The Stealth Politics of Laura Schlessinger

You may think "Dr. Laura" is just talk-radio static, but with her on-air anti-feminist, gay-bashing and anti-abortion advice, she is promoting the agenda of the Christian Right.

On the right day, Laura Schlessinger is the most listened-to voice on radio, outranking Howard Stern, Don Imus and sometimes even conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh. A tiny Jewish woman, she’s insulting, brash and at times downright cruel. Sitting behind the mike in a California studio every weekday, she raises high the flag for traditional “family values,” absolutist morality, and “the acceptance of God’s word as the ultimate authority.”

Her callers, mostly women, chosen from among tens of thousands of advice-seekers each week, describe the mess their lives have become—bad marriages, unwanted pregnancies, out-of-control children. Schlessinger is happy to tell them they are, variously, “sickening,” “selfish,” “stupid,” “gutless,” “termites” or “pigs.” They get no quarter from “Dr. Laura” (the “Dr.” is of physiology, not psychology), who has gained a reputation for her take-no-prisoners style and her belief that every situation can be reduced to an absolute right and an absolute wrong.

Schlessinger’s willingness to promote her conservative political prejudices through her personal advice has won her as many as 20 million listeners a week, millions of readers for four bestselling books, a new board game and a controversial option from Paramount for a television show to begin airing in September. Like her fellow successful radio stars Howard Stern or Don Imus, Laura Schlessinger thrives on shock and a dose of mean. The similarities, however, end with style. Schlessinger’s purposes are much more ambitious.

“Our opposition has taken over the radio and TV talk shows,” comments Eleanor Smeal, co-founder and president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, “preaching this very hard line….They are marketing themselves as psychologists and religious figures and people to counsel people in their time of need…but I think it is a well orchestrated [political] strategy.”

Schlessinger’s platform could have been written by the religious right: anti-abortion, anti-divorce, anti-homosexual, anti-working mother, and anti-secular. (Instead of abortion, she talks about “sucking it down the sink.”) Through her show, she is promoting not just socially conservative lifestyle choices, but a platform that conservative presidential candidate Pat Buchanan might be happy to stand on. In fact, at press time, he had floated her name as a possible vice presidential candidate on the Reform Party ticket.

“She’s more evangelical than some evangelical pastors,” said one publisher, who recently put out a book about Schlessinger’s Christian values. “I identify Dr. Laura with the good old days, when preachers would say it as it is.”

A preacher indeed. As the most listened-to spokesperson for the “family values” movement, Schlessinger has been embraced by the leadership of the Christian right. They have protected her from attacks, lobbied for her television program, and promoted her vision in books, advertising and on radio and television programs. In promoting her, they don’t mind that the “ultimate authority” she derives from God’s word is different from theirs, and they don’t chastise her for not accepting Jesus into her life. As a woman, and as a Jew, “Dr Laura” has become their perfect mascot, a neutral voice taking the “Christian” curse off their Christian message.

Particularly in this election year, the alliance, and the television show, are worth monitoring. After all, these are constituencies that have supported a moment of prayer in school, hanging the Ten Commandments in courtrooms, severe restrictions on abortion and other infringements on the right to a state free of religion. For two decades, a growing number of highly politicized religious groups have thrived on backlash, trying to bring “Judeo- Christian values” to America, by law if necessary. They have tried to block increasingly acceptable choices—gay rights in marriage and parenthood, abortion rights. And, as backlashes so often do, they have turned feminism into the scapegoat.

Some dismiss Schlessinger as just another Howard Stem or a Dear Abby. But Laura Schlessinger represents those who have made serious inroads into our political dialogue, and anyone concerned with the encroachments of the religious right would be wise to watch Schlessinger as well.

Schlessinger was not always this way. Now 53, in her youth she considered herself a feminist, and didn’t care a whit for conservative “family values.” She had sex before marriage, went through a divorce, even had her tubes tied, sure as she was that she didn’t want children.

Her remarriage and her decision to reverse the operation and have a child, however, changed things. Several years ago, she found Conservative Judaism and then Orthodoxy, resolving the religious questions raised by her birth to a secular Jewish WWII veteran and his Italian Catholic war bride through her official Orthodox conversion. Now she’s taken on the commandments, studied with Orthodox rabbis and joined a Lubavitch synagogue in California, a diamond-studded Star of David frequently around her neck.

Her program has changed as well. Schlessinger talks increasingly about God, and less about human motivation and needs, on what she has come to call her “moral health show.” In Schlessinger’s earlier, more psychologically-oriented days, her closing tag line was, “Go take on the day.” In this era of moral high ground, she signs off with: “Now, go do the right thing.”

In the name of her new-found religion and the health of America’s families, she opposes abortion, homosexual marriage, homosexual parenting, single parenting, divorce (except in cases of abuse). She calls her former feminism “that disgusting part of my past.” In her new book, Parenthood by Proxy: Don’t Have Them If You Won’t Raise Them, she blasts parents who leave their children with other caregivers for “neglect.” She posits a national crisis caused by this neglect deriving, in part, from divorce, serial marriages, single parenting, dual-career families, disdain for religion, the redefinition of immoral behavior as lifestyle choices. In other words, she’s against working mothers, single parents, and gay and lesbian parents.

Between callers, Schlessinger talks about hot-button social issues. She regularly cites “pro-family” research from the conservative think-tank Family Research Council (which supports the Boy Scouts anti-homosexual policies, promotes the rights of “unborn” and “preborn” children, and lobbies against emergency contraception) or from the evangelical Christian group Focus on the Family. Backing up her views with data produced not by social scientists but by these conservative advocacy organizations, Schlessinger tries to convince her listeners daily that American secularism is destroying the family, and that each and every one of them must fight hard—through their own moral choices—to stop the slippage. With between 14 and 20 million listeners tuning in each week, her show is the hottest backlash button in town.

A Flashpoint in the Culture War

So it’s no surprise that Schlessinger is the general in the latest battle for America’s “soul.” It began in the weeks before the vote on California’s notorious Proposition 22, which aimed to counter the legalization of same-sex marriages in other states. The measure, which passed in March, added 14 words to the state’s Family Code: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”

Schlessinger had consistently made her views on homosexuality and Proposition 22 clear, claiming that science proves it is “deviant” behavior and “the result of biological error,” and expressing herself “a little bit in mourning” when New Jersey made it legal for gay and lesbian couples to adopt children. Though she had once been considerably more tolerant, she says that she has now come to believe that gay rights are “destructive to the family.”

Gay and lesbian activists, hoping to bring attention to the issue and defeat the measure, sent Schlessinger a petition signed by dozens of liberal clergy, psychologists and child-welfare advocates asking her to tone down her rhetoric. Initially, Schlessinger issued a statement of apology, saying “I never intend to hurt anyone or contribute in any way to an atmosphere of hate or intolerance.” In fact, Schlessinger likes to trot out a dear, gay friend as evidence of her tolerance. At the same time, never one to be bullied, she continues to claim that homosexuality is “a biological error” which is possible to reverse with “reparative therapy.” She’s not against gays, she says. But she is against gay sex, gay marriage, gay adoption.

Hostilities have escalated in the last two months, with pressure on Paramount from gay rights groups to cancel this fall’s television show. An aggressive campaign, run variously by GLADD, the Horizons Foundation, and an intensely active web site called Stop-, is tracking her every word on homosexuality and running protests in cities throughout the country. As of our press time, Schlessinger’s first major television advertisers, Procter & Gamble, had dropped its commitment to buy time during her show.

In response, conservative Christian groups and other “family-values” organizations jumped to her defense. These groups cried “Censorship!” and distributed news that death threats have been made against Schlessinger—strongly implying that gay activist groups are behind the threats. Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, American Family Association, Concerned Women for America and others were, as LILITH went to press, forcefully lobbying P&G to reverse its decision, and the company was considering doing so.

The Family Research Council has placed national advertisements on Schlessinger’s behalf, and other Christian groups have run prominent articles in their magazines and offered ever-ready biblical backup for her views. Campaign for California Families, a lobbying organization that sends “100%” of its resources “to boldly influence government on your family’s behalf,” has been among the counter-protesters supporting her. “We are calling upon Paramount Pictures,” Randy Thomason, founder and executive director of Campaign for California Families, told LILITH, “to talk with supporters of Dr. Laura about how standing up for the basic rights of moms and dads is right for families and right for their business.”

And Campaign for California, with its web site, is not alone. Jew-turned-evangelical Christian Marvin Olasky, who is now political advisor to George W. Bush, highlighted Schlessinger’s story, including the death threats allegations, in a cover story in his magazine, World. The Family Research Council is running a print ad that reads, “The Thought Police Are Out to Silence Dr. Laura.” Jerry Falwell’s National Liberty Journal (online edition) features her photo and objections that her free speech is being denied. And the Traditional Values Coalition, a non-denominational grassroots lobby with more than 43,000 member churches, is hosting an online petition to support Schlessinger: “We express our appreciation to Paramount for bringing her to television and urge you to continue the development of her program.”

Though Schlessinger’s anti-feminist and anti-gay views would seem to threaten the values of tolerance many Jews hold dear, the response from the usually liberal Jewish establishment has been muted. A smattering of individual Jews and West coast Jewish organizations did sign the petition asking Schlessinger to reconsider her homosexual commentary, and the Anti-Defamation League wrote its own letter chastising her for “a tone of demonization and needless hostility” that others might use “to justify acts of violence or discrimination against gays and lesbians.” But on this and on the larger dangers she poses, calls to various national liberal Jewish groups around the country did indicate a surprising ambivalence about getting involved. Responses ranged from to “We’re all watching” to “It’s a shame that she does it waving her Jewish flag,…[but] we’re very much opposed to censorship.”

But Laura Schlessinger has entered the culture wars waving her Jewish flag. And while Jewish groups have been reticent, the Christian, political lobby has hoisted her on its shoulders.

Strange Bedfellows

Dr K. Neil Foster is the publisher of Horizon Books, an evangelical Christian company that regularly writes about popular culture icons from a Christian perspective. They’ve done books on Disney and the Bible, Rush Limbaugh and the Bible. They “take something contemporary that rides the media and… seek to bring a Bible perspective.”

So it’s no surprise that as Schlessinger’s star began to rise. Dr. Foster became interested. He published A Closer Look at Dr. Laura: On Target or Off the Wall?, a book that analyzed the host’s polemics from a Christian perspective. Indeed, he told LILITH, “she was one of the best [subjects] because her views of morality closely parallel those of evangelicals.” Schlessinger wrote the preface of the book, which found, essentially, that the only thing a believing Christian would find missing from her world-view is Jesus.

But the aggressive Christian proselytizing and politics at work here don’t seem to bother Schlessinger. She reminds audiences that “there’s a lovefest going on between me and the Christian community,” and that she didn’t hear from one rabbi or identified Jew for the first year and a half after her show went national in 1994. In the preface of A Closer Look she writes, “As my own religious journey led me from secularism to Orthodox Judaism, my internationally syndicated radio program reflected that personal growth and the acceptance of God’s words as the ultimate moral authority….The most immediate and continuous support for my program came from the Christian lay and ordained religious community.”

Just how deep is this relationship between Schlessinger and the Christian right?

■ Schlessinger also wrote the preface to another evangelical book, Dr. Laura: A Mother in America—Christian Insights About America’s Best Known Mom, put out by Chariot Victor Publishing. (The author refers to Schlessinger as “Mother Laura.”)

■ She has appeared on the Christian radio show hosted by the increasingly political James Dobson, whose Focus on the Family media and ministries are international in scope and aim to “cooperate with the Holy Spirit in disseminating the Gospel of Jesus Christ to as many people as possible.” She also quotes from their literature on air.

■ Schlessinger has appeared on several national media-evangelist programs, including preacher Warren Duffy’s radio show; Pat Robertson’s Christian television program, the 700 Club; and televangelist Robert H. Schuller’s “Hour of Power” in California’s Crystal Cathedral. (In 1998 the Crystal Cathedral, home base for the international ministries and a congregation of more than 10,000 members, gave Schlessinger the first-ever Crystal Cathedral Academy Award for promoting family values in the media.)

■ She quotes regularly from the research of the ultra-conservative Family Research Council, co-founded by presidential candidate Gary Bauer to “reaffirm and promote nationally, and particularly in Washington, DC, the traditional family unit and the Judeo-Christian value system upon which it is built.”

■ And this year, the National Religious Broadcasters presented Schlessinger with its Chairman’s award for her work “emphasizing the need for faith, the importance of the Ten Commandments, and the importance of making moral decisions.” (The NRB represents more than 1,250 Christian communicators, and “exists to foster media access for the gospel,” among other goals.)

These groups, some of them highly political, have had remarkable success at entering into our national politics and cultural discussion. They call themselves “pro-family” as a cover for anti-abortion, anti-feminist, anti-homosexual lobby, promoting the belief that anything other than a straight mommy-daddy-baby formula is antifamily. As Thomason, of Campaign for California Families, says, he’s not anti-gay. He just believes that a family means “being related by blood, heterosexual marriage, childbirth or adoption.”

In this union with Schlessinger, explains Ray McClendon, a California minister and author of Dr. Laura: A Mother in America, their religious differences don’t matter. “We’re trying to draw a line in the sociological sand and say ‘no more!'” He explains that they are trying to stop the threat from a “wholly secularized society” with “unity against…a common enemy”: an “increasingly godless society.”

There’s an unusual love these folks seem to hold for the small woman wearing her Jewish star. Last year, Focus on the Family’s Citizen magazine, which goes out to 200,000 readers on social and public policy issues, featured Dr. Laura on its cover, claiming that she says what the pastors won’t: “She speaks of right and wrong, black and white, truth and lies and a Holy God.” The article quotes Schlessinger saying, “I espouse the values they [Christians] embrace…and I am nonpartisan about it. When a Christian comes on and they are not living up to what they perceive that Jesus has ordained for them, I let them have it.'”

Part of the appeal, ironically, is that Schlessinger is Jewish. Tom Allen is an itinerant preacher in the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church who wrote A Closer Look at Dr. Laura. He acknowledges that Schlessinger, in her radio program, does fail to get people to know God on a personal level, through Jesus. But, he adds, “If I was trying to do her radio program nobody would tune in. I would be talking about Christ and no one would listen. By keeping it generic in a religious sense, she has more value.”

Schlessinger is seen as a martyr for the cause. “She’s almost like Jesus in that sense,” explains Allen. Evangelicals feel for her as “someone who is suffering unjustly….Everyone is looking for a way to bring her down….God is using Dr. Laura to get people back to the Bible. To say there is a book with rules, and if we follow them, we’ll be a lot better off….I pray for people like Dr. Laura, and certainly our hope is that someday she will see Christ as the Messiah.” Schlessinger must know this, but she doesn’t let it ruin the friendship.

Still, McClendon, author of A Mother in America, doesn’t judge Schlessinger for her Jewish faith. “If Dr. Laura from a Christian point of view does not accept Christ,” he explains, the very model of patience, “but if she has fostered [His values] and furthered them, then God will do right by her.”

The Woman Problem

Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Consultants, a think tank that monitors the right, sees Schlessinger as part of the backlashes against the liberation movements of the 1960s. “They want things the way they were. [But] the way they want it to be never existed,” he explains.

Whether this backlash pines for a real or mythological past, there’s one thing we know for certain: A backlash, often, turns against women to prove its point. Secular conservatives blame women—working women, mommy-less children, sexualized women, abortion-using women—for the downfall of society. Some Jewish conservatives do the same. And they promote a retro, differences-between-the-sexes, God-made-us-to-be-mommies (or, variously, biology-made-us-to-be-mommies) hard line. Schlessinger is no different. She believes America is going to hell in a handbasket and, basically, women are to blame. Women who have sex before marriage and cause unwanted pregnancies. Women who leave marriages in search of sexual satisfaction. Women who abandon their children to nannies while they selfishly pursue careers. Women who would rather “kill” their babies— through abortion—than give birth to “inconvenient” children. Feminists are particularly at fault. In one recent riff about “sensitive men” and the “feminization of the military,” Schlessinger claimed that “we sacrificed masculinity for feminist obsessional paranoia.” Why do her rantings matter? Because as many as 20 million people absorb her message each day.

Schlessinger touts her views as “pro-family,” a codeword she’s picked up from religious and social conservatives. She often reminds listeners how, even with her burgeoning career, she managed to be home with her young son throughout his childhood. While women are rarely mentioned specifically, it’s clear that the onus is on them to prevent unwanted pregnancies (by abstinence—to Schlessinger sex is never “safe” outside marriage) and to care for children. Women are her listeners, her followers, and the johnnies-come-lately to the professional world whose search for fulfilling careers and sexual expression—thanks to the feminist movement—has led to what she believes is the degeneration of values in secular America.

Indeed, to prove her point, Schlessinger quotes “research” sent out by right-wing organizations like the Family Research Council to prove that children of divorce are disasters, that single-parenting causes dysfunctional children, that staying together in an unhappy marriage is better for children than divorce, and other politically useful lines. When asked by callers about hard-to-handle children who come from two-parent homes, or well-adjusted children of divorce, her stock reply is, “that’s an exception.”

Schlessinger’s not original, but she’s created a pretty package, complete with license plates, T-shirts and coffee mugs that carry the slogan, “I’m My Kid’s Mom.” It means I’m a stay-at-home mom, I put myself last, I am not a feminist, I’m against abortion. Caller after caller gets on Dr. Laura’s good side with the opening line, “Dr. Laura, I just want to tell you that I’m my kid’s mom.” (One woman who opened with that line was calling to ask whether her selflessness, always putting her needs after her family’s, was necessarily a good thing to model for her daughter. Schlessinger replied: “I don’t see anything wrong with putting yourself last.”)

To make sure her values have proper financial backing, Schlessinger has created the Dr. Laura Schlessinger Foundation. On paper, it is devoted to children, and creates good works like “My Stuff” bags of blankets, toys and other supplies for children entering crisis care centers. Its mission is to “prevent abuse and neglect of children,” “promote [sexual] abstinence and adoption,” “discourage abortion and teen sexuality,” and “encourage parents to provide the day-to-day care of their children.” All good things. But of the $52,011 the foundation gave away in 1998 (the last year for which the organization’s 990 tax forms were publicly available), $45,558—by far the biggest chunk—went to organizations “that meet the needs of families and children including organizations that discourage abortion and teen sexuality.”

The gossip mills have long held that Schlessinger doesn’t get on well with women, but you don’t need those sources to figure that out. She’s prone to blaming women, both overtly and by implication. She writes in her last best-selling book, The 10 Commandments: The Significance of God’s Laws in Everyday Life, “I have begun to hear more frequently on my program the justification for breaking up a child’s home, that one or the other parent, usually the mother, has decided that she is “not happy” or “not fulfilled.” Is it a spiritual quest? No it’s generally just a new sex partner.” (Our italics.)

She’s also learned the power of language from anti-choice groups. To women who make the mistake of admitting they’re considering an abortion, Schlessinger replies, variously, “So we suck it out into little pieces because it’s inconvenient,” or “don’t make a further mistake sucking this out into a sink and getting on with things.”

Her speech, publications and her new book Parenthood by Proxy clearly intend to remind women that they are the ones who have made sure that this generation of children is neglected. After all, a generation ago, no-one was taking men to task, as Schlessinger does, for putting “their selfish personal and career ambitions ahead of their kids’ needs.” Her recommended reading includes one book about the difficulties and misery of fertility treatments, clearly an elbowing of women who delay childbirth for their own careers.

Amid the silence of the Jewish community, it is a relief to speak with the immediate past international president of Jewish Women International, Randee Lefkow. Unlike many other Jews, in the name of her national organization Lefkow signed the letter asking Schlessinger to tone down her rhetoric on homosexuality. Two years ago, Lefkow recalls, Schlessinger’s name was floated as the presenter of a humanitarian award at a JWI event. “Her books were selling, everyone knew she was Jewish. [But] when some of us started doing research, we realized that this woman didn’t represent our values at all….Now JWI isn’t a totally feminist organization, but it seemed to me that [what] she was preaching would put women back twenty or thirty years.”

It is alarming that Jewish groups have not taken greater umbrage at Schlessinger’s conservative positions and her odd alliances, which at the very least pose a challenge to the traditional liberal Jewish stance: a stance that protects the rights of minorities and other at-risk groups. Some Orthodox Jews, making common cause with other conservatives, adore her—despite her involvement with the church and with politics that, ultimately, would move us toward a Christian America. The mainstream magazine Moment published these words from executive editor Suzanne Singer: “No hiding it. I’ve become a Laura fan….[She] may be one of the best national antidotes for irresponsible sex, uncared-for children, and the consequences-be-damned attitude of so-called adults.”

Hadassah Magazine, quite chillingly, ran a loving fantasy about Schlessinger as the next president of the United States, rescuing “a humbled and lost America.” “From the White House,” writes Sheldon Teitelbaum in Hadassah, “Schlessinger could quickly whip the country into shape: Mandatory marital and parental training and licensing. Divorce only for the childless and only under extreme circumstances. Abortion only for the issue of rape or incest….Two-parent families with working mothers targeted to fund a Social Security bailout. Prayer in school, boot camps for scofflaws…and reinstatement of the stock as an instrument of public shaming.”

His jocular tone aside, this is a scary picture of a new and “improved” America. While some may ignore Schlessinger as fringe or a passing fancy, in the meantime she’s propagating beliefs that could take hold in this country. In an online poll conducted of 21,732 people by MSNBC earlier this year, 49% said “her opinions are divisive and offensive”; another 49%, however, said that they believe she is a “credible moral voice.” No one in that poll was asked, “Is Dr. Laura a credible voice for democracy?”

Rabbi Denise Eger is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, and one of the activists who has been protesting Dr. Laura’s comments on homosexuality. To her, the moral imperative for Jews is to look out for the rights of all minorities. Dr. Laura’s attack on gays, she says, “runs roughshod over this ethical tradition.”

The political right—and Schlessinger with them—does battle against the mainstream American and Jewish value placed on respecting diversity. In the guise of her “family values,” Dr. Laura has now gone on the warpath against all those who benefited from the liberations of the last four decades. This can be seen most clearly in her campaign against gay and lesbian rights. She admits in her book on the ten commandments that “homosexuals are probably more than capable of providing for and loving a child.” But, she goes on to say, “Do we allow the personal desires of any one activist group to deny the inherent significance and importance of heterosexual reproductivity and parenting?” (obfuscating the fact that Schlessinger and her right-wing contingent is itself an “activist group”). “I have taken many calls on my radio program from gays and lesbians about this issue. I beg them not to have or adopt a newborn but, as with heterosexual single folks, be available to take in older, harder-to-place children whose welfare would be increased by such a placement.”

Let’s understand what she’s saying. First she tells us that homosexuals and singles make worse parents than heterosexual couples. Then she suggests that “older, harder-to-place children” should be sent off to these parents. As if the people Schlessinger deems imperfect parents and the children Schlessinger deems imperfect deserve one another. Imagine a Christian activist saying, “non-Christians should be allowed to adopt, just not the Christian babies.” Or a white supremicist activist saying “racial minorities should be allowed to adopt, just not white babies.”

A democracy cannot abide this kind of hierarchy of rights. We should watch carefully what Dr. Laura, with her Jewish star dangling so prominently around her neck, is asking for. We all just might get it.

The Cumulative Effect

by Sarah Blustain

In May, during the battle over Schlessinger’s comments on gays and lesbians, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council issued a firm ruling: The Dr. Laura Schlessinger Show violated the council’s standards. The CBSC decided “that her consistent characterization of the sexual behaviour of gays and lesbians as ‘abnormal,’ ‘aberrant,’ ‘deviant,’ ‘disordered,’ ‘dysfunctional,’ ‘an error’ or the like constituted abusively discriminatory of those persons on the basis of their sexual orientation.”

The organization also expressed concern that, “While she does not herself advocate any of the homophobic hostility or, worse, brutality,” the cumulative effect of Schlessinger’s positions on gay and lesbian issues “from her powerfully influential platform… may well fertilize the ground for other less well-balanced elements…to take such aggressive steps.”

The CBSC concluded that free speech is “significant but not absolute; material, to be sure, but not free of that compromise essential to ensure a balanced and free democracy for all who dwell there… .Whether or not Americans are so protected in their country is a non-issue for the CBSC. Gays and lesbians are so protected in this country.”