March 2005 Church & State | People & Events

A certain animated sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea and wears square pants is creating quite a headache for James Dobson of Focus on the Family (FOF).

The Religious Right leader’s troubles with the popular star of Cartoon Network began in late January when Dobson, speaking at an inaugural banquet hosted by the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., asked a seemingly innocuous question: “Does anyone here know SpongeBob?”

Dobson had a bone to pick with the clueless yellow sponge: As first reported in The New York Times, the religious broadcaster lit into the cartoon sponge for being a dupe of the gay-rights movement and appearing in what he called a “pro-homosexual” video.

“We see the video as an insidious means by which the organization is manipulating and potentially brainwashing kids,” a spokesman for Dobson said. “It is a classic bait and switch.”

The video in question was produced by a group called We Are Family Foundation. The video is a remake of the 1979 hit song “We Are Family” and features appearances by SpongeBob as well as other children’s characters, including Barney, Winnie the Pooh, Bob the Builder, the Rugrats and 100 others. The foundation was set up by songwriter Nile Rodgers after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to promote the nation’s healing process. The video is being made available to public and private schools nationwide this month.

Although the video makes no mention of it, the foundation web site gives children the option of taking a “tolerance pledge” expressing their willingness to avoid all forms of prejudice. The pledge included sexual identity as a form of bias to be avoided, which was enough to set Dobson off.

The tolerance pledge in question was drafted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights organization. It states, “Tolerance is a personal decision that comes from a belief that every person is a treasure. I believe that America’s diversity is its strength. I also recognize that ignorance, insensitivity and bigotry can turn that diversity into a source of prejudice and discrimination. To help keep diversity a wellspring of strength and make America a better place for all, I pledge to have respect for people whose abilities, beliefs, culture, race, sexual identity or other characteristics are different from my own.”

Dobson’s singling out of SpongeBob generated headlines nationally, and he found himself on the receiving end of a good deal of ridicule. Notoriously thin skinned, Dobson ordered his followers to bombard offending journalists with e-mails expressing their displeasure.

In an attempt to backpedal from Dobson’s extreme comments, FOF issued a statement rephrasing its position. “While some of the goals associated with this organization are noble in nature, their inclusion of the reference to ‘sexual identity’ within their ‘tolerance pledge’ is not only unnecessary, but it crosses a moral line,” it said.

That did little to stem the criticism, and Dobson continued to be a target for media ridicule. Speaking on CNN, Democratic Party strategist James Carville remarked, “You know what I think? I think these people have sponge brains.” A New York Times editorial called Dobson “intolerant.”

Dobson was especially angry over coverage by MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann, whose barbs were particularly pointed. After receiving outraged e-mails from FOF acolytes, Olbermann commented on the matter on his blog, pointing out that Dobson had no one to blame but himself for the media frenzy.

Olbermann noted that before he went on the air to discuss the matter, his staff contacted FOF “for a statement that might disconnect SpongeBob from the contretemps, and outlined how we intended to cover the story.”

Wrote Olbermann, “We got no ‘that’s not right,’ no ‘you’re demeaning Dr. Dobson,’ and especially no ‘you’re taking Dr. Dobson’s words out of context.’ All that came after Dr. Dobson realized how much damage he’d done to his cause.”

In a later posting, Olbermann included excerpts from some of the messages, many of which were riddled with misspellings and grammatical errors.

Observed Olbermann, “Something approaching 10 percent of the e-mailers used Dobson’s generator to send notes of thanks for exposing ‘Focus on the Family’ for the knee-jerk reactionaries they are. One wrote in genuine fear that these people were wielding influence in the country. I wrote back, thinking of the mangled language, that a much more immediate concern was that these people are out there, driving on our highways.”

Dobson also found himself under fire by a Baptist critic. Dr. Bruce Prescott of Mainstream Baptists Oklahoma (and a member of the Americans United Board of Trustees), observed in his blog, “Only a fundamentalist demagogue who has made a career of ‘manipulating’ and ‘brainwashing’ people to read the Bible through medieval lenses could find cartoon characters teaching tolerance so threatening.”

Despite all of this criticism, Dobson seems determined to open himself up to more ridicule by refusing to let the matter die. In early February, he e-mailed supporters a five-page missive, arguing that what he did was right and insisting that popular cartoon characters are “being hijacked to promote an agenda that involves teaching homosexual propaganda to children.”