Focus on the Family head takes conciliatory tone after election

The head of Focus on the Family says perhaps it's time for the conservative evangelical group to reconsider some of its tactics and positions.
(Joseph Kaczmarek / Associated Press)

As the head of Focus on the Family, Jim Daly might be considered one of the nation’s leading culture warriors — a title that certainly applied to his predecessor, James Dobson, who founded the organization and built it into a powerhouse of the conservative evangelical movement.

And, to be sure, Daly threw the considerable resources of his organization — which fiercely opposes abortion and same-sex marriage — behind the campaign to defeat President Obama, paying for millions of mailers that listed the presidential candidates’ positions on issues that were important to “values voters.”

In the aftermath of the election, however, Daly is willing to say things that few conservative evangelical leaders are likely to say. He believes, for instance, that the Christian right lost the fight against same-sex marriage in four states in part because it is on the losing side of a cultural paradigm. He says the evangelical community should have been considering immigration reform years ago, “but we were led more by political-think than church-think.”

And, along the same lines, he argues that evangelicals have made a mistake by marching in lock step with the Republican Party.


“If the Christian message has been too wrapped around the axle of the Republican Party, then a) that’s our fault, and b) we’ve got to rethink that,” he said in a telephone interview, which followed a preelection interview in his office in Colorado Springs, Colo.

These are controversial views in Daly’s world, and he concedes that some of them have stirred anger among some of his fellow conservative Christians. But Daly, who exudes preternatural cheerfulness, said he believes that evangelicals need to win over friends, not make more enemies, and that the results of the election underlined the need to reach out to people with whom they have disagreements — including Obama — and seek common ground.

“Maybe we’ve been looking in the wrong direction and we’ve got to be more ecumenical,” he said. For years, he said, evangelical conservatives were content to persuade the Republican Party to adopt their principles on social issues.

“I guess that’s all good, except when you don’t win elections,” he said. He added: “I think what we’ve got to do in the Christian community is be far more humble ... and not call it a war, a culture war.”

None of this is likely to assuage those in the abortion-rights or gay-rights communities, for whom Focus on the Family has been and remains a powerful enemy. Indeed, the political wing of Focus, CitizenLink, was involved in fighting all four of the same-sex marriage statutes on the ballot in Maryland, Maine, Minnesota and Washington. Victories in all four states broke a 32-state streak of success for groups, including Focus on the Family, that had supported “traditional marriage” laws.

Still, Daly parts ways with many of his associates when he says that the evangelical right is “fighting an uphill battle of demographics” on gay rights, as he did in his recently published book, “ReFocus: Living a Life that Reflects God’s Heart.” In it, he says that Christian conservatives need to have confidence that they will prevail in the long haul but, in the meantime, to “engage the culture with winsomeness and with great patience and confidence.”

When was the last time that “winsome” was used to describe the Christian right?

The National Organization for Marriage issued a statement Friday saying that its election day survey demonstrated that 60% of Americans believe marriage should be limited to heterosexual couples. “The outcome of the marriage votes in four very liberal states has caused some to speculate as to whether the American people have changed their views on marriage. This scientific poll shows that the answer to that is, ‘no,’ they have not changed,” said Brian Brown, the organization’s president.

However, a new analysis of polling data by the Pew Research Center found a significant shift in views about same-sex marriage since 2008, with 48% of Americans now favoring the right of gays and lesbians to marry, while 43% are opposed. It did note that support varies dramatically by region.

Pew was among the polling organizations whose results were largely borne out by the election results Tuesday.

Daly said he believes that same-sex marriage is still supported by a minority in much of the country, “but I think it would be foolhardy not to recognize that the culture is moving more in that direction.”

Same-sex marriage was probably the highest-profile social issue in this election, but for the Christian right, no issue is more important than abortion. On this, too, though, Daly spoke of a willingness to work with abortion-rights groups to find common ground on adoption — a notion that would probably strike many Christian conservatives as appeasement.

He also said it would behoove conservatives to forge a working relationship with the Obama administration, which he said he tried to do in the president’s first term, most prominently by taking part in the president’s efforts to combat fatherlessness, and encourage more two-parent families. Daly said that he and Obama share the experience of growing up without a father, and he hoped to continue working on the issue during Obama’s second term.

“Frankly, after the election, I felt sorry for President Obama in one respect: He’s got a tough job,” Daly said. “We need to pray for him, as the Christian community. I mean ... I think President Obama needs divine guidance.” He stressed that he did not mean that in a condescending or sarcastic way.

“I’d say the same thing about Mitt Romney,” he said. About Obama, he added: “We have these differences and they’re deep, but in reality, he’s simply a human being. ... If a Christian holds that back and he or she isn’t willing to pray in that way, they’re not living a Christian life in that regard. If hatred or anger has built up to that level, then they’re missing the Gospel of Christ.”