Some rights groups are skeptical of a supposed recent shift in priorities by Focus on the Family, the powerful evangelical Christian group, which is attempting to distance itself from its anti-LGBT, anti-abortion “culture warrior” past.
According to an article at Huffington Post, the group’s President and CEO Jim Daly, said in the new book he’s promoting, ReFocus: Living a Life that Reflects God’s Heart, that his organization is pivoting away from its history of pitched battles over abortion rights and same-sex marriage and embracing an agenda that includes immigration reform, decreasing poverty and promoting abortion alternatives, such as adoption and foster care.
John Becker of Truth Wins Out, who has been active in opposing Focus on the Family for years, told Raw Story in an interview that he mistrusts the organization’s alleged change in direction.
“It really seems to be a shift in focus, not in substance,” he said, explaining he’d seen a similar transformation with Focus on the Family’s splinter group Exodus International. That group, which practices controversial “ex-gay therapy” programs, underwent a kind of public rehabilitation when its President, Alan Chambers went on the record saying that he no longer believes in or supports “reparative therapy.”
“A lot was made in the press about those statements, but when you look underneath the surface,” said Becker, “Exodus Ministries was still saying that they could ‘pray away the gay,’ Alan Chambers himself was still maintaining that he was in a happy marriage.”
In September, these types of treatment programs were outlawed in the state of California as a form of child abuse.
“They’re basically sticking their finger in the wind and seeing which way is blowing. They can’t maintain these anti-gay teachings with the younger generation and remain relevant,” Becker said, but he feels that the organization’s core beliefs remain the same.
“It’s a softer brand of bigotry,” he concluded, “but it’s still bigotry. They’ve got a multi-million dollar empire to maintain, so it’s not surprising that they’re engaging in this kind of cynical rebranding.”
Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) agrees that Focus on the Family’s alleged about-face is more of donor pitch than a policy shift.
“They’ve had financial problems for a while now,” Beirich said in a phone interview. “I’m sure that money is more than somewhat on Focus’s mind.”
Since Focus’s founder Rev. James Dobson left the organization, Beirich said that Focus itself has been trying to broaden its appeal and moderate its message. Dobson and his Focus on the Family offshoot, the Family Research Council (FRC), are listed by the SPLC as a hate group. Currently the FRC is headed by Dobson protege Tony Perkins.
Beirich called it “not surprising” that Daly would be making these types of efforts to shore up the group’s reputation. “It’s happened in a few of the big Christian Right organizations over the years as their hard-line older leaders have left the scene.”
“The proof will be in the pudding,” she said, as to whether or not these changes are cosmetic. “We’ll see what Focus on the Family really puts its resources toward.”
Michael Cole-Schwartz of the Human Rights Council told Raw Story, “It’s going to be quite a task for the anti-LGBT behemoth Focus on the Family to change course so drastically. Perhaps they’ve realized that the discrimination industry just isn’t as profitable as it used to be.”
Rev. Daly maintains that he simply believes that his group’s focus on social issues has been misplaced, “It’s fair to say we have concentrated on some things that have distracted from the main thing, which is the Gospel of Christ.”
He said that his personal beliefs remain the same; that homosexuality is sinful and immoral, and that he and Focus on the Family still hope to see Roe v. Wade overturned.
However, in recent years, budget cuts have shrunk Focus on the Family to less than half the size it was a decade ago, down to 650 employees from 1,400. Donations have shrunk from $145 million four years ago to a projected $95 million for this year.
Daly has been working behind the scenes to broaden the group’s appeal and shore up its membership since he took over two years ago. The softening of tone comes as recent surveys reveal that increasing numbers of young people in the U.S. claim no religious affiliation, and say that to their thinking, churches are too concerned with politics, money and power, and not concerned enough about the poor and suffering. A majority of Americans, including evangelicals, now support LGBT rights and same sex marriage.
“When you are in the culture of doing good deeds, taking care of the poor, taking care of the widow, the orphan, not as a means to something else but because this is what true religion should be doing, even the nonbeliever would say, ‘Look at that,” he told Huffington. “There is a certain respect that comes from that.”
A cadre of evangelical groups including Focus on the Family called on Republican party to reconsider its approach to immigration reform. According to the New York Times, “Hispanics, who account for about 7.5 million of the 82 million evangelicals in the country, are the fastest-growing segment” of U.S. evangelicals.
Daly, who hosts the nationally syndicated “Focus on the Family” radio show, paints the difference between himself and evangelical christianity’s old guard as a generational one.
“If you look at those who were born in the ’30s: Dobson, Jerry Falwell, D.J. Kennedy, the self-described culture warriors. I think if I was born in the ’30s with that Judeo-Christian culture and went through the ’50s and ’60s and saw what I perceived to be a dismantling of these things, I think I would have reacted the same way, as in, ‘We’ve got to hunker down and we got to preserve the things that leave the nation right,'” he told Huffington Post.
He said that while he respects the men who came before him, their world view and rhetoric could be “venomous,” and that he grew up in “a different world.”