(RNS) Ed Dobson, a onetime architect of the religious right who later spent a year “living like Jesus,” died Saturday (Dec. 26).
Dobson, the retired pastor of the prominent Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., suffered for more than 15 years from Lou Gehrig’s disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He was 65.
"The way of Jesus is very hard," Dobson, author of “The Year of Living Like Jesus,” said in a 2009 interview. "If you take his teaching seriously, it will mess you up."
A pastor’s son born in Northern Ireland, Dobson (no relation to Focus on the Family founder James Dobson) was inspired by A.J. Jacobs, who wrote “The Year of Living Biblically.” But Dobson acknowledged that his 12-month pilgrimage in 2008 was one of fits and starts, including not always following his kosher diet closely when he consumed sour cream and chili.
Video courtesy of Day of Discovery via YouTube
Part of that wrestling led the man who once helped run the now-defunct Moral Majority to vote for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time, even though he disagreed with then-Sen. Barack Obama about abortion.
“I felt that Mr. Obama was closer to the essence of Jesus' teachings -- compassion for the poor and the oppressed, being a peacemaker, loving your enemies and other issues,” he wrote in an explanation of his decision.
It was quite a turnaround, for Dobson served as one of the lieutenants of the Moral Majority in the late 1970s and early 1980s, helping Ronald Reagan defeat President Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election.
A graduate of Bob Jones University and the University of Virginia, Dobson worked at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., for 15 years and had served as an aide to Jerry Falwell.
But Dobson gave up on evangelical political involvement and in 1999 co-authored with Cal Thomas “Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America?” In it, the two men remained supportive of the religious right’s moral agenda but questioned its tactics.
"I believe that people, myself included, were well-intentioned, and our goals were noble, but we got caught up in the illusion that politicians really cared for us, and that political change would bring moral change," he told RNS when the book was published.
Jerry Falwell Jr., the late Falwell’s son and the current president of the university, called Dobson “one of our most popular founding deans here at Liberty,” when speaking in 2014 about why he supported the ALS Foundation by taking part in an ice bucket challenge.
Dobson, a sports car fan, helped raise almost $275,000 for ALS research in 2006 by driving across the country on Route 66 with 40 friends and a dozen Corvettes.
“I'm just praying this trip will be the beginning of a journey that will lead to greater awareness and to greater research to find a cure, probably not for me but for others,'' he said.
Dobson was criticized by conservatives for his decision to have an occasional beer while testifying about his Christian faith. The president of Cornerstone University, where he was serving voluntarily as vice president for formation at the time, defended him and said he applauded “Ed’s passionate pursuit of Jesus.”
Dobson also was the subject of a short-film series on hope called “Ed’s Story.”
“Every human being knows they’re going to die,” he said in a trailer for the series. “Early on in my life, I thought I was in control and the truth is you don’t control squat. …. It’s not about how long I have left. It’s about how I spend the time I do have.”
(Adelle M. Banks is production editor and a national reporter for RNS)