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Culture worrier

Focus' new point man softens rhetoric, but insists that the campaign for hearts and minds must go on



In theory, Focus on the Family was built to spread Christian values. Yes, they're ultra-conservative values, but derived from the Bible and rooted in the Christian worldview.

In reality, a visit to the Colorado Springs headquarters of this media giant shows a similar reverence for founder James Dobson, known for his crusades against abortion and homosexuality.

Tours of the facility chronicle Dobson's Christian upbringing and training as a psychologist before he founded Focus in 1977. Walls feature pictures of Dobson standing beside former President Ronald Reagan, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other dignitaries.

A long, ground-floor hallway leads to the glassed-in studio where Dobson still records his radio show. In cubicles upstairs, workers guide callers through family problems, often with advice from the nearly 30 books Dobson has authored on parenting and marital relations (spare the rod, spoil the child kind of stuff).

Yet despite his omnipresence, the 73-year-old Dobson is in the twilight of his career at Focus. He gave up his chairmanship in February.

That's left Jim Daly, Focus' president and chief executive since 2005, as the new face of an organization in need of some renewal: As of press time, media reports said Focus would be announcing a restructuring and job cuts — its third round in two years — late Wednesday.

Daly is clearly cut from a different cloth. In June, Daly relaxed Focus' dress code, allowing men to work without ties and women to kick off their pantyhose. Also in June, a Denver Post story related that at a ceremony marking Dobson's departure, Daly brought gasps by offering the Obamas as an example of a good family. Daly has said he's open to looking for common ground on such issues as abortion, and believes in talking things over with his ideological opposites.

When the Indy reached out to request a sit-down interview, Daly readily agreed, though it took two months to find a time and overcome institutional resistance. (Some Focus staffers apparently are still sore about a 1996 Indy cover featuring a grinning Dobson sprouting an elephant's trunk.)

During 30 minutes face-to-face, Daly comes across more small-town principal than worldly CEO. Responding to concerns that Focus has been more concerned with the afterlife than community life since arriving here in 1991, he talks about a new effort to give back by letting employees take up to two paid days off each year to go out and volunteer.

On the whole, Daly's vision seems to be one of a kinder, gentler Focus on the Family — albeit one that is still hell-bent on barring abortion and blocking gay marriage.

Indy: Focus is widely associated with its stances on gay marriage, abortion and other social issues. Going forward, is that still going to be the case?

JD: From our perspective, we all should have the opportunity to voice our opinion in the public square. People are going to disagree; we know that. We get a lot of the disagreement regarding our positions.

I think with the media, the difficulty we face is that the largest majority — about 90 percent or more — of our budget goes to the core nurture issues: marriage and parenting. About 8 to 10 percent of our budget is geared toward the advocacy area. When we talk to people who don't know much about us, they think the exact opposite is true.

Frankly, the media isn't that interested in, "How many marriages did you repair today?" or, "Did you make a parent a better parent today?" Those aren't real hot, sizzly topics for headlines, and I understand that. I think when we're talking about those real controversial issues of homosexual marriage or abortion, those are polarizing topics, and the media does want to talk about those things.

Indy: Do you think the amount of resources and effort put toward advocacy will change in the future?

JD: I think it will be consistent. We don't want to abdicate our responsibility as citizens to be engaged in the public square. I don't think that's appropriate. I wouldn't think those that oppose us would be too open to us suggesting they don't have a place in the public square to speak their mind.

I think it's part of the process, it's part of the republic that we live in. We can have the dialogue — that's what I was trying to get across in the Denver Post piece is, simply, we can talk. We don't have to agree, but the lack of civil discourse is what's most concerning to me. And that's just generally, in the whole country, not Focus specifically, but I just want to make sure that we can be talking with people that may not agree with us. I think that's pretty important. It might be shocking to know we actually met today with a Democratic assemblyman up in Denver, and we were talking about immigrant education.

Indy: Who was that?

JD: It was [Rep.] Joe Miklosi. Just talking about the issue of higher education. What role is there for government to accommodate the kids of these illegal immigrants in the area of education? It's a fair topic to discuss. What should we do with those kids who have gone to high school in Colorado and don't have a place in higher education? Let's talk about it. It's a very good topic.

I don't know that we can engage in it, just with all the stuff we have going, but I'd love to know more about it. So he was willing to come here and we talked about that today.

Indy: On the abortion issue, you've talked about wanting to find ways of getting people on different sides of the debate to come together to at least make abortion more rare. Can you talk about what steps Focus might take to do that?

JD: I think, from our perspective, pro-life all the way. ... From our biblical perspective, life begins at conception, and I don't want to be perceived as backing down from that. The point I was trying to make is I know that there are fair-minded people on all sides of that issue. There are also very radical people on all sides of that issue.

I just wanted to suggest that, if those that are pro-choice, but want to see it rare ... I'm open to that dialogue. I'd like to talk to them about how they'd like to make it rare.

Indy: There's a perception that there's Colorado Springs, and then there's Focus up here, and that Focus is not involved or all that interested in community issues. Can you comment on that?

JD: Let me say it this way: I went to an economic development meeting the city invited us to. ... This woman said, "Let's talk about the elephant in the room; it's about religious intolerance in the city." So I just put my hand up and I said, "I guess some of that comment is probably directed at Focus on the Family, if not all of it." I said, "I think a strong city is a city that certainly can tolerate a variety of opinions." ...

I think, even though we disagree with the Gill Foundation, for example, I don't begrudge them having an office in Colorado Springs. That's their prerogative. It's great that they are here, and we can maybe have a dialogue about things. ... I think it's fair to say that I would be proud of a city that has a diverse opinion. It doesn't mean you have to kill the opinion of those who are more conservative.

Indy: Has Focus weighed in at all on the health care debate?

JD: Not in any huge way. We did weigh in on this issue of taxpayer-funded abortion. And we did a broadcast on that issue. Because I think fundamentally, both sides of that debate that are rational would see that as not a good move. I don't think it would be appropriate for the government to take money from people who really believe it's murder, and use that money to commit that murder. ...

But I think the health care issue, across the board ... I know people personally that have been devastated financially by catastrophic health problems, and they are in trouble. I don't have an answer for it — I'm always leery of the government being the answer. It's that old adage, "I'm here from the government and I'm here to help you." But I don't know that there's a good alternative at this point. I think we need the debate, we need the discussion, and hopefully we'll land with a very rational, sane approach.

Indy: A lot of people have spoken out and said they've been hurt by Focus' teachings that said homosexuality is wrong, and their relationships with their parents or others have broken down because of this. I'm wondering personally, if a loved one came to you and said "I'm gay," how would you deal with that?

JD: I think there always needs to be acceptance at a human level. Sin is sin, and we all fail. I think the way that you'd want to deal with that is to work with that family member to help them understand, especially if they're a Christian, that biblical orientation.

The thing about it is — and I've got a very specific friend in mind who struggles with same-sex attraction — but in her Christian orientation she feels she needs to bridle that even though that desire is there. ... There's no clear-cut answer to it, other than what's clear-cut from the Christian perspective is what's true in Scripture.

It's just like me, as a heterosexual male, I bridle that appetite for my sexuality, and I aim it toward my relationship with my wife. ... I think we are fighting a culture that wants to say, "Boy, if you've got that desire, just let it rip." It's not good. It's not a healthy way for human beings to interact, in our opinion, based in Scripture and our understanding of humanity. I think it will be chaos if we have open love. Others will disagree, maybe.

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