Earlier this month, Dr. James Dobson published his July newsletter entitled “Dr. Dobson’s Visit to the Border”. Given Dr. Dobson’s history of advocating child abuse, anti-LGBTQ+ stance, poor sexual education philosophy, Dominionist theology, adherence to Intelligent Design, refusal to accept the growing crisis of global warming, and rock-steady support of the Republican party at all costs (please don’t make me provide links to all of this), I don’t follow his work at all. Normally, I couldn’t care less about his newsletters.
But some of the comments made by friends of mine who had read the newsletter prompted me to give it a look. And I have to say, what I read surprised me.
I’ve come to expect that people with views like Dr. Dobson’s will go out of their way to minimize the humanity of those who are arriving at the southern border of the United States from other countries. It’s a human technique we use to avoid facing the consequences of the evil we visit upon one another. It’s a self-preservation mechanism. If the people we hate and mistreat aren’t as human as we are, it’s easier to justify treating them like animals. This is what I expected to find in Dr. Dobson’s newsletter.
Imagine my surprise, then, when Dr. Dobson describes those trying to flee to the United States this way: “poor and destitute human beings”, “human tragedy”, “exhausted and ragged”, “abused”, “carry[ing] lice, scabies, or other diseases”, “raped”, “heart-wrenching”, “traumatized and frightened”, “desperate”, “lowest rung of many societies”, “penniless and profoundly needy”.
At this point, I had to give credit to Dr. Dobson. His description of the people being apprehended and put in concentration camps at the border matches the descriptions I’ve seen in other publications. It’s a description of the prisoners not as rabid, evil, manipulative criminals trying to trick us all with horrible schemes. Instead, his experience with the people he met in the concentration camps moved him to write about them as suffering human beings. He wasn’t dehumanizing them–instead, he was re-humanizing them.
Or so I thought. Alas, the kinship I felt with Dr. Dobson ended as quickly as it formed. From here on out, we have vastly different responses to the same crisis.
My response is grounded in my Christian faith and the Lutheran concept of neighbor justice (I am indebted to the recommended proposed social statement Faith, Sexism, and Justice: A Lutheran Call to Action for this concept and definition). Neighbor justice is a term that “expresses the idea that faith is active in love and love necessarily calls for justice in relationships and in the structures of society. Neighbor justice is meeting neighbors’ needs across the globe and in our local communities.” In situations that require ethical discernment, the question of how choices and positions reflect, or fail to reflect, neighbor justice is a vital question for me to consider.
In a general sense then, when confronted with a crisis in which a people Dr. Dobson himself describes as poor, suffering, taken advantage of, sick, traumatized, and more are in need of intervention, the way Holy Spirit has pulled me along my faith journey more often than not compels me to show compassion and to give what aid I can.
Dr. Dobson does not agree.
Summary of his response: Immediately after his moving description of the plight of those seeking asylum or refugee status, he entertains two of his preferred solutions: simply closing the border entirely and admitting no one, and sending all asylum-seekers back to their home country. Federal law (8 U.S.C. ch. 12) and international treaties (Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees) dating back to at least the 1950s but informed by earlier law prohibit these actions.
He then proceeds to claim, without any citation or sources to back up his claim, that the reason these “would-be immigrants” (his words, not mine) keep coming is so that they can receive free food, medical care, and housing; and then be released into the country, free to do whatever they want, including illegal activity, with impunity. He relies on standard conspiracy-theory tropes to justify his position.
Dr. Dobson then shifts to praising the work being done by the United States Border Patrol agents responsible for apprehending, incarcerating and caring for those in their custody. There is truth to his description of the difficulties facing the agents who are ill-trained and ill-equipped to provide the care necessary to those in their custody.
There is also truth to the disturbing accounts of abuse perpetuated by USBP agents on prisoners, including children. These abuses are some of the primary reasons there are such strong calls for justice for those kept in these concentration camps.
At last, Dr. Dobson implores his readers to give their full support to President Donald Trump who, in his mind, is the only person in the United States of America who cares about this crisis (whether or not he actually does is irrelevant).
Did you notice something? Did you notice what’s missing? It took me a while, but I did.
Nowhere in Dr. Dobson’s account of his visit to the USBP facility did he give any suggestions for how to care for those held in custody by USBP. All of those poor, needy, abused, traumatized people he visited? Not once in his newsletter did the concept of neighbor justice make an appearance. He told them God loves them, and that he “loved” them. That was it. When confronted, face to face, with the suffering and pain of those held in captivity, his only response was to say, “God loves you,” and walk away.
If I was surprised by his moving account of those held in custody and the suffering they endure, both during their trip and while in custody, imagine how much more surprised I was that his experiences didn’t move Dr. Dobson to compassion. Instead, they moved him to anger and paranoia.
Dr. Dobson doesn’t think that the suffering of those in USBP custody is a crisis. He thinks their existence is: a crisis attacking Americans like himself. The most disturbing part of the newsletter is its closing:
What I’ve told you is only a glimpse of what is occurring on the nation’s border. I don’t know what it will take to change the circumstances. I can only report that without an overhaul of the law and the allocation of resources, millions of illegal immigrants will continue flooding to this great land from around the world. 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. 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. And it won’t take long for the inevitable consequences to happen.
These words are terrifying, and I need you to understand why.
When Dr. Dobson sees waves of abused and desperate people fleeing for their lives, crossing thousands of miles of dangerous landscape, being led by manipulative and abusive people who practically rob them of all they own in exchange for maybe leading them to safely, he doesn’t see people who need his help. He looks past all of their suffering, all of their need, and focuses on one thing: they don’t look like him.
Dr. Dobson sees people who speak a different language than he does, eat different food than he does, wear different clothing that he does, have different traditions than he does, have different worldviews than he does, and that’s what he focuses on. It doesn’t matter that they’re suffering. It doesn’t matter that they are being locked up in cages for following the law under a zero-tolerance family separation policy that is inhumane, unethical, and immoral. These things don’t matter because these people are different, and in the mind of Dr. Dobson, different is a threat.
Perhaps Dr. Dobson remembers the early colonialists from Europe who arrived on this continent and then obliterated the native cultures and peoples they came across. Perhaps Dr. Dobson is well aware that the history of the United States being founded and growing as a country is a history of believing that white European culture was inherently superior to everything else. Perhaps Dr. Dobson is well aware of the white supremacy that undergirded the formation of this country, and is afraid that non-white people may be out for revenge against people like him.
Whatever his reasons are, Dr. Dobson’s message is clear–refugees and asylum-seekers, because they do not look, act, or talk like him, are a threat to his way of life. He believes that only those who subscribe to the white, Christian, suburban, upper-class lifestyle that he does are fit to be called Americans. And anyone else who doesn’t agree is someone, in his mind, out to destroy his culture and replace it with their own. They are a threat to his life.
And because they are a threat to his life, it doesn’t matter what happens to them. They must be stopped at all costs. They must be imprisoned. They must be “dealt with”. Because if they aren’t, then the United States will look less like Dr. Dobson and more like them.
And that’s something Dr. Dobson cannot accept. “If it ain’t white, it ain’t right”.
People like Dr. James Dobson scare me. I am afraid that too many people agree with him. I am afraid that they will ensure that many more refugees and asylum-seekers will be arrested, imprisoned, and die, their humanity stripped away and sacrificed on the altar of white nationalism. And I am afraid that the rest of us won’t speak up.
Prove me wrong.
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service is one of the only nine agencies partnered with the Office of Refugee Resettlement, and one of only two that helps unaccompanied minors. LIRS has worked to resettle refugees for eighty years and is one of the largest of the nine voluntary agencies. Please consider donating to this organization (or any of the other eight) so they can continue to help new arrivals to the United States and live out the Christian calling to welcome the stranger.