Tuesday, April 10, 2007

"The Jesus Machine"

Dan Gilgoff is a Senior Editor at U.S. News & World Report, where he covers national politics and the intersection of politics and religion. After the 2004 election, he wrote the first in-depth profile of James Dobson and Focus on the Family, which evolved into his new book, The Jesus Machine.

He applied the "page 69 test" to The Jesus Machine and reported the following:
Page 69 of The Jesus Machine explains how Focus on the Family, the most powerful organization in Christian Right history, is desperately trying to attract new and younger followers by launching some highly interactive web sites. Though Focus maintains a mailing list of nearly six million names and addresses, the average age of those on the list is 52. Because Focus on the Family’s primary mission is helping parents raise their children, that statistic is unsettling.

So Focus is launching web sites like focusonyourchild.org:

“… the site asks parents to sign up for a free membership, which includes eight newsletters and four CD journals annually, plus access to premium web content…. There are separate newsletters and CD journals for four different age levels, and subscriptions change automatically as the child ages. As of early 2006, a quarter million users had signed up.”

The early part of my book explains how Focus on the Family founder James Dobson has gotten more politically powerful than Christian Right leaders Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson ever were precisely because he is not seen as a political activist, but as a trusted family advisor. Dobson built his massive following by dispensing advice on child rearing and marriage on his daily radio show. The focusonyourchild.org site is a prime example of how Dobson and Focus have always developed close personal relationships with their followers around family issues before enlisting them in any political crusades. But, as Page 69 goes onto say:

“Of course, Focus also believes that the more people it can help and form intimate, lasting relationships with, the more soldiers it can enlist in the culture war. “Eventually, we can get them to mobilize on our behalf,” said [Steve] Maegdlin, the director of constituent acquisitions. “They essentially become an extension of who we are.”

The page concludes by saying that Focus is walking a tightrope in attempting to gain new “constituents.” That’s because it’s difficult to gain new followers by “nurturing” young families while simultaneously becoming much more vocal in the divisive culture war though Focus’s new sister group, Focus on the Family Action:

“…as James Dobson becomes ever more public about his political activism under the auspices of Focus on the Family Action, branding Focus as a political organization in the public eye, he complicates the strategy of reaching new constituents through spotlighting the organization’s “nurturing” side.”

For a reader cracking the book open for the first time and landing on page 69, it would no doubt be difficult to contextualize. But in detailing how Focus on the Family is struggling to become both more family-oriented and more political, it actually touches on the book’s central paradox, that Dobson’s is an unrivaled political power because he’s seen to be above the partisan political fray.
Visit The Jesus Machine website and read excerpts from the book.

Check out the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue