remember what -- if Fred Thompson's ever made a statement of faith or appeared at a Christian event. And I know his voting record -- best I remember, it was pretty conservative on the issues that we care about.
MINNERY: Yes, he is. And as it turns out, he is a member of the Church of Christ, been baptized, so he's a Christian man.
WILDMON: OK, all right. Well, there you go.