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Focus on the Family turns 40, with Jim Daly saying the good word is "Shalom"

By: Steve Rabey, Religion Correspondent
March 26, 2017 Updated: March 27, 2017 at 4:57 pm
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Jim Daly, president and CEO of Focus on the Family, talked to members of the media at a press conference Friday February 27th, 2008. (The Gazette file photo)

Forty years ago today, a new organization named Focus on the Family aired its debut radio broadcast. In time, radio became the cornerstone of an influential and controversial mass-media ministry that transformed "family values" into a powerful rallying cry.

Focus employees will celebrate at a chapel service Monday, the day the ministry starts rebroadcasting classic shows to its 6-million-plus listeners.

Members of the public can attend a June 22 chapel service, or sign up for a November cruise.

But founder James Dobson won't be joining the festivities. He resigned in 2010 to launch Family Talk, a competing pro-family ministry.

Focus was the largest of dozens of evangelical para-church organizations that relocated to Colorado Springs between 1988 and 1993, but none received the rocky reception Focus did upon its 1991 arrival from California.

While other ministries emphasized evangelism, missions, discipleship, publishing, or youth ministry, Focus mixed faith-based insights on parenting with conservative political activism.

Focus aggressively promoted Amendment 2, an anti-gay rights measure that was narrowly approved by Colorado voters in 1992, but was later overturned by the U. S. Supreme Court. The resulting culture war caused protests and Colorado boycotts, and generated national media coverage that painted Focus as extremist and its hometown as a new Jerusalem for righteous Republicans.

Today, Focus and Family Talk embrace the same evangelical theology and uphold similar positions on sexuality, marriage, abortion, homosexuality, transgender bathrooms, and religious freedom. But they differ sharply over how best to impact the world and how to deal with people who don't share their convictions.

Jim Daly, who joined Focus in 1989 and became its president in 2005, has steered the ministry from partisan politics. Dobson, meanwhile, is free from the restrictions Focus once placed on his political passions.

"Ultimately, there are two broad paths for changing society," says John Green, a professor at the University of Akron and an expert on the religious right, "either changing the law via politics (faith-based or otherwise), or changing the culture via proselytizing (religious or otherwise). The difference between Dobson and Daly is largely the difference in emphasis between these two paths."

Dobson: Trump a "baby Christian"

These differences were obvious during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Dr. James Dobson works in his studio at Focus on the Family on August 7, 2001. He was preparing to record a radio program. Jay Janner/The Gazette 

Dobson actively campaigned for Ted Cruz before endorsing the thrice-married Donald Trump. Dobson formerly condemned President Bill Clinton's sexual shenanigans. "What have we taught our boys about respecting women?" he asked in 1998. "What have our little girls learned about men?"

But Dobson forgave Trump, describing him during the campaign as a "baby Christian," serving on his evangelical advisory committee, and recently calling him "God's man for this hour."

Neither Daly nor Focus embraced a candidate.

"We didn't endorse anyone, and we're not going to," he said. "We stick to policies and issues. We talked to almost all the Republican candidates, but I also reached across the aisle. As Christians, we're commanded to be engaged with all people, not just the people we like or agree with."

Together, Focus and Family Talk now take in a third less income and employ half as many people as Focus did at its peak. Focus current annual income is nearly $90 million, while Family Talk brings in just under $10 million a year. Focus raised $150 million in 2008.

But declining size doesn't mean decreased clout. President Trump appointed Focus friends to cabinet positions. Education secretary Betsy DeVos' family foundation has donated millions to Focus and its Michigan and D.C. affiliates, while Housing and Urban Development secretary Ben Carson is a popular Focus radio guest.

Daly is grateful for friends in high places but believes politics is a poor way to promote Christian values.

"We should probably apologize for requiring people to live under our standards when they don't have any desire to do so," he says. "Instead, it might be a good time now for Christians in this pluralistic culture to concentrate on reducing our own divorce rate, getting our own house in order, and living the Christian life well so that others want to be a part of what they see."

Family Talk did not respond to a request for comments from Dobson.

Helping families flourish

James Dobson founded Focus after teaching elementary school and serving on the faculty of the University of Southern California's School of Medicine. He described leaving USC as "one of the scariest things I've ever done. I didn't know if the phone would ever ring again."

Dobson built his brand through a series of bestselling parenting books offering help to parents who struggled to raise children amid the chaotic moral legacy of the 1960s.

"We are in the midst of a very serious worldwide revolution," wrote Dobson in his debut 1970 book, "Dare to Discipline." "This cataclysmic social upheaval is being ignited and fueled by the young (who) are united in their opposition to one common target: Authority in all its forms." The cure, Dobson said, was a return to the "timeless standards" of behavior found in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Dobson's father was a Nazarene pastor and evangelist who, the day before suffering a fatal heart attack, prophesied that his son would reach millions of people. That prophecy was soon fulfilled as Focus reached millions through its many radio shows, magazines, books, films and videos.

Some media ministries do little more than air broadcasts and cash checks, but Focus invested in the "high touch" staffing and resources required to give personalized help to people who called and wrote letters. "Focus on the Family could be called the L.L. Bean of Christian ministries," said The Chronicle of Philanthropy, citing the ministry's "ability to establish lasting relationships with its donors."

Today, Focus fields nearly a million calls a year and counsels more than 50,000 people on hundreds of parenting topics, from ambiguous genitalia to zits.

A call to political arms

Dobson said believers would need to look beyond their families and churches to win the "great Civil War of Values" that had caused a "rapid reversal of social mores ... unparalleled in man's history."

Politics - not the church - was Dobson's preferred vehicle for national renewal, as he said in the 15th anniversary edition of Focus on the Family magazine: "That is where the battle for righteousness is being fought. I don't think I had any choice."

Dobson turned his radio audience into a powerful army of lobbyists, urging them in 1980 to petition the Carter White House demanding he, Dobson, be given a role in a Conference on the Family. Supporters sent 80,000 letters, and Dobson became a regular Washington fixture during succeeding Republican administrations.

Focus on the Family's Colorado Springs headquarters Monday, November 17, 2008. Focus on the Family moved to Colorado Springs in 1991, followed by 11 other large evangelical ministries, sometimes called parachurches, over the next 10 years. The Gazette, M
Focus on the Family's Colorado Springs headquarters Monday, November 17, 2008. Focus on the Family moved to Colorado Springs in 1991, followed by 11 other large evangelical ministries, sometimes called parachurches, over the next 10 years. Photo by MARK REIS, THE GAZETTE 

While previous generations of evangelicals and fundamentalists had considered politics too worldly, Focus' public policy division claimed activism was more effective than works of service.

In a local 1993 speech on "Reasons for Christian Involvement in the Public Square," public policy director Tom Minnery said Christians didn't understand the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan.

Yes, Jesus praised the Samaritan for stopping and helping a man who had been beaten and robbed, but Minnery said the Samaritan should have demanded the local government provide more police patrols and streetlights.

John Eldredge, who worked for Focus before writing bestselling books and leading retreats on men's issues, said acts of social service were "entirely superficial" without social action.

Focus partnered with other conservative Christian organizations, helping create a powerful network of evangelical advocacy organizations, including the Washington D.C.-based Family Research Council, a lobbying and advocacy organization founded in 1981.

Backlash to ministry

However, in an interview just before moving to Colorado Springs, Dobson told this writer Focus was not coming here to get involved in politics.

But the ministry's support for Amendment 2 generated a powerful backlash, spurring the formation of new liberal groups (Citizen's Project and Ground Zero) and publications (The Colorado Springs Independent).

Around town, cars sported bumper stickers reading, "Focus on Your Own Damn Family!!!" or "Hate is not a family value."

Community leaders worried that the influx of evangelical ministries had brought "social pollution." A school district superintendent said local ministry employees' strong family values came with a high social cost. "They have the orientation that the position they express is the position that ought to be established for all youngsters," he said.

Focus rented offices downtown before moving into its Briargate campus in 1993, and these facilities became targets for graffiti, broken windows, and bomb threats. Animal intestines were dumped outside one ministry office.

Dobson was troubled but doubled down, saying, "There is an effort to make us look extremist, hate-filled and vicious in the way we deal with the homosexual community, and that is unfair."

Focus spokesman Paul Hetrick tried a different approach, telling one local audience, "We do not take political stands on issues."

Daly's 'ReFocus' on Family

Jim Daly was born into chaos. The child of alcoholic parents, he entered the foster care system after his stepfather walked out on the family.

Daly says he respects Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson - the pioneering generation of Christian cultural warriors in the years after Roe v. Wade legalized abortion. "They went from reading the Bible and praying in school to having all that taken away," he said.

But he says it's time for a different emphasis. "My core theme is to demonstrate the love of God," says Daly. "Simply speaking truth is not the only or most effective tool."

Daly's 2012 book, "Refocus," presented his blueprint for a kinder, gentler Focus. He encourages believers to "engage the culture with winsomeness" and "to see those living outside God's will not as opponents to conquer but as people loved by God."

And he's worked to practice what he preaches.

Dobson battled the "gay agenda." Daly opposes gay marriage, but he partnered with Colorado gay activist Ted Trimpa to strengthen Colorado's sex trafficking laws.

Dobson disdained President Barack Obama. Daly accepted an invitation to an Obama White House conference on fatherhood.

Dobson broke off contact with The Independent, but Daly partnered with the publication to sponsor a benefit concert for local wildfire victims.

Dobson battled fellow evangelicals, too, pressuring both the Evangelical Press Association and the National Religious Broadcasters to fire leaders who cautioned against politicizing Christianity.

Daly seeks partnerships with the National Association of Evangelicals and other evangelical groups. As NAE president Leith Anderson told Christianity Today, "What I'm most hearing now is friendship and a sense of collegiality."

Daly's Focus updated its logo and rewrote its employee dress code, allowing male employees to go without ties, women to wear slacks, and anybody to sport tattoos. Daly says Focus has remained true to Focus's core values while rethinking its strategy and methods.

"This is not a 180-degree turn," he said. "We still advocate for family values. There is deep love and respect here for Dr. Dobson, and we are grateful for the foundation he built."

A question for the 40th

Asked which achievements Focus will be celebrating during its anniversary, Daly cited the kinds of hands-on assistance that will never generate news headlines: 200,000 parents helped through family crises; 130,000 marriages saved; 210,000 people committing their lives to Christ; 100,000 singles being prepared for marriage.

Daly also praised the Option Ultrasound program. Focus provides grants to pregnancy medical clinics in communities with high abortion rates so the clinics can buy expensive medical machines that offer real-time imagery of their unborn children in the womb. Daly says the program has saved 382,000 babies from abortion since 2004.

Focus has helped families in 25 states adopt children from the foster care system, including thousands of Colorado families.

"What I feel called to do is shalom," Daly said. "I want to help bring God's peace into the chaos of the world."

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