Before Dr. James Dobson even officially stepped down from his leadership post at Focus on the Family last week conservative pundits were already criticizing the well-oiled global Christian evangelical ministry as veering towards irrelevance.
Gripes that the organization is dialing back its right wing fervor and “moving toward the Rick Warren ‘kum by ya’ ethic” may play well to the perpetually irate Tea Party crowd. But it ignores the ministry and media empire’s enormous political and social influence on the intimate lives of billions of people worldwide. A power that is underscored by dozens of Christian self-help books and advice shows that air on 2,000 radio outlets and reach an estimated 220 million people in 155 countries.
Between dispensing advice on disciplining unruly children with bare-bottom beatings and quietly seeding $727,250 to ProtectMarriage.com for California’s Proposition 8 campaign to ban same-sex marriage, Focus on the Family under Dobson reveled in its reputation as a theo-political lightning rod.
That fundamentalism was fueled by an unmatched fund raising prowess that helped to rake in billions of dollars for the tax-exempt ministry and its activist wing, Focus on the Family Action.
There’s no doubt that Dobson’s successor, Jim Daly, differs stylistically and lacks the imprimatur of licensed psychologist. But insiders say he’s no less committed to mobilizing an army of evangelical supporters, media mavens and lawmakers against abortion, gay rights, pornography and anything else they deem as a threat to traditional family structure.
Witness the public uproar over the controversial anti-abortion Super Bowl XLIV ad featuring Heisman trophy winner Tim Tebow and his mother, Pam. The 30-second spot was executed under Daly’s watch as president and CEO while Dobson was cleaning out his desk ahead of the planned February 26 departure as board chair.
Some media watchers view the Tebows’ message — and creepy misogynistic fake tackle of Pam — as a parting gift to the verbally combative Dobson. However, the ad could just as easily be construed as Daly’s coming out party.
From that perspective, it’s a huge hint of what’s to come for an organization that is looking to reach beyond the safe confines of like-minded, middle-aged evangelicals. Daly, 48, who boasts an MBA and like Dobson is not a trained theologian, is only now publicly emerging from the shadow of his long-time mentor after taking the helm of the world’s largest Christian message machine five years ago.
Call it the ultimate pink slip
The changing of the guard at Focus on the Family could well be described as the longest goodbye ever. Nearly eight years in the making, the transition hasn’t been without its fits and starts marked by kooky media controversies, recent mass layoffs, lawsuits, sit-in protests and mounting budget deficits.
But apparently God Himself intervened metaphysically and told Focus on the Family’s aging leader it was time to take a hike.
On his November 6 weekly radio broadcast, Dobson, 73, broke the news that the board demanded his resignation from the evangelical media conglomerate he founded 30 years ago. Dobson told his listeners that it “was ordered by the Lord and I am certain of that.”
Widespread speculation, from observers on the far right and the left, have fueled rumors that Dobson was ousted over growing discomfort with his political proselytizing.
But that wishful thinking ignores the organization’s long history of über-insidery revolving door lobbying, creating spin-off advocacy groups, like the Family Research Council and Alliance Defense Fund, and endorsing ultra-conservative social campaigns. Not to mention the 24 visits to the White House by Dobson between 2001-2005, including 10 with President George W. Bush himself, and the weekly conference calls orchestrated by Karl Rove to shore up the administration’s evangelical base.
The zenith of Focus on the Family’s popularity was precisely that merging of morality politics and pop psychology designed to placate the conservative Christian masses. And it’s also what long ago crowned Dobson as a D.C. kingmaker with the full faith and credit of the board even if he wasn’t personally prowling the halls of Congress.
Focus on the Family spokesman Gary Schneeberger rejected media reports that the split between Dobson and the board brokered by God was anything less than amicable. In fact, Dobson made out like a bandit.
Focus on the Uterus
While homespun fundamentalist parenting advice propelled Focus on the Family into the mainstream media spotlight, the organization’s singular obsession with sex has proven to be its most shrill political dog whistle.
Hot button issues like abortion, sex education and secret indoctrination of children churned repeatedly on radio shows, pamphlets and fundraising appeals make for great headlines and even better get-out-the-vote strategies. Yet, except for a few high profile victories, like Prop 8 and demagoguing a particular late-term abortion procedure, Focus on the Family doesn’t actually have a lot to show for its multi-million dollar religious steamroller.
Real threats to families — domestic violence, divorce and poverty — are deeply rooted in America’s dysphoric working class but rarely have sounded the organization’s alarm bells as a call to mobilize Christian charity.
But there are some hints that may be changing.
Despite the conspiratorial yammering by the conservative political classes over the leadership shake-up, it’s Daly’s less confrontational style that could usher in far more lasting cultural effects than what was achieved by Dobson’s cult of personality.
Gone are the newsletters and radio broadcasts ranting about the latest perceived anti-Christian injustice inflicted by secular government officials and frothing outrage over homosexuality, pornography, gambling, feminism and abortion.
Now the external communiqués trumpet their work to unite churches and state agencies to promote the adoption of children in foster care.
Instead of railing about the sin of prostitution, a January 2010 press release astonishingly congratulates President Barack Obama for his declaration to prevent human trafficking as a means of combating the involuntary sex trade. Yes, the same guy Dobson called out as distorting the Bible and attempting to “lead by the lowest common denominator of morality” during the 2008 presidential campaign.
It’s the second figurative olive branch extended to the president in the last year when Daly commended Obama for his strong family ethic at a White House reception in June.
But the kinder, gentler public relations approach doesn’t mean Daly is abandoning the ministry’s hard right wing principles.
Focus of the Family recently kick-started its flagging “Operation Ultrasound” to help crisis pregnancy centers purchase sonogram equipment as a means of cajoling and terrifying women who want to terminate their pregnancies. The multi-million dollar program was slated to end this year with just 400 ultrasound machines installed, far below its stated goal of 650. Focus claims that the CPCs reported 73,000 fewer abortions resulted from the ultrasound program over the past six years — or 12,166 per year. That figure is in striking contradiction to a 2009 Family Research Council report that its network of 2,300 fundamentalist CPCs see just one women per day.
Even without Dobson’s hand on the till, the unnecessary intersection of religion and legislation continues through the reincarnated CPC funding program. The stepped up grantmaking coincides with renewed efforts by conservative state lawmakers to require doctors performing abortions to offer a copy of the ultrasound image to women patients.
Last summer, Daly also spun-off one of Dobson’s pet projects, the discredited ex-gay ministry, Love Wins Out, after budget woes forced Focus to reconsider its priorities. In a statement about the program’s merger with the equally reviled Exodus International, Focus vowed to “continue its efforts tracking and analyzing homosexuality.”
Here we are now, entertainers
Those same recession-fueled financial constraints have led to the shuttering of some of the more fire-breathing Focus publications. In their place, new blogs, children’s interactive games and a general interest parenting magazine have been launched.
Daly told the Wall Street Journal in an interview ahead of Dobson’s retirement that he wants to appeal to a younger generation with a more positive tone — something akin to that of prosperity gospel leaders Rick Warren and Joel Osteen. Though he recognizes there will be challenges in keeping the faithful radio audience that has served as Focus’ bread and butter donor base for more than three decades:
We don’t want to ignore our older listeners. We’re still talking about grandparents, about empty-nesters, about what you do when your kids come home to live with you after college, which is an important issue in this economy. You can’t ground your 40-year-old son for coming home after midnight.
The revamped and surprisingly tame radio program, features Daly, audio and new media VP John Fuller and psychologist Julianna Slattery. For all the earnest, giggly conservative Christian counseling dogma shared on the daily broadcasts it’s really just a well-produced revue wrapped around a fundraising pitch. Even Focus admits it.
“From a radio perspective, [providing on-air advice] is not considered to be clinical. They’re more considered to be entertainers,” said Schneeberger.
Though, never fear, the patented Focus on the Family bear-baiting fundamentalist radio programming is just moving down the dial.
To sweeten his departure deal, the board gave Dobson $1 million to launch his new daily show, Family Talk. Schneeberger said it was a gift to recognize his 33 years of uncompensated work for Focus on the Family.
But rest assured Dobson didn’t take a vow of poverty all those years. His income comes from book royalties, video sales and speaking engagements — all heavily promoted, ad nauseum, for free by the organization he founded. Dobson also reportedly owns the copyright on all Focus radio broadcasts and closes that lucrative loop by pitching the show on the books, CDs and promotional materials he produces through his own private corporation.
Now he’s set once again to cash in. This time with his son, Ryan, on the new radio program. Already a Christian talk radio host and book author, Dobson fils has learned much from his father’s cunning business acumen. In May 2009, Ryan Dobson finagled the profitable copyrights to Focus on the Family’s teen publications, according to the Colorado Springs Independent.
But before they can go on the air dispensing advice and dire warnings about “the true vomitus of the sexual revolution” they need more than the cool million from Focus. The duo posted a fundraising pitch on dad’s Facebook fan page to raise an additional $2 million to fund the show.
How the geriatric straight-laced authoritarian and his divorced 39-year-old son’s carefully groomed badass for Jesus persona will play to Dobson père’s audience remains to be seen.
The program is being shopped to national radio broadcasters and is slated to debut May 3.