Never Under-Estimate Dobson’s Reach

Focus on the Family’s James Dobson is perhaps the most influential right-wing leader in America today and his power goes well beyond purely domestic issues such as generating voter turn-out for Republicans or pushing for the confirmation of judges – as the Boston Globe reports, it reaches all the way into United States Agency for International Development, and policy decisions that affect health care for millions across the globe.

The administration had hoped to avoid fights with religious conservatives by putting people in charge of USAID with strong faith-based ties: administrator Andrew Natsios and global health director Dr. Anne Peterson.

Natsios is a former Massachusetts legislator who once supervised the Big Dig and has served as vice president of World Vision, the largest evangelical recipient of USAID grants. Peterson, a physician, is an evangelical Christian and former Virginia state health commissioner who has also worked with Christian groups in Africa.

Peterson said in an interview that she assumed she would be embraced by religious conservatives.

She was wrong: Dobson’s group singled her out for a series of attacks, since her global health division oversaw AIDS policy.

In September 2004, Peterson boarded a plane for Colorado on a secret and sensitive mission: to try to prevent an all-out assault by Dobson, who had vowed to use his clout with Congress to pressure USAID into giving more funds to faith-based groups.

Peterson spent the day at the Colorado Springs headquarters of Focus on the Family, culminating in a short, terse audience with Dobson himself.

“Where do you stand on condoms?” Dobson asked, according to Peterson.

Peterson replied that, as a physician, she was convinced condoms played an important role in preventing AIDS, along with abstinence and faithfulness. Dobson was displeased, she said.

“It was very clear that I did not budge him on the condom issue,” Peterson said. Focus on the Family, meanwhile, prepared a briefing that was critical of Peterson, quoting her as saying that the Bush administration had doubled condom availability in developing nations.

Within months, Peterson had resigned for personal reasons, deeply bruised by the attacks.

Peterson was replaced as head of global health by a well-known conservative evangelical leader, Kent Hill. Unlike Peterson, he had no medical degree and no prior experience in public health.