In his July newsletter, James Dobson of Focus on the Family fame weighed in on the crisis unfolding at the border as refugees are detained in terrible conditions. His comments disappointed and surprised me.
I’ve long disagreed with Dobson’s fundamentalist approach to faith, but before this political era, I at least considered him intellectually honest and consistent in applying his own values, however off-the-mark I thought many of them were. But this newsletter showcases a shocking abandonment of some very clear, very basic Christian teachings that I thought even progressives and fundamentalists could agree on. It also jumps to conclusions and asserts unsupported claims to a degree that borders on partisan propaganda.
Dobson claims the media has misrepresented the border crisis and offers his own report to “set the record straight.” Invited by White House staff, he visited an immigrant holding facility and came away with several conclusions:
- Conditions at the border facilities are heartbreaking. However, our immigration system is overwhelmed with migrants because of unworkable Democratic border policies.
- The number of migrants coming to our country will soon overwhelm our culture and bankrupt the nation.
- Unscrupulous immigrants game the system by using children as fake family members to gain entrance to our country (Dobson spends much time reinforcing this idea, seemingly implying that these unscrupulous people account for large numbers of immigrants).
- Migrants come here in large numbers because they know they’ll be treated well. When we release them from custody, they skip asylum hearings and remain illegally in the country.
- Donald Trump is the only compassionate politician who cares about the border crisis, and his wall is the only realistic solution.
Yep, he actually says Donald Trump is the only person who cares. Twice!
“He seems to be the only leader in America who comprehends this tragedy and is willing to address it.
“There is one solution as I see it, which is for people of faith to pray for our President as he seeks to deal with this humanitarian crisis…I know of no one with political influence besides the President who seems to care about the crisis at the border.
Other people have deconstructed Dobson’s newsletter from the standpoint of immigration law, casting doubt on the accuracy of Dobson’s claims. I encourage you to read that perspective, since I can’t speak to immigration law myself.
My take focuses specifically on Dobson’s apparent abandonment of Christian principles and honest discourse.
Part 1: “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.” —Ephesians 4:25
Dobson sets himself up as a reporter of truth among the lies. That’s a solemn responsibility. Many evangelical Christians take his opinions seriously, and he intentionally declares his goal as delivering unbiased facts to people who don’t know what to think.
How does Dobson treat this awesome responsibility? With fear-mongering, illogical arguments and unsupported claims.
Dobson mentions recent immigration numbers and paints a grim picture: a “never-ending” tsunami of refugees who will overwhelm our immigration system, disappear into society, and eventually “bankrupt” our nation. A border wall, he says, is the only way to protect ourselves from being overrun by the world’s poor.
“…in this instance, we have met a worldwide wave of poverty that will take us down if we don’t deal with it.
Dobson fails to put his immigration numbers in context. Reports from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency reveal that, indeed, the numbers of migrants apprehended at the border is astonishingly high—but that’s only been the case since February of 2019. Prior to February, the number of migrants apprehended was comparable to numbers from, say, 2017.
The Pew Research Center and others report that illegal immigration in 2017 and 2018 was lower than it was in 2007. Illegal immigrants did not overwhelm or bankrupt us in 2007. Why does Dobson ignore those numbers and sound the alarm now? Further, why jump to the conclusion that the recent uptick in immigration will continue? Perhaps recent world events caused this increase in border crossings, and new world events will slow it down next year.
Dobson’s quick jump to panic stems either from lazy ignorance of the facts, or intentional deception. Neither explanation befits a Christian minister tasked with guiding fellow Christians to truth.
Similarly, Dobson blames long-standing immigration policies, like the Flores Settlement Agreement and “catch and release” practices, for the recent numbers. So many refugees travel here, he explains, because they know we’ll go easy on them and offer a free pass into our country.
But the policies Dobson blames were in place long before February 2019—years before! None of the Democratic immigration policies he singles out in this newsletter could realistically explain why February, in particular, saw an uptick in arrivals at the border. This is partisan finger-pointing with no basis in logic—again, not befitting a Christian leader and supposed lone-wolf truth teller.
He casts aspersions on desperate migrants by implying that massive numbers of them are con artists and criminals with fake family members gaming the system. He offers no studies or numbers to back up his claim. His words will doubtless convince many readers that they need not worry if we treat refugees like criminals, and need not question whether immigration policies deal humanely with families. Does Dobson comprehend the decrease in Christlike compassion that his words may inspire?
Worse, he keeps referencing our humane treatment of refugees—food, shelter, medicine, timely release from custody—as a factor in their decision to come here. As if humane treatment is the problem.
Why keep bringing that up, Dr. Dobson? What’s the implied solution—enacting purposely inhumane policies to scare people away? Is that what Jesus did when threatened?
The last time the U.S. considered lowering its standards for immigrant treatment as a deterrent to new arrivals, we got the parent/child separation policy, which punished even legal asylum seekers. Dobson (the former head of an organization called Focus on the Family) remains silent on the ethics behind the family separation policy, though he spends paragraphs emphasizing the supposedly large numbers of refugee families who are “fake” families.
Shame on you, Dobson.
Part 2: Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. -Matthew 25:40
Listen to how Dobson describes the immigrants who come to us for help, as he explains why we can’t possibly assist such large crowds.
“Many of them have no marketable skills. They are illiterate and unhealthy. Some are violent criminals. Their numbers will soon overwhelm the culture as we have known it, and it could bankrupt the nation.
He judges their desirability based on their utility. They can’t contribute to our economy? They don’t match our level of education? They might get us sick? Quick, shut the doors!
This is the very opposite of how Christ teaches us to view fellow image-bearers. We’re to recognize Him in the sick and the destitute. Dobson would rather shut them out behind a wall so they don’t make demands on this, the richest nation in the world.
There’s something heartbreakingly hilarious about thinking such a wealthy country can’t muster the resources to help the poor.
When Dobson warns that these migrants may “overwhelm the culture” I must ask: of what concern is that to Christians? If we follow Christ, does it matter what version of culture we preserve? Is it somehow un-Christian for cultures to change through the influence of world events?
Are other image-bearers so distasteful that we can’t risk becoming like them?
Instead of reacting with fear, let’s imagine a Christian approach to the scary picture he paints. If migrants are illiterate, let’s teach them to read. If they’re unskilled, let’s train them and give them dignifying work. If they’re sick, let’s provide medical care.
Then we’ll have a larger populace of literate, skilled, healthy Americans to make our nation prosperous, since national prosperity seems to be Dobson’s ultimate concern.
As a point of order, I must also ask how Dobson knows that refugees have no education or skills to offer. His newsletter mentions the language barriers we face in communicating with them, along with the difficulty of obtaining records on them. Yet suddenly we know everything about their education and work history?
Part 3: “No one can serve two masters.” -Matthew 6:24
My moment of deepest shock and exasperation came at the end of the newsletter:
“America has been a wonderfully generous and caring country since its founding. That is our Christian nature. But in this instance, we have met a worldwide wave of poverty that will take us down if we don’t deal with it.
Listen, people, I get the need for practicality. We should, indeed, analyze our resources when presented with a problem. We should approach dilemmas with a plan in hand and understand our limits.
But read in the context of this entire newsletter—a letter which fear-mongers about a tidal wave of migrants without transparently addressing immigration trends, which makes no suggestion for response except to build a wall, and which expresses fear of cultures outside America—Dobson’s statement comes off as fearful and faithless, not wise.
It sounds like he’s saying that Christian principles work until they don’t. It sounds like he’s giving permission to abandon Christ’s teachings when they get too uncomfortable.
Now, some might argue that individual Christ-followers are charged to uphold Biblical principles, but governments operate differently. Fair enough; last I checked, people form nations not to worship Christ but to organize other humans. Many Christian convictions surely appear foolish from a secular political standpoint.
But that raises all kinds of questions about ideologies Dobson and his audience typically hold dear. Does it make sense to call ourselves “a Christian nation” if we believe our government can’t operate according to Christ’s radical call to sacrifice? Is it coherent to applaud our nation’s “Christian values” if you absolve the nation from following those values in the next breath? If nations can’t fully commit to Christ’s call, then why should Christians feel patriotism, or any emotion, about their country?
I finished Dobson’s letter with a heavy heart. I’ve had no shortage of disagreements with his beliefs over the years, but this goes beyond disagreements between fundamentalism and progressive Christianity. Dobson’s letter shows a lack of old-fashioned faith in the clear teachings of Jesus. It is so frightened, so logic-bending, so absurdly hyperbolic about Trump’s nobility, that it reads like propaganda produced by a writer-for-hire.
Which brings me to my final point. Dobson admits up front that his visit was prompted and arranged by White House staff. How can he claim to have been given unbiased information by an administration that relies on him to reassure a large chunk of its voter base? Does he think Trump’s people would willingly send him to border agents and immigration law experts who would make the administration’s treatment of migrants look bad?
Questions the astute reader should ask, which I expect Dobson will never directly answer.
**Edit: A previous version of this post identified Dobson as the current head of Focus on the Family, but he is no longer associated with the organization. See, even professional writers must use caution about missing nuances when writing on important topics!