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Nation

Dobson's Successor Gives Mega-Ministry New Focus

Apr 24, 2010 – 5:20 PM
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Andrea Stone

Andrea Stone Senior Washington Correspondent

COLORADO SPRINGS (April 24) -- Jim Daly is certain there is "a right way and a wrong way" to live one's life, and it's all about Jesus Christ and a literal reading of the Bible. But the new leader of the evangelical ministry Focus on the Family isn't going to get in your face if you disagree.

At a time when the conservative movement is dominated by raucous tea party demonstrations for lower taxes and smaller government, Daly seems oddly disconnected. "Don't know much about it, to be honest with you," he said, even though a recent poll showed that many tea party supporters are social conservatives like himself.

Instead, he spends more time worrying about so-called "Christian militias" plotting against the government. "The 'Christian' label means a lot to me," he said. "We don't want a theocracy. We want a government informed in moral principle."
Jim Daly, the president of Focus on the Family
Kirk Speer for AOL News
"I'm not fearful that change will happen in America. It will happen," Jim Daly, the leader of Focus on the Family, said.

Focus on the Family "will weigh in on the big social issues before us and provide an opinion, but in all of that I want to express respect for everyone, for all human beings," he said. "It's not about being highly confrontational. It's about results."

Daly may be getting them. On a wall in the organization's offices here is a framed editorial from The New York Times, a publication not known for its sympathy toward religious conservatives. It defends Focus on the Family's right to air a TV ad during the Super Bowl featuring Denver Broncos draft pick Tim Tebow and his mother, who ignored doctors' advice that she should abort her fifth child, the future Heisman Trophy winner himself. The Times editorial attacked "would-be censors" and called protests by abortion rights groups against the then-unseen spot "lame."

When the actual commercial turned out to be an understated, feel-good message about motherhood, in fact, it was the group's most ardent supporters on the right who had a problem. "Some on our side criticized us for being too soft," Daly said in an interview with AOL News. "CBS wasn't going to allow, you know, 'DO NOT ABORT YOUR CHILD!' It's ridiculous."

In any event, traffic to the group's website surged after the Super Bowl, and Daly cited surveys saying it prompted millions to reconsider their position on abortion. "That's a game changer," he said.

Don't Say 'Unlike Dobson'

The biggest game changer for Focus on the Family, though, was the departure of its fiery founder, James Dobson. The child psychologist-turned-radio minister started the group in 1977 to help strengthen traditional marriage and give advice on parenting. But in recent years Dobson, 74, had become more involved in politics, and before the 2008 election he gave Sarah Palin a sympathetic platform and published a letter predicting that in "Obama's America" gays would get bonuses for joining the military and pornography would be televised in prime time.

In an era of kinder, gentler evangelical leaders like Rick Warren and Timothy Keller, who appeal to a younger generation of believers, Dobson may already have been an anachronism.

"The hard-edged politics of the original Christian-right leaders is increasingly out of style, partly due to generational change, and partly because evangelicals have been involved in politics for a long time and many have adopted a more pragmatic approach," said John Green, a University of Akron political scientist who studies religion.

Daly certainly has. He joined the ministry in 1989 and ran its international division -- which broadcasts to 130 countries, including Muslim Indonesia -- before becoming president in 2005. In February, he took over the organization after Dobson left to host his own radio show. (Dobson declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Dobson's departure angered some Christian conservatives even as liberal bloggers rejoiced. But Daly, who hates when journalists describe him as "unlike Dobson," says on matters of principle there is no daylight between him and his mentor. In tone and style, though, they are like night and day.

Speaking of the heyday of the religious right in the 1980s, Daly, 48, suggested that the influence of social conservatives like Jerry Falwell and of Dobson himself may have been illusory.

"When you look back from a pro-life perspective, what were the gains there?" he asked, noting President Ronald Reagan's judicial choices. A generation later, "we see a bit of fatigue. We don't see the results for the energy, the money, everything else that's been poured into the political sphere," said Daly, who keeps a desk plate reading "Laugh" in his office overlooking Pike's Peak.

"We as a Christian community need to refocus a bit on what's important in the culture. For us, it's family. That's our mission."

'Not Fearful of Change'


Earlier this month, hundreds turned out for a community discussion on homosexuality in a strip mall movie theater-turned-church in this city known as "the Evangelical Vatican" for its dozens of Christian ministries. Among the six panel members were those comfortable with their homosexual orientation and others who were less so. One of the latter was Focus employee Jeff Johnston, who told of "my journey out of homosexuality."

Daly was out of town but taped a welcome message. "We're not always going to agree," he said on the video, but added, "I'm not here to tell you what to do."

Bill Oliver, a local gay rights activist who has protested outside the 81-acre Focus campus, said Dobson disparaged gay families, but under Daly, "the rhetoric has definitely been lowered."

One sign: the group's recent decision to stop offering "reparative therapy" for gays and lesbians. Focus officials say the transfer of its Love Won Out program to Exodus International -- which has been attacked by gay rights groups and criticized by mental health professionals -- has to do with getting back to "bread-and-butter" issues and doesn't signal a change in policy.

Yet it's clear Daly, who has met with gay activists, sees diminishing returns in continuing the culture wars.

"I'm not fearful that change will happen in America. It will happen. ... I don't know what will happen with same-sex marriage, but I'm not going to be discouraged if we lose some of those battles," he said, noting that for "98 percent" of people, traditional marriage will remain relevant.

"It's going to be difficult in this culture and the way the demographics are going right now," he went on. "You look at the under-35 age group. I think it's splitting 60-40 support for same-sex marriage. There's a lot of people in the U.S. [who] basically come to the conclusion that this is something between two adults. I will continue to defend traditional marriage, but I'm not going to demean human beings for the process."

As with the Tebow ad, the new approach hasn't always pleased the Focus faithful. Daly sparked an uproar last year after he attended a White House conference on fatherhood and said the president was a good role model for African-American men.

"It caught me by surprise," Daly said of the criticism from conservatives. Like them, Daly finds little political common ground with Barack Obama, but, considering the president is married to his "first wife" and is raising his own biological children, "does anybody doubt that if we had more families like that in America, we wouldn't be better off?" he asked.

Daly told Obama that both know what it's like not to have a father around. In his autobiography, "Finding Home," Daly writes of being abandoned by his alcoholic father, then orphaned at 9 when his mother died and sent to a nightmarish foster home before finding God in high school.

That dysfunctional childhood, in fact, informs Daly's priorities at Focus: Since he took over, Focus has started a program to reduce the number of legal orphans in foster care by recruiting families to adopt hard-to-place children. Wait No More is in five states and has already halved the number of children in foster care in Colorado. The Denver Post called it "a perfect example of how faith-based organizations can partner with government to best utilize the strengths of both."

Faithful to Its Mission

Amid the recent economic decline and falling donations, Focus on the Family has had to scale its ambitions back a bit. The organization's budget has fallen from $151 million in 2008 to $136 million this year. In 2004, there were 1,400 employees; today, there are 830 (many of them working in modern buildings incongruously adorned with seven miles of oak trim donated by a wealthy supporter).

But the group hasn't abandoned its more traditional activities. For instance, it still buys ultrasound machines for pregnancy centers, boasting that has "saved" 80,000 babies whose mothers had considered abortion. And it still rates popular entertainment for its suitability for Christian families -- Daly recently devoted his radio show to an interview with the executive producer of a wholesome made-for-TV movie sponsored by Wal-Mart.

Indeed, despite media stories emphasizing the differences between Dobson's Focus and Daly's, much remains the same. The campus bookstore sells such titles as "The Feminist Mistake: The Radical Impact of Feminism on Church and Culture" and "What Darwin Didn't Know: A Doctor Dissects the Theory of Evolution." And the latest print edition of the group's Citizen magazine features articles on the "unprecedented wave of anti-life legislation and executive orders" under Obama and, under the headline "What We're Really After Is Cultural Change," how state-level activists can get like-minded candidates elected to public office.

Tom Minnery edits the magazine, and as head of government and public policy for Focus, he lobbies against same-sex marriage and abortion rights. He notes that just 45 Focus employees are involved in policy issues, even if they do get most of the media attention.

That doesn't include the Family Research Council, a separate but closely aligned advocacy group Dobson helped found. Earlier this month, it was almost alone in speaking out against a White House order extending hospital visitation rights to the partners of gay men and lesbians.

Daly may be dialing back his public image, but Minnery's shop is more active than ever. Last year, Focus opened its first Washington office. In February, the group took part for the first time in the annual meeting of CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference. Minnery said the group's lobbying arm, which may soon change its name from Focus Action to something less identified with Dobson, plans to speak out soon on immigration. He called current laws "terribly wrong" because they often lead to family separations.

"Whether we're big players or small players or quiet players," Minnery said, "we'll keep playing."

Jesus First, Policy Second

Yet it's clear his boss may be playing by new rules.

"Policy is important, but Jesus is more important," Daly has said. Which may explain his hesitancy to talk about one of the biggest policy issues of the day.

"Now you're going to get me in hot water," he said when asked his views about health care reform. No, he didn't like the language about abortion and would have preferred a go-slow approach. Mandating health insurance "doesn't come out of our free will," he noted. "Tax collection is not an act of love."

But he also noted that early Christians opened the first hospitals and hospices and that after "gladly" ceding responsibility to the government during the 1960s Great Society era, the church was "muddled" on its role.

"Many people would put their hand up, Christians, and say, 'Well, that's something the church should do.' But the church has failed to step up. That's a big task, to try to insure 30 million people. I don't know that anybody but the government could do something for those people," he said. "As we've focused a lot more on the political issues and trying to defend those things we believe in that arena, I'm concerned we may be forgetting the social issues that we need to be engaged in."
Filed under: Nation
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