James Dobson, a child psychologist who built Focus on the Family into a national player in conservative politics, will effectively cut his ties with the organization next year when he stops hosting his internationally syndicated radio program Feb. 28, Focus officials announced Friday.
The decision was a mutual one between Dobson, 73, and Focus’ board of directors, said spokesman Gary Schneeberger, and is considered the “third chapter” in a planned transition in leadership that began in 2003 when Dobson turned over the presidency of the organization to Jim Daly. Last February, Dobson resigned as chairman to continue the transition.
“This is his next step to a phase of life that he has frankly earned,” Schneeberger said. “Lots of conversation and prayer have gone into this.”
Schneeberger said health was not an issue in Dobson’s departure.
Dobson has hosted the radio show for more than 30 years, and it was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in Chicago last year. No replacement has been chosen yet for the show, which is heard on more than 4,000 stations worldwide.
Neither Dobson nor Daly were available for interviews, but Daly said in a prepared statement that Focus is “excited about continuing the work (Dobson) began, and following the biblical principles he’s always followed to reach today’s families.”
Dobson started Focus on the Family in 1977 in Arcadia, Calif., with his radio show. At the time, he was a respected child psychologist who had written several bestselling books on child rearing. By June 1980, his “Focus on the Family” radio show was airing on 100 stations.
Two years later, Dobson’s influence had reached a point where he was asked by the Reagan administration, and later, by President George H.W. Bush’s administration, to serve on national commissions or as an adviser on issues related to family, gambling and pornography. Presidential candidates courted his advise and endorsement.
In 1991, with a staff of 400, the organization moved to Colorado Springs, and by 2002, it boasted 1,400 employees.
But in recent years — in part, because of declining donations in a bad economy — Focus has had several rounds of layoffs, most recently in September, which has lowered its staff to 860.
Through it all, Dobson has been a polarizing figure. His backers praise him for his unwavering support of the traditional family and his fight against what he sees as its enemies, including gay marriage and pornography.
“Dr. Dobson has helped raise several generations of American children and strengthened countless marriages with advice rooted in the wisdom of Judeo-Christian civilization,” said Gary Bauer, president of American Values and a frequent guest on Dobson’s radio show.
But Ralph Blair, a psychotherapist and founder of New York-based Evangelicals Concerned, a support group for gay and lesbian evangelical Christians, says Dobson’s legacy will be tarnished by his stance against same-sex relationships and lack of science behind his homosexual theories, including the idea that people become homosexual through child rearing rather than being born that way.
“Eventually he will fade because his ideas are so far off the mark,” Blair said.
Rabbi Howard Hirsch, founder of the Center for Christian-Jewish Dialogue in Colorado Springs, has been Dobson’s friend for 18 years and said his public persona provides a limited portrait of the man.
“He is an extraordinarily good-hearted human being,“ Hirsch said. “If you only know Dobson from the headlines, you don’t know the real Dobson.”
Schneeberger expects Dobson to continue to write books and remain active in the public square after his departure from Focus.
“He won’t stop speaking his mind,” Schneeberger said.
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