Focus on the Family

Focus on the Family, headquartered in Colorado Springs, is promoting conservative political stances for its evangelical Christian followers. (Photo by Debbie Kelley).

The Pikes Peak region is home to numerous Christian organizations that help needy children around the world, minister to youth, evangelize nonbelievers, publish books, distribute Bibles and support churches in other nations.

Most of these ministries are nonpolitical. As one executive said, “Presidents and politics have no impact at all on our ministry. We go wherever people haven’t heard about Jesus.”

But four local organizations — including two founded by James Dobson — have wed religion and politics, and all four are at the forefront of nationwide efforts to get out the evangelical vote and reelect Donald Trump, described by one leading minister as America’s “most pro-life president.”

The reigning conservative evangelical influencers are Focus on the Family and the James Dobson Family Institute, which Dobson launched after he left Focus in 2010.

As tax-exempt 501(c)(3) ministries, both are prohibited from making “public statements of position on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office,” but the Internal Revenue Service rarely prosecutes such violations.

Two other local groups are also promoting Trump.

Once largely apolitical, health and wealth preacher Andrew Wommack founded his Truth & Liberty Coalition in 2017 as part of a corporate restructuring that was never communicated to donors or the public.

The coalition is 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations, which the IRS allows to engage in some political activity, “so long as that is not its primary activity.”

Speakers at Truth & Liberty’s events and its Monday evening broadcasts have dismissed COVID-19 as a plot against Trump cooked up by liberals, whom Wommack has described as crazy, malicious, evil and demon-possessed.

Wommack wants to “take Colorado back” from such evildoers.

And Promise Keepers, the men’s ministry resurrected last year by local businessman Ken Harrison, featured pro-Trump and pro-GOP speakers during its July Global Digital Experience event, and urged viewers to register to vote through the group My Faith Votes, which seeks “an America where God is honored in the public square and biblical truth is advanced in our culture.”

No truce in culture wars

Founded in California in 1977, Focus on the Family created its public policy division to advocate and lobby for legislative goals in 1988, three years before relocating to Colorado Springs.

In Colorado Springs, the ministry and its employees quickly dove into local and state politics, standing out from other local ministries for their public advocacy of 1992’s antigay-rights Amendment 2, which Colorado voters narrowly approved, but was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Dobson left Focus a decade ago and started Family Talk, which was renamed the James Dobson Family Institute in 2017. Jim Daly was named CEO of Focus in 2005, and worked alongside Dobson for the next five years.

Daly said he would “refocus” the ministry and pursue a more engaging, less combative tone, but he never intended to slow the well-oiled political influence machine Dobson helped create — and which is now gearing up as never before heading into November’s election.

“The public policy arena is important because so much of what happens in that arena impacts families," said Daly in a recent interview.

Dobson and Wommack declined to be interviewed.

$16 million war chest

Focus’ income peaked at around $150 million in 2008. In 2019, Focus took in nearly $100 million, and spent $16 million — or about 20% of its $84 million program budget — on advocacy and citizenship activities.

Focus spends a few thousand dollars a year on direct lobbying and is working in Colorado to support Proposition 115, which would ban abortions after 22 weeks of gestation. In the past, Focus has lobbied against the Comprehensive Human Sexuality Education bill and banning conversion therapy for homosexual minors.

Focus’ public policy division — which was renamed The Daily Citizen last year — is the heart of the ministry’s political mission. The Daily Citizen’s “Presidential Voter Guide” was recently mailed to a million supporters. The guide is being promoted on Daly’s Focus on the Family radio show, which reaches seven million listeners a week.

The guide contrasts the positions of Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden on various abortion-rights issues, along with traditional GOP concerns (supporting religious freedom for business owners, completing the border wall, tax cuts, opposing the Affordable Care Act, the Green New Deal and changes to the Electoral College). The guide doesn’t mention issues that other evangelical groups have championed, including immigration reform, racial justice or opposition to the death penalty, with the Trump administration resuming executions this year.

In addition to creating content for The Daily Citizen website, employees in the division generate articles, position papers and talking points for conservatives nationwide.

Ministry sends political messages

It’s not only The Daily Citizen that provides political messages to Focus supporters. Focus has been a pioneering media ministry, creating award-winning radio programs, magazines, books, videos, blogs, social media efforts and online resources designed to help people overcome challenges in marriage and parenting.

People who turn to Focus for family advice also receive a steady stream of conservative political messaging, including Daly's blog. He has made clear, for example, that he is no fan of street protests.

“Tragically, America is awash in these types of toxic attacks these days, from Portland to Seattle and even smaller cities like Kenosha, Wis. Much of the foment is likely fueled by paid protestors who are committed to sowing discord and division from sea to shining sea.”

Daly also contributed an editorial to Fox New arguing that Trump should quickly appoint a Supreme Court justice to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“President Trump’s ascent to the presidency in 2016 was largely attributed to his campaign promise to appoint judges to the Supreme Court who would faithfully interpret the Constitution as it was originally intended and ultimately, overturn the horror of Roe. He must now make good on that promise again.”

Dobson’s Family Institute, which brought in $7.5 million in 2019, has its own public policy division. Jenna Ellis, the former director of the division, is a sharp-tongued culture warrior who now serves as senior advisor to Trump’s reelection campaign.

Ellis has been busy, suing CNN for polls that show Trump losing, tweeting that Biden's running mate, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, is ineligible to be vice president; proclaiming “there is no pandemic”; saying that Michelle Obama should treat her depression by going to church; claiming that Trump would win in California if elections weren’t rigged; claiming that recent fraud charges against former Trump advisor Steve Bannon represent "another malicious political prosecution"; and appearing on the Russian government-funded TV network RT.

Focus was Fox News before Fox News

The Daily Citizen bills itself as “your most trustworthy news source” and claims it “offers readers news and analysis on cultural and public policy issues … all from a biblical worldview.”

But Daly acknowledged in an interview that many Daily Citizen articles lack any connection to biblical teaching.

In addition, most articles are one-sided, seemingly violating IRS guidelines prohibiting “voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates.”

Most articles echo Trump administration talking points, and include no original reporting, but are sourced from partisan websites and commentators, including Breitbart News, The Blaze, Falun Gong’s Epoch Times, and Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham.

A Daily Citizen article on Biden’s declining “current mental acuity” appears near a report on President’s Trump nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize. The article says the award of a previous Nobel to President Obama was “controversial” and a “mistake.”

A report on the first presidential debate doesn't mention Trump's 70-plus interruptions, but says Biden was contentious.

In a year when fires have ravaged the West and Atlantic storms pummeled the South and East, Focus remains as firmly anti-environmentalist as it was a decade ago, when it contributed to a study series for churches entitled “Rescuing People from the Cult of the Green Dragon.”

"Environmentalism as Religion,” a Daily Citizen article, describes the environmentalist movement as “a secular bunch of fundamentalists whipped up into a religious frenzy by misguided faith in a particular view of humanity and ultimate reality that is actually at great odds with the best science and reason.”

Scholar Susan B. Ridgely studies children and religion and has written a book about Focus. She says the ministry’s “alternative news” creates a “closed media community” that positions itself as a protective “bulwark against the sinful world” of feminists, homosexuals and liberal elites.

“Focus became one of the earliest comprehensive alternative news networks in the United States, helping to create the conditions necessary for the success of later incarnations of alternative media, such as Fox News and Breitbart,” says Ridgely, director of religious studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

A vast political infrastructure

But the influence Focus and Dobson’s Institute exert isn’t limited by what they spend.

Focus has served as a conservative Christian incubator, helping give birth to and nurturing a number of politically oriented organizations that are now powerful, independent entities.

The Christian legal group that defended Colorado wedding cake artist Jack Phillips over his refusal to create a cake for a gay wedding, Phoenix-based Alliance Defending Freedom, was founded in 1994 by Dobson, Gary Bauer, Bill Bright, D. James Kennedy, Donald Wildmon and other conservative Christian leaders.

The DC-based Family Research Council Action, the political arm of The Family Research Council founded by Dobson and other leaders in 1981, sponsored September’s virtual Values Voter Summit featuring Trump, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, Housing Secretary Ben Carson, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Andrew Wommack and others.

Colorado Family Action helped distribute 25,000 voter guides in 2017 through 65 churches and private schools prior to a Douglas County school board election. CFA is one of more than 30 state-based conservative advocacy lobbying groups that are part of a network of State Family Policy Councils, a network that Dobson created, but is now independent.

The Springs-based Family Policy Alliance, which rents space in Focus’ headquarters, is a 501(c)(4) group that works with State Family Policy Councils to endorse candidates, train Christian statesmen and more.

Trump’s anti-abortion, but is he Christian?

Last December, the evangelical magazine Christianity Today published an editorial, “Trump Should Be Removed from Office,” which called Trump “profoundly immoral,” said he “has dumbed down the idea of morality in his administration,” and argued he “has abused his authority for personal gain and betrayed his constitutional oath.

“His Twitter feed alone — with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies and slanders — is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.”

The editorial said evangelicals should not help reelect Trump, claiming that doing so would harm their Christian witness before a watching world, and arguing, “None of the president’s positives can balance the moral and political danger we face under a leader of such grossly immoral character.”

But Dobson and Daly say Trump’s positives balance his many negatives, even if that requires them to rewrite their earlier comments on character in leadership.

Dobson and Jim Daly are on the same page about the need to reelect Trump, but Daly — who says he has met with the president one on one or in small groups half a dozen times — acknowledges some of the president’s flaws.

“I think President Trump has been the most pro-life president in my lifetime, but that doesn't mean he's everybody's cup of tea, or that he doesn't step on his own oxygen hose,” said Daly.

“If I like 80-90% of his policies, I only like 10% of his tweets. But the policies are paramount, and the issue of life is core, core, core.”

[Note: Steve Rabey has collaborated with authors on books published by Focus.]

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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