The Dobsons were members of the Nazarene Church, a denomination of evangelical Christianity that believes human beings are inherently evil but can be saved if they repent and put their faith in Jesus Christ. Followers believe fervently in Judgment Day, when the Lord will return to the earth, the dead will be raised, and the faithful will be reunited with their loved ones in Heaven. Nazarenes believe that after a person has had an initial born-again experience, the Holy Spirit will seek to perform a second work of grace called “entire sanctification” or “baptism with the Holy Spirit,” which purges all sin. Gil Alexander-Moegerle, a former Focus executive and once one of Dobson’s most trusted advisors, writes in his 1997 book James Dobson’s War on America that this “Holiness” principle is key to understanding Dobson’s worldview: “James Dobson believes that he has been entirely sanctified, morally perfected, that he does not and cannot sin. Now you know why he and moralists like him make a life of condemning what he believes to be the sins of others. He is perfect.”
With his born-again experience, James Dobson was on his way to fulfilling a family prophecy: His great-grandfather had told the family that he received a message from God informing him that four generations of his family would rise up and serve the Lord. Dobson’s father often spent three to four hours a day on his knees; the child attempted to pray before he learned to talk. Being the son of an itinerant, evangelical preacher was hard on young Dobson, an only child. While his parents spread the gospel, the boy often was left with relatives. Sensing his son’s loneliness, Dobson’s dad bought a house in Bethany, Oklahoma, and for the next 11 years his wife, Myrtle, looked after their child while he traveled from farm to church, sowing God’s word.
In the Dobson household there were “a million rules,” the son would later write, “regulations and prohibitions for almost every imaginable situation.” He was chewed out for using the expression “Hot dog!” and forbidden from uttering “darn,” “geez,” or “dad-gummit” because they were considered shorthand swear words. Yet Dobson was a rambunctious and mischievous kid. He loved roughhousing with his father; one of their favorite games was kick fighting. The elder Dobson would encourage the boy to kick him in the shins, blocking the blows with the bottom of his feet. “Jimbo,” or “Bo,” as his father called him, would fight back like a tiger, prompting his dad to “tap” him on the shins with his toe. “We would end up laughing hysterically, despite the bumps and bruises on my legs,” Dobson writes in Bringing Up Boys.
Once, as Dobson writes in The New Strong-Willed Child, Jimbo provoked a fight between a pug bulldog and a “sweet, passive Scottie named Baby” by throwing a tennis ball toward Baby: “The bulldog went straight for Baby’s throat and hung on. It was an awful scene. Neighbors came running from everywhere as the Scottie screamed in terror. It took ten minutes and a garden hose for the adults to pry loose the bulldog’s grip. By then Baby was almost dead. He spent two weeks in the animal hospital, and I spent two weeks in the doghouse. I was hated by the entire town.”
Myrtle Dobson was an amiable and social woman, but she didn’t hesitate to whack her son with a shoe or belt when she felt it was required. Consequently, Dobson writes, he learned at an early age to stay out of striking distance when he back-talked to his mother. One day he made the mistake of mouthing off when she was only four feet away and heard a 16-pound girdle whistling through the air. “The intended blow caught me across the chest, followed by a multitude of straps and buckles wrapping themselves around my midsection.” The girdle incident did not dampen his defiance, however. One evening, after Dobson’s mother forbid him from going to a dance, the recalcitrant teenager told her that he was going anyway; she picked up the telephone and called her husband. “I need you,” she said.
“What happened in the next few days shocked me down to my toes,” writes Dobson. His father canceled the next four years’ worth of speaking engagements, put the Oklahoma house up for sale, and took a pastor’s job in San Benito, Texas, a small town near the Mexican border. Dobson had two years of high school left, and when he started classes he found himself the target of a couple of bullies. Rather than turn the other cheek, Dobson wheeled around and threw his schoolbooks in the face of one annoying youth. “By the time he could see me again I was on top of him,” Dobson writes. Dobson also tried a little bullying himself, targeting a boy whom he sized up as a “sissy.” But the boy gave him such a thrashing that Dobson concluded bullying wasn’t for him.
It's also a warning to parents everywhere, to cultivate discipline over themselves.