How did Sen. John McCain’s commitment to addressing global warming and advancing human rights become sources of opposition from Christian Right leader James Dobson?
In an exclusive statement last Wednesday to the Wall Street Journal, the founder of Focus on the Family said he had seen “no evidence that Sen. McCain is successfully unifying the Republican Party or drawing conservatives into his fold. To the contrary, he seems intent on driving them away. To my knowledge, he has not reached out to pro-family leaders or changed any of the positions that have troubled them.”
Dobson then ticked off the issues that trouble conservative Christians. He listed opposition to stem-cell research and gay marriage before he added “governmental intervention in the global warming debate.” But Dobson didn’t stop there. He criticized McCain’s interest in shutting down the Guantanamo prison and opposition to U.S. torture.
That’s right. Supporting torture and ignoring global warming appear to be front-burner issues for the Christian Right.
“I could not vote for Sen. John McCain, even if he goes on to win the Republican nomination,” said Dobson in an early February endorsement of Mike Huckabee.
“I am convinced Sen. McCain is not a conservative, and in fact, has gone out of his way to stick his thumb in the eyes of those who are,” said Dobson in another statement. “I cannot, and will not, vote for Sen. John McCain, as a matter of conscience.”
Two months later in an interview on FOX, Dobson said, “I will certainly vote. I think we have a God-given responsibility to vote, and there are all of the candidates and the issues down the ballot that we have an obligation to weigh in on and let our voices be heard.”
He didn’t say he would vote for McCain. He did question whether McCain could call himself pro-life with his position favoring embryonic stem-cell research.
Dobson’s opposition to stem-cell research, which he considers a form of abortion, is rooted in his Christian worldview, as is his opposition to gay marriage. Both issues have claims to the biblical witness and the Christian moral tradition.
The same can be said by those who oppose torture and advocate for the environment. The biblical witness is clear about respect for human beings who are made in God’s image and human responsibility to care for creation. Thoughtful Christians move from these widely accepted moral teachings to respecting the dignity of prisoners and addressing global warming.
Dobson, however, doesn’t spell out why taking these steps is against the Christian agenda. Instead he speaks as if Christians intrinsically ought to favor torture and inaction on global warming. How he contorts Christian theology to justify the former and oppose action on the later is a puzzle.
Perhaps he finds appealing the argument of Southern Baptist Convention leaders who favor torture because to oppose torture “threatens to undermine Christian moral witness in contemporary culture by dividing evangelicals.” Besides, situation ethics necessitates that sometimes torture is the right thing to do.
In terms of climate change, Dobson signed a statement in 2006 which said evangelicals care about the environment but that since evangelicals did not have a consensus about global warming there should be room for disagreement.
A year later, Dobson said that an evangelical statement calling for global warming action was threatening the unity of evangelicals and was shifting their attention away from opposition to abortion and gay marriage.
Dobson’s addition of torture and inaction on global warming to the conservative litmus test for McCain appears to be less about moral values than organizational unity. Call it control.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.
Robert M. Parham (1953 – 2017) was the founder and executive director of Baptist Center for Ethics from 1991 to 2017. He served as executive editor of EthicsDaily.com, BCE’s website, from its launch in 2002 until 2017.