Abortion. Same-sex marriage. Politics. Culture at large.
For years, James Dobson was a barking guard dog stridently defending "traditional family values" on all these issues. Quick to temper, and slow to apologize, Dobson never had to be asked twice about what he really thought.
And that's important to remember, because Focus on the Family's current president, Jim Daly, is no James Dobson. While the founder of the right-wing evangelical organization was predictable in his views, Daly is full of surprises. When you least expect it, he'll compliment President Barack Obama. Or scold Christian couples.
We'll get to all that in a minute, but first there's something you need to know. The Independent is involved in a community-based partnership with Focus. No, hell has not frozen over. Here's what happened: Our publisher, John Weiss, realized that there was at least one issue on which Focus and the Indy can agree: We want all kids to grow up in a loving home.
Focus, in partnership with many area churches, has a program called "Wait No More" that aims to get more families to open their homes to foster kids, or to adopt children who are often overlooked, usually because they're older, have a disability, or struggle with emotional problems.
The Indy wanted to be a part of that, and a partnership was born. It culminates this Saturday in the "Fostering Celebration."
"There was a genuine interest from the Independent to say, 'How can we help?'" Daly explains. "And so, we appreciate that. We think that's what community's about. Of course, we're going to have our differences philosophically; we understand that. But we're all big boys and girls, and so we can do the good things that we can do for the community without giving up our principles on either side of the aisle."
Daly actually, has a personal stake in this foster-care initiative. He was once a foster child himself, and so when he came to Focus, he pushed the organization to do more for orphans.
"We often look overseas, and it's a wonderful effort to adopt from Asia or Africa — we need to lift that up as well," he says. "But right here in our own backyard, we have kids that have no parents — no hope in many ways."
We talked with Daly (and his public-relations chief, Gary Schneeberger) to find out more about where he's from, what he believes, and where Focus — and, thus, Colorado Springs — will be making headlines in the future. More of the interview is available here.
Indy: What was the foster-care experience like for you?
JD: It was a disaster. I mean, my mom had died when I was 9, and my father — they were already divorced. My stepdad walked out the day of the funeral, so there were five of us kids, 19 to 9, and my oldest brother Mike was in the Navy at 19, so he went back to Vietnam. And then the four of us had to find a place to live.
So my brother knew a family, and we moved in with this family. They lived in a small town in Southern California, Morongo Valley, and it was tough, there was no happiness to enjoy in that experience. And I think they tried hard, but eight, nine kids in the house. Every day for breakfast was cocoa and toast. I mean, there was just no money.
Indy: Did your adoptive parents adopt just you, or all the kids?
JD: Well, I was not adopted. I went from foster care, and then my biological father reappeared. And I lived with him for a year, and then he died a few months after I had moved in with my brother, because [my father] still had a drinking issue, and he died a few months after that. So I was 11 when he died. And then I lived with my brother. My football coach in high school wanted to adopt me, but I knew it would crush my brother, and so I said no.
Indy: How old were you when you were taken in by your brother?
JD: About 12. And he was probably 19.
Indy: Then you know what it's like to be a child of an age that isn't readily adoptable.
JD: Right. And again, I wasn't in that position. I felt it would hurt — we had a tight sibling group. The siblings stuck together, and we made decisions together. I mean, even at 11, I was the one to tell my father I didn't want to live with him, with the backing of the siblings. And so it was a very mature sibling community.
Indy: I wonder how Focus feels about adoption by gay and lesbian couples. How do you balance Focus' views on same-sex couples with its hope that every child will have a "forever family"?
JD: You know, the church, we can't expect the world to be the church. And likewise, I've talked to people who have a nonfaith background, [and] I've found a great deal of respect for the fact that the church can't be the world, either. So there is this dividing line when it comes to our deeply held beliefs, and I think that's reasonable on all sides. ...
So in the context of same-sex marriage, or adoption by same-sex couples, the culture will go in the direction it's going to go. We can't control that. But for the Christian in the Christian community, we want to do our job, we want to do the best job we can do with the time God has given us here on this Earth. So for us, it's about getting engaged and getting involved, and doing what we can do.
Indy: So basically, you're going to encourage the types of adoptions that your church would approve of?
JD: Well, the Christian church broadly. Focus on the Family's ecumenical, so it's not one church group.
Indy: But there are different churches that have different viewpoints on that.
JD: Correct. And the only thing I would add to that is that the research by and large — and it's fair to say that there hasn't been a lot of additional research on this — but the research by and large supports the idea that children growing up in married couples, biological mom and dad, really do the best. Secondly, growing up with a mom and dad.
Indy: Well, there's been recent research showing that kids growing up with same-sex parents actually do better than children growing up in single-parent households.
JD: I don't know how — the sample sizes have been very small — so I don't know that even researchers have validated that. So I know about it, but I don't know that it's broadly embraced by the research community yet.
Indy: Does this foster care initiative signify a bigger shift? Will Focus be doing more on a local level?
JD: We'd like to — I mean, ideally, you asked about the goal for us, I'd like to see Colorado be the first state in the United States to wipe out the waiting list for foster care. I think that'd be a terrific goal. I think that's what the Independent is excited about, as we all should be.
And we have moved that number again, together with different people — Dr. Sharen Ford, the head of [Permanency Services] for the state of Colorado — from about 850 to about 350. So we've put a big dent in it. And I'm hopeful we can keep moving to a place where it's virtual zero, which the state says is about 50 kids in the system.
Indy: Obviously, foster care is one of the more important issues for us. But I'm curious if Focus might have an interest in doing other local initiatives.
JD: Oh yeah, I mean we're always open to that. We do have a full-time position dedicated to the Front Range, Rajeev — and Rajeev's last name is ...
JD: Shaw. And Rajeev, you know, he meets with local leadership across the board to try and find ways to work together on different programs.
Indy: It seems like Focus is really trying to do more to help people navigate the pitfalls of life — marriage troubles, child-rearing issues — how does that effect Focus' more political goals? Do you plan on letting CitizenLink handle political issues or do you think Focus will still have some kind of hand in there?
JD: I think it's consistent. I think Focus' budget has always been by and large 90 to 92 percent bread and butter stuff like marriage and parenting. So that emphasis actually isn't increasing.
I think on the policy side, it's always run about 7, 8 percent. And that's on hot-button issues of abortion and same-sex marriage, and all those kind of real lightning-rod issues. And CitizenLink has taken a lot more of the direct [501(c)4] responsibility for that. You can do a lot more in a C4 than you can in a [501(c)3]. So I felt, and the board of directors here felt, that it would be good to let CitizenLink do more of the heavy lifting in that regard.
Indy: And Focus was criticized in the last election cycle for paying for expensive political ads while laying off some 20 percent of its workforce. How were those decisions made, and do you think they were the right decisions?
JD: I don't remember the political ads. I think it was about the Super Bowl.
GS: No, there was some connections made with Prop 8 advertising.
JD: Oh, oh.
Indy: And actually, there were political candidates in there too, which is why I went with just political campaigning.
JD: That probably is more CitizenLink's budget than Focus' budget, but the answer to that is you still, even in difficult economic times, the company or the organization is still going to do things to promote its cause, or its agenda. And I think if you look at a business, car dealerships don't stop selling cars in a downward economy.
I think the interesting thing I've found in all of that is, we were trying to get ahead of the curve. We were trying to make the corrections because we have a very good board with a ton of experience, and they could see the trendline in the economy. And we got ahead of that and made some decisions that I thought were gutsy but wise, and I think other newspapers — for example, the local Gazette — criticized us, for example saying, "How could you do that, to spend dollars when you have to lay people off?" But again, I think two weeks after that story ran, they ended up laying people off. It's part of the economy.
Indy: It must have been very difficult. I can't remember if it was last year or the year before, but I seem to remember Focus doing mass layoffs around Christmas.
JD: It was November. We had the November/October board meeting and then we made plans, and then we had to do it. And actually, if we had not made that decision, I think we would have probably, I think we would have probably found it difficult to keep the doors open, because I think it ended up being about a $7 million decision. And we ended up just barely making it through the year financially, with the economy.
Indy: So tell me, has the fundraising recovered since that point?
JD: It's stable. We're on track at about $103 million, $105 million.
Indy: How does that compare to last year?
JD: The last two years have been down. ... The first big hit was [the] '09 budget year, and we went from about $149 [million] — actual — to about $120 [million]. So it was a big hit. And then the next year, we dropped it down another $10 million, $12 million.
Indy: What should the ultimate goal of Focus be?
JD: Well, as a Christian organization, we don't want to blink on our primary mission: that's to introduce people to who Jesus Christ is and what his claims were, and what they mean to us today. And so we would call that evangelism — to make sure we can help someone's family each and every day. But if we don't at least introduce them to the author of the family, we think we've missed the mark.
Indy: In the past, I think Focus was known more for opposing things: no gay marriage, no abortion, no evolution. Is that type of push-back still a priority?
JD: Well, I mean, it's hard — this is something Dr. Dobson often referred to, that river of culture — it's hard to stand in that stream as the culture is moving with the current. But in many ways, that's what the church does. We stand and say, "Well, wait a minute, we don't think that's a wise way to go." And the culture reacts to that, either favorably or unfavorably.
Indy: Focus' views on gay and lesbians have always been a hot-button issue. You were quoted as saying that Focus had lost the battle on same-sex marriage with young adults. Our paper later clarified that you were still against same-sex marriage, but felt the country's youth were on the other side. You also blogged on the issue, and seemed to be saying that while same-sex marriage may become a reality, that you believed the decision would later be looked at in a negative light, just as you believe no-fault divorce is now viewed.
All this gets a little jumbled. Let's be clear: Do you think same-sex marriage will become a national reality, and if so, do you think the policy will ever be reversed?
JD: It's hard to tell. ... What I was trying to say in that interview, when the question was asked about the younger generation, is you can't deny the stats. So when you're looking at that and they're saying 65 to 70 percent of those under 40 or 35 — I can't remember exactly — support same-sex marriage, if that does not change within that community as they become 50 and 60, yeah it's over.
So the point is — and it is a fair one — with a little more age, with a little more perspective, with having your first child, will people's views become a little more conservative in that regard? I don't know.
Indy: Well, the recent polling we're seeing is a really big shift from 10 years ago, too. And I believe I even saw one with majority support. It was a small majority, and I can't remember whether it was for same-sex marriage or civil unions.
GS: 53 percent, Gallup.
JD: There is a shift there, and the thing about it in my humble opinion is, human sexuality, if you look back even again at the beginning of Christianity, when Christ was here on this Earth, Rome was not known for its chastity. It wasn't known for its great marital fidelity. It was a highly sexualized culture as well. And things, over time, seem to shift.
GS: I would add one thing. There have been — as you saw in your research — many articles written on the WORLD Magazine article. I think one thing that's been under-reported in that was Jim's comments [that] one way to educate the culture is that Christians do a better job of modeling marriage themselves.
JD: [Laughs.] Oh, big time!
GS: I mean, you're very strong on that, and I think that's been under-reported.
JD: Well, that's really not the hot part of the story, but I think when you look at that, it's true. When I was talking to two or three gay activists, it's a fair comment ... "You guys haven't done so well with marriage — why not give us a try?" And it's true.
Indy: I remember Colorado Springs some years back got a "D" for its divorce rate. Which was interesting.
JD: There seems to be a distinction between those that are committed and those that are marginally committed. Actually, that [latter] group has the highest divorce rates, even more so than the world. But the committed Christian community, measured by church-going and committed Scripture reading, actually has the lowest.
But the point in that is, it's still too high. It's like 30, 35 percent. So we're not being a very good witness in that regard. And that's a fair criticism — we can't hide from that, we have to do a better job. We need to be committed.
And the other part of that article, I think President Obama, I don't agree with much of the policy there, but at least he's married to his first wife, raising his biological kids! And one of the few politicians in that regard. So I give — you've got to, for intellectual honesty's sake — you've got to say, "Well done!"
His fight on fatherlessness, I applaud that, and I know it grows out of his pain. So I relate to that and I appreciate that, and it would be good for more presidents to be married to their first wives with their biological children. You look at some of the contenders, and they'll have three or four marriages. So they give lip service to it, but they don't live it. And that should be a concern for us that are trying to better our society.
Indy: That makes sense. And do you believe a policy of allowing civil unions for gays and lesbians would be better than allowing gay marriage, or do you see it as the same thing?
JD: I think it depends on how the law is written. I think there are many people that are looking for that accommodation. How can that be done in such a way that it recognizes where the culture's at, and the needs that are between same-sex couples?
And I think if those laws can be written in such a way to strengthen their legal rights, but still protect marriage as a special union between a man and a woman, for the sake of the culture, the sake of rearing children, procreation, all those things. I think that is something that is being talked about.
There are groups that are talking about it, Christian, non-Christian, trying to work out a way. So I think there's room, I just don't know what the perfect way is there yet.
Indy: I wanted to ask you a little bit about abortion. Focus financially supports pregnancy resource centers, which provide medical help to pregnant women while discouraging abortion. The Indy wrote an article quite some time ago in which one of our reporters went undercover with a pregnant friend ["Mom's the word," cover story, May 24, 2007] and visited one of these kinds of centers. She found that the centers were spreading misinformation, and it seemed like the staff had very little training.
Have things changed? What, if anything, is Focus doing to make sure these centers are staffed with medically educated personnel?
JD: It's a fair question. I think it's interesting, with the stings that have been done by, I think Lila Rose is her name, on the Planned Parenthood site [Rose is an anti-abortion activist and the founder of Live Action] it seems that both within Planned Parenthood clinics and pregnancy and medical clinics, you probably have different strata of sophistication, capability.
Indy: Because one type of clinic Focus sponsors is just informational, and one of them is actually a medical center, correct?
JD: Correct. And so I don't know which one this was. So there's something — I don't know the number — there's something like 2,000 pregnancy clinics coming from kind of an abstinence, life perspective. And within that group, I think they break down, about a third are very well-trained, well-equipped, and about a third are emerging into that direction, and about a third aren't.
So I would just say taking a real honest look at it, that's probably normal. Our goal in that is really to lift everybody's game.
Indy: Have you been able to provide any sort of ground rules or educational packets for people?
JD: Oh yeah ... there's two or three professional association groups that do most of that. Focus came along and kind of bolstered that and gave it a little more muscle for those who want to work with us. So there's very tight criteria they have to meet in order to get [an ultrasound] machine and qualify.
Indy: What do you think the next frontier is in the abortion battle?
JD: From my perspective what I would love to see, I would love to see for this country to embrace a culture of life. Our Super Bowl ad [featuring football quarterback Tim Tebow, now with the Denver Broncos] was about that. ...
We know there's desperate situations for women when they have an unplanned pregnancy. We would love to see abortion radically reduced. Those that support abortion say that; I'm trying to find out if they mean it. Because what I would love to do is say, "Can we move the number of abortions from 1.2 million a year, to 600,00? Can we cut it in half?"
Indy: Is Focus ready to embrace birth control as a part of that?
JD: Focus has never — we have a medical group called the Physicians Resource Council here, about 40 physicians that — active physicians — that volunteer their time. And they meet twice year, here on campus, and review our medical, bioethical issues. And that group has always been supportive of um, different types of pregnancy, what we call them ...
JD: Right, pregnancy prevention. So we've taken a very professional approach in that regard, and relied on their advice. And again Focus may be a little different than some, but we want to educate a couple on what is biblical and what is available, and let them make that decision in a Christian context.
But we want to encourage people to have children. I think one of the problems we have in the culture right now is either we anticipate it's too much of a financial burden, we're not ready, we may not have children, [or] my parents talked me out of having kids. I mean, there's lots of reasons. But we do think it's important for the culture and for life to be blessed with children.
Indy: I wanted to ask you finally, Focus seems really interested in making religion a very public — versus a private, but nevertheless, sacred — part of a person's life. Why?
JD: Well, I think it goes right back to Scripture. I think if you read Scriptures and the gospels, Jesus himself said raise me up for all men. You know, talk about me, so go out and proclaim the gospel, go to all nations and proclaim the gospel. So I don't know who's circulating that this needs to just be a private affair.
Christianity's always been a public affair, whether that's Paul going to Mars Hill [or] the Sermon on the Mount. I mean, Jesus was very public in his ministry. So I would just think that probably is the hopeful desire of those who don't want to confront what Christ is proclaiming — why don't we just keep that to yourself and not be public about it? It's not part of Christian history to do that.
The Christian history has always been to proclaim the gospel very publicly. I would say the difference, though, is more [that] we may have had some straying [from it being] done in a very direct, honest, truthful way, but also in a very gracious, loving way.