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Dr. Laura's static

This radio know-it-all doesn't know enough

Issue: "Just say clean needles," May 9, 1998

I'm not a big-time radio listener, but long nighttime drives can prompt even me to do a little dial scanning. So it was last week that my wife and I, headed in the late evening a couple of hundred miles west from Chicago's O'Hare airport, happened again across Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the bluntly plain-spoken but so often sensible counselor to millions with her daily call-in radio show.

I mention Dr. Laura again here simply because I keep hearing from so many people who marvel at her wisdom-and so many evangelical Christians who ooh and aah at "how close she comes to being one of us."

It's time, folks, to re-tune our radios. And it's time to remind ourselves how the emptiness of Dr. Laura's advice tends to be a disturbing picture of how empty secular conservatism also is on the political, the social, and even the economic scene.

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Dr. Laura desperately fails her listeners on two counts-and the failure is as evident in her day-to-day style as it is in the content of her advice.

First, Dr. Laura is hopelessly and even shamelessly arbitrary. She makes up her rules as she goes along. She has to do so, for she has no ultimate and overarching allegiance to any other set of absolute standards. Now I know she likes to suggest otherwise. She speaks highly of the Ten Commandments, and I'm sure she seriously believes she takes them seriously. Yet at some crucial points-particularly with reference to homosexual practice-she takes quite a different view of the Ten Commandments from that historically taken by both Christian and Jewish ethicists. My point here is not specifically to disagree with her on the issue itself, although I do, but simply to point out how arbitrary she is on such subjects.

Her arbitrary ethic is evident even in the pacing of her show. Last week, she jumped all over one caller for being too ready to "speak the truth" to her family, calling her a busybody. Twenty minutes later, she chastened another caller for being a coward in failing to "speak the truth" to her parents about a divisive issue. In one sense, she may even have made the right call in both cases-but in her hurried dash from one inquirer to another, she leaves few enduring touchstones for anyone to apply to new and similar situations. The only rays of light are Dr. Laura's dazzling intuitive advice, applied however she wants on the spur of the moment, and her unflappable confidence. But certainly thoughtful listeners must be impressed by how ultimately shallow such arbitrary advice really is-however often it might seem to overlap with biblical orthodoxy.

But Dr. Laura's other failure offers no overlap at all with biblical Christianity. Her second failure is that there is so little place in her ethical system for the Christian message of grace. From the get-go, hers is an expectation based on works and performance.

To be sure, Dr. Laura does stand out in contrast to most of today's psychobabbling, I'll-listen-to-you-no-matter-what counselors. She stands out because she insists that her listeners get off their duffs, quit talking, and do something. As Arsenio Orteza observed here in WORLD late last summer, "Her consistent opposition to abortion, 'shacking up,' divorce, and other manifestations of self-centeredness has made her refreshingly impatient with illogic and equivocation. Callers expecting a therapist whose main mannerism is a sympathetically nodding head get an awakening that by today's touchy-feely standards may seem rude."

I'd go farther and say that Dr. Laura's approach not only seems rude, but is rude. It's one thing to be firm, direct, and blunt with a counselee. But to be firm, direct, and blunt without offering genuine hope is to go beyond rude and to become cruel. Without a message of biblical grace, you might say it is heartless to call people to righteous behavior.

Mind you, this is no call for a return to the spineless liberalism and permissivism for which Dr. Laura has been such a refreshing alternative. It is simply to point out that hers is not finally a workable substitute, for it calls people to do that which they cannot possibly perform.

In both senses, Dr. Laura is an accurate picture of secular conservatism. People generally like the orderliness of conservatism, and its check on silly and flabby leniency. But by itself, all secular conservatism does is arbitrarily to proclaim a few absolutes of its own, and then to hope that things will stay in order a little longer than they might under secular liberalism. But a merely conservative order of things, just like Dr. Laura's order of things, will never work because we human beings don't have in ourselves the ultimate desire, the discipline, or the follow-through to live up even to our own standards and expectations.

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