About That Focus on the Family Drama

Over at TPM, Justin Elliott has been making a case that James Dobson was forced out of his leadership post at Focus on the Family, and from his radio program, because the organization found him to be be too much of an intransigent culture warrior for the 21st century. The story was based largely on the complaints of the Rev. Ken Hutcherson — himself an unapologetic culture warrior undoubtedly miffed by the organization’s attempt to soften its image. Elliott follows up suggesting that Dobson’s son Ryan’s 2001 divorce might have had something to do with the decision to oust Dobson from the Focus on the Family radio show as well.

I can’t pretend to know the inner workings of Focus on the Family, and its spokeperson, Gary Schneeberger, gave me the same statement as the organization gave TPM: “We admire Rev. Hutcherson and the good work he has done for the cause of Christ and in support of families. He is, of course, entitled to his own opinion about the work we do, whether we agree with that opinion or not.” Dobson’s departure from two leadership positions at Focus on the Family was years in the making, with a phased transition of passing the mantle to Jim Daly, the current president, although reportedly Dobson’s departure from the radio show came to him as a surprise.

According to Focus on the Family co-founder Gil Alexander-Mongerle’s tell-all book, James Dobson’s War On America, divorce was indeed reason for ouster from the organization: he claimed that his own divorce led Dobson to remove him from co-hosting the radio show in the 1980s. Alexander-Mongerle’s expose describes Dobson as power-hungry, tyrannical, and ruthless.

Still, you ask most conservative Christian activists — apart from Dick Armey, perhaps — and they will speak glowingly of Dobson’s contribution to the cause, but question his aggressive engagement in politics. (In 2006, Armey told a reporter that “Dobson and his gang of thugs are real nasty bullies.” Still, his Freedom Works organization has more recently partnered with religious right groups in opposing health care reform.)

During the 2008 presidential campaign, I found religious right activists, particularly those who supported Mike Huckabee, to be intensely frustrated with Dobson’s refusal to endorse him, a frustration that increasingly led them to conclude that Dobson’s endorsement — so hyped in the media as essential to a Republican nominee — to be irrelevant. Indeed Dobson’s too-little-too-late endorsement of Huckabee obviously was of no help to the candidate.

Even moderate evangelicals — while admiring Dobson’s work as what they see as a champion of family life — questioned his forays into electoral politics. After Dobson assailed then-candidate Barack Obama for his “fruitcake” interpretation of the constitution, David Gushee, a self-described evangelical centrist now of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, told me that he didn’t react to Dobson’s comment in the media “because I think that his comments on politics and candidates are resolutely to be ignored. Fewer and fewer people are listening and it continues to in my view to be a sad deterioration of a once profound Christian ministry in the evangelical community.”

As I’ve discussed before, Focus on the Family on the one hand is attempting to present a new softer, gentler face — such as through the Tim Tebow Super Bowl ad — but also continues culture war antics, such as signing and promoting the Manhattan Declaration. Clearly the organization understands what one employee described to me as a “pendulum swing” — that there’s a less overtly political way of getting its same message across, perhaps taking a page from Rick Warren who has said the only difference between his views and Dobson’s is one of “tone.”

But at the same time, it’s still firmly allied with the “limited government” wing of the conservative movement, linking “big government” with cultural ills. As Tom Minnery, vice president of public policy at Focus on the Family Action, said recently, “In the last era, government has grown way outside its proper sphere by getting into moral and spiritual realms, such as redefining marriage, such as encouraging women to leave their children at home and go into the work force.” Focus on the Family might be trying to have a new face, but culture warriors are still on board.