No-News News From Focus on the Family

It’s tempting to take this World interview with Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, at face value, as “waving the white flag” on same-sex marriage. Resist the temptation.

“We’re losing on that one, especially among the 20- and 30-somethings: 65 to 70 percent of them favor same-sex marriage,” Daly told the evangelical magazine.

Daly’s not dumb, and neither was James Dobson when he ran Focus. I’m sure they’ve known for years that the trendlines on marriage equality have been running away from the religious right. It’s not exactly a surprise that the younger generations tend to be more accepting of same-sex marriage. Taken in that light, you could read the interview as Daly rallying the troops to renewed battle.

But there’s another way to read it, one that I at least find more interesting. Check out this piece from the middle of the piece:

Where are we [on same-sex marriage]? We’ve got to look at what God is doing in all of this. . . . Have we done such a poor job with marriage, is He so upset with our mishandling of it in the Christian community, along with our lust of the flesh as a nation, that He is handing us over to this polygamy and same-sex situation in order to, perhaps, drive the Christian community, the remnant, into saying, “OK, there’s no no-fault divorce in our church”?

So churches would have a standard of marriage higher than the state’s? We’d say, “The piece of paper that you get at the state to recognize your marriage is worthless. It’s like registering your car. But if you’re going to be a part of this church and you’re married, you’re going to be committed to your marriage. There’s no easy way out.” What if the Christian divorce rate goes from 40 percent to 10 percent or 5 percent, and the world’s goes from 50 percent to 80 percent? Now we’re back to the early centuries. They’re looking at us and thinking, “We want more of what they’ve got,” because we’re proving in front of the eyes of the world that marriage in a Christian context works.

I think Daly is signaling a repositioning for Focus—not to a “kinder, gentler, skinny jeans-ier” place so much as one more clearly aimed at influencing the behavior of the church (and through it the larger society). That’s as much a business decision as it is a political calculation. Daly himself says that 90% of his budget is directed “marriage and family issues.” That, combined with a long-term shift in conservative Christian circles from a few highly partisan leaders to a broader leadership, means that Daly is going to find it increasingly easier to raise funds for his adoption initiative than for getting same-sex marriage banned across the U.S. That doesn’t mean he’s given up. It just means he knows the battle is probably sunk for now, so he’ll have to try a new avenue.

One other thing worth mentioning: there really is a generational difference between “old guard” leaders like Dobson, or Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson, and newer folks like Daly. The older generation of leaders came up in a time when being an evangelical was not as well accepted in mainstream society as it is today. They felt like they had to fight to get their voices heard, and it showed. The younger set feel much more connected to the broader culture, even if they don’t always share its values. For them, the work seems to be less about confronting society than witnessing to it. Again, that doesn’t change their positions a bit. It’s just a different way of going about it, is all.

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