This is an overview of Focus on the Family. This looks at the history of James Dobson’s organization and how it came to be the theological giant in modern evangelicalism. James Dobson left Focus on the Family in 2010 and Jim Daly currently leads it. This also looks at the controversies and issues with Focus on the Family. Even after Dobson left Focus he still remains controversial. Finally The Wondering Eagle lays out a series of questions that I hope this blog can answer in time
“The Holy Roman Empire is neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.”
“A great empire, like a great cake, is most easily diminished at the edges.”
Joshua 1:4 NLT
Focus on the Family Tim Tebow Super Bowl commercial
Today we are going to look at a ministry giant that highlights the issue of the Evangelical Industrial Complex. Focus on the Family is one of the most influential ministries that exists today. There is a lot of ground to cover and this post will end with a series of questions that I hope The Wondering Eagle can answer in time.
Who is James Dobson?
James Dobson would lead a theological empire for decades. But let’s start out by looking at his biographical information. James Dobson was born in Shreveport, Louisiana on April 21, 1936. His family was deeply religious and and involved in the Church of the Nazarene denomination. As such dancing was forbidden as well as movies. Dobson once explained that he learned how to pray before he learned how to talk. He gave his life to the Lord at age 3, in 1939. James Dobson’s father was a traveling evangelist in the southwest United States. In the tightly controlled house James Dobson became an academic and decided to study psychology, which was taboo in the 1950’s and 1960’s with evangelical Christians. James Dobson planned to be a Christian counselor or Christian psychologist. He went to college at a Nazarene school in California. that school name is Pasadena College, which later became Point Nazarene University. While in college he played tennis. Upon conclusion he attended the University of Southern California where he earned a doctorate in psychology. He served on staff at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California for 14 years. Dobson worked for Paul Popenoe who is considered the father of marriage counseling and an advocate of sterilization of the mentally ill and disabled. Paul Popenoe worked out of the Institute of Family Relations in Los Angeles, California. James Dobson established Focus on the Family in 1977 in southern California. I will get into the history of the organization in the next section. James Dobson is married to his wife Shirley on August 26, 1960 and he has two children Danae and Ryan Dobson. Ryan is adopted and an advocate against abortion. Ryan is not affiliated with Focus on the Family but he works in ministry as well. You can read more about Ryan in this Denver Post article. James Dobson’s “The Strong Willed Child” was written after dealing with his young son. James Dobson has written over 30 books. I am not going to list all of them, but here are a sampling of them. “Dare to Discipline“,”Preparing for Adolescence“,”Emotions Can You Trust Them?“,”Parenting Isn’t for Cowards Dealing Confidently With the Frustrations of Child-Rearing“,”Solid Answers“,”Straight Talk to Men“,”Life on the Edge“,”Romantic Love How to Be Head Over Heels and Still Land on Your Feet“,”Dr. James Dobson on Parenting.”,”When God Doesn’t Make Sense“,”Love for a Lifetime Building a Marriage That Will Go the Distance“,”Stories of Heart and Home.“,”Bringing Up Boys” and “Bringing Up Girls: Practical Advice and Encouragement for Those Shaping the Next Generation of Women.” In addition to those selections he also wrote a couple of books with his wife. Those include, “Marriage Under Fire: Why We Must Win This Battle“, and “Night Light A Devotional for Couples.” Today James Dobson is considered the most influential evangelical today. He left his position as President and CEO of Focus on the Family in 2003. He resigned from the board in February of 2009. Today he a regular commentator on Fox News and also does Family Talk which he founded in 2010. As James Dobson separated from Focus on the Family in 2010 he became more political. He claimed that Obama was a tyranny and in Christianity Today saying why he is a supporter and voting for Donald Trump. He called him a “baby Christian” and even has gone so far as to pray that Trump can be protected from impeachment.
History of Focus on the Family
Focus on the Family traces its roots back to 1976 when James Dobson requested a one year leave from work to start a new ministry. The first Focus on the Family broadcast began on March 26, 1977. It was called, “Let’s get Antiquated” and was broadcast on 40 stations. The first seminar James Dobson gave was in San Antonio, Texas at Trinity University in 1978. The talks that were given led to a number of films called Focus on the Family. On March 31, 1980 Focus expands its daily program and reach to now include 200 outlets. On November 2, 1981 James Dobson radio broadcast first appears on KBRT a Christian radio station in Orange County and the Inland Empire of southern California. On January 2, 1983 Focus on the Family broadcast is picked up by the Armed Forces Radio satellite. This means that James Dobson is now reaching the United States military with a potential audience of 1 million military personal and their families. Shortly afterward Focus’s first international office is opened in Vancouver, British Columbia and in July the first edition of Focus on the Family magazine is released. Focus on the Family’s first film series is recorded in Cincinnati and called , “Turn Your Heart Towards Home.” In June of 1986 Focus publishes its first book called, “Twice Pardoned” and offers to support crisis pregnancy centers with free material. Over 1,800 in the United States respond. The Clubhouse magazine aimed at children at ages 4 to 12 debuts. Due to growth Focus on the Family moves out of Arcadia, California in the San Gabriel Valley to Pomona, California in 1987. A board of physicians is formed to advise Focus on the Family, that board is called Physicians Resource Council.
On November 21, 1987 the first episode of “Adventures in Odyssey” airs. The first season of Adventure in Odyssey has 22 episodes and this would become the most well known aspect of Focus on the Family I suggest. From 1987 to date over 800 shows have been broadcast and by 1988 Odyssey is broadcast on over 634 radio stations. As of 2005 over 1.2 million evangelicals listen to Adventures in Odyssey at any given time. In 1988 the First Family Policy Council opens and Focus opens another foreign location in the United Kingdom. Also around this time Clubhouse Jr. magazine is released and aimed at young children from 4 to 7. And on February 1, 1988 the first broadcast of Focus on the Family is done in Spanish. In April of 1989 “Learn to Discern: Help for a Generation at Risk” seminars start to take place in over 300 United States cities as well as Canada and Germany. It is estimated that over 100,000 parents attend. In 1990 Focus on the Family receives a $4 million grant from the El Pomar Foundation and decides to relocate from southern California to Colorado Springs, Colorado. The actual move takes place in August of 1991 and over 350 Focus employees from southern California agree to move to Colorado. In Colorado another 400 employees are brought on board. The headquarters is on 45 acres of land and it is dedicated in August of 1993. This takes place in the Briargate area of Colorado Springs. In September of 1994 the Focus on the Family welcome center is dedicated. In 1995 Focus on the Family establishes a leadership institute for college junior and seniors, its known as the Focus Leadership Institute. Focus on the Family develops an internet presence in November of 1995 at America Online, the full website goes live on July 1997. In May of 1996 a gunman takes four Focus on the Family employees hostage and becomes a standoff. It ends with the gunman’s surrender. In 1997 the Renewing the Heart conference debuts in Nashville, Tennessee to a crowd of 19,000 people. This conference is designed for women to draw close to God. The last conference is held in 1999 in Tampa, Florida. And on November 29, 1997 Adventures in Odyssey holds its 10th anniversary.
In 1998 Focus on the Family becomes a major player in the culture wars. In the years prior they start to release more programs and material about sexual relationships. In 1998 Focus launched Love Wins Out. This controversial conference was first held in Columbus, Ohio. It was an ex-gay ministry that was designed to rehabilitate gays and make them straight. It helped those with “same sex attractions” and was led by John Paulk. Two years later John was caught in a gay bar in Washington, D.C. and the Human Rights Campaign broke the story. Focus flew him back to Colorado Springs where he was grilled by James Dobson. In time he broke down and confessed. The final conference of Loves Wins Out is held in 2009 it is sold to Exodus International where it is eventually stopped. Exodus in time disbands and apologizes to the gay community for its promotion of conversion therapy. In January of 1999 James Dobson announces a ten year plan for leadership succession. Focus begins a radio drama called Family Radio Theater in January of 2000. On April 1 the Adventures in Odyssey website is launched and that same month the one millionth visitor comes to the Focus on the Family headquarter. In 2002 Focus on the Family celebrates its 25th anniversary. On July 25 to 28 Focus holds events on the campus and also in Denver in the Pepsi Center. The Pepsi Center is where the Denver Nuggets play. Charles Colson and Michael W. Smith participated in the event. In May of 1993 Don Hodel became the President of Focus on the Family. Hodel was the Secretary of Energy and the Interior in Ronald Reagan’s administration. He assumed day-today responsibilities of the organization. In February of 2004 Jim Daly who would later become the President of Focus became the Chief Operation Officer for the ministry. On February 25, 2005 Daly becomes the President and Chief Executive Officer. In May of 2006 there is The Truth Project which tries to advocate for Focus view on the truth. This program is done by Dr. Del Tackett. The program is controversial and others raise concerns about manipulation. One such example of a website that pushes back is The Truth Problem. In September of 2007 Jim Daly releases his autobiography. In November of 2008 Focus on the Family is inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame. On February 11, 2007 James Dobson resigns from the Board and becomes Chairman Emeritus. On October 11, 2009 Focus develops a presence on Twitter and Facebook. In 2010 James Dobson turns over broadcasting over to Focus and other people start to perform Dobson’s duties. There are many people that believe that James Dobson was forced out. This was due to how political he was, beocming more and more focused on the gay marriage and transgender issues. The Board of Focus on the Family reportedly asked Dobson to resign. Focus had gone through several painful layoffs also. There were some people who believed that Focus the Family should stick to spiritual issues and soften it down which they tried to do after Dobson departed. When James Dobson left he started his own radio show called Dr. James Dobson Family Talk and received over $1 million from Focus. Jim Daley then worked to make Focus more in his image. On November 28, 2011 the Obama White House recognized Focus on the Family during National Adoption Month and for their assistance in helping kids in foster homes find foster families. In February of 2013 Focus on the Family is recognized at the National Religious Broadcasters for the 2012 Program of the Year. In may of 2014 Focus acquires the National Institute of Marriage and converts it to a retreat center. In October of 2014 Focus promotes Bring Your Bible to School Day to show support for student religious freedom. The Odyssey Adventure Club begins in 2015 and is later renamed Adventures in Odyssey Club. In July of 2016 Focus broadcast facility is remodeled for state-of-the-art technological capabilities. For its 40th anniversdary on June 23, 2017 Vice President Mike Pence came to Focus for the festivities. On February of 2018 Right Wing Watch reported that Focus on the Family changed is designation to a church. In addition to its 501 (C)(3) status a 990 Form was added. Focus budget at the time was $89 million and now its no longer required to file taxes with the IRS. Focus finances have gone private meaning people can’t inquire or find out its status.
Controversy in Politics and at Focus on the Family
Focus on the Family became stuck I would suggest on the gay marriage issue. Up above I wrote about how Focus became involved in Love Wins Out. These were controversial conferences that dealt with homosexuality and efforts to convert people from gay to straight. Conversion therapy was promoted allegedly by Focus. James Dobson became a culture warrior by describing gay marriage in draconian and fearful processes. Dobson came out not only against gay marriage but also gay unions. Focus also became involved in supporting political campaigns through it. When Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage, was before the voters in California in 2008 Focus poured resources into the campaign. Focus spent $727,250 to support the Proposition 8 campaign. In 1998 he was on the leaders calling for Bill Clinton’s impeachment. Also under Dobson in the 2000 presidential race Focus came out against John McCain and called him an unethical adulterer and compared him to Bill Clinton. You can read more in Huffington Post’s “James Dobson Calls McCain An Unethical Adulterer, Compares Him To Bill Clinton.” In the 2008 campaign when John McCain was running for president James Dobson said he could reverse his thoughts on McCain. Shorlty after that he said that he would vote for McCain and then when Sarah Palin was added to the ticket James Dobson became infatuated with the Republican ticket. But politics was not the only focus that was controversial.
James Dobson also helped launch the Family Research Council in 1981. This organization became influential in time. Today it is led by Tony Perkins. I have written about the Family Research Council and how Tony Perkins allegedly was involved in a cover up of an alleged sexual assault. You can read more in, “Did Tony Perkins from The Family Research Council Cover Up an Alleged Sexual Assault? Is that What Evangelical Family Values is About?” The Family Research Council because of its controversial and fringe policies was classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2010.
Another aspect that remains controversial was when James Dobson interviewed serial killed Ted Bundy. Ted Bundy raped and killed at least 30 people but it is believed to be much higher. He was tried and sentenced to death in Florida. The day before his punishment was carried out on January 23, 1989 James Dobson interviewed Ted. In the interview Ted Bundy claimed that it was pornography that led him to become a serial killer. Dobson was very much against pornography and was on Reagan’s Attorney General commission on pornography. Dobson used the confession for his claims about the danger of pornography and the Bundy tapes generated over $1 million, of which $600,000 went to anti-pornography groups. You can read different views on this, from an editor for Penthouse magazine in the Los Angeles Times and the Boca Raton Sun-Sentinel, to evangelical websites such as this one. Another issue that also deserves focus comes from a website that has paid attention to issues with Focus on the Family. Focus promoted Tom Papania in December of 1996. He talked about going from the “mafia to ministry.” Focus on the Family promoted this sensational testimony of a former New York mobster. Tom Papania was later to be exposed as a fraud, and that his testimony that Focus was actually stolen from another person. Focus on the Family was quiet about the situation and never addressed it until a partial admission in March of 2005. If you want to read more about this I will direct you over to Brian Karjala’s “The Dishonesty of Focus on the Family.”
Questions that The Wondering Eagle Has About Focus on the Family
Focus on the Family may have started out well but over time I think it went off the rails. It became a victim of living in the bubble. It is encouraging that James Dobson embraced psychology and that he was trained by a secular university – that of the University of Southern California. However, over the course of time Dobson lost his way. His organization became fringe and more about the cultural wars. The way it responded to gay marriage and more I thought was over the top. Conversion therapy is dangerous and this is an issue that I don’t think many evangelicals understand the dangers. James Dobson highlights the problem of the evangelical celebrity. Power, little accountability and the obsession of the culture wars. As such The Wondering Eagle has a lot of questions about Focus on the Family that this blog hopes to answer in time. These questions come about based upon writing about other churches and ministries so I am not stabbing in the dark. These are questions that are well within reason to ask.
- What is Focus on the Family’s connections to Cru, Navigators, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and Fellowship of Christian Athletes?
- What is Focus on the Family’s connections to the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) Assembly of God, Southern Baptist, Converge Worldwide, and other evangelical Christian denominations?
- Why is Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs? Is it due to tax code, friendly employment polices by the sate of Colorado?
- Why did Focus on the Family change its designation to a church? Who decided that and how was that decision reached? What happened behind the scenes?
- Is Focus on the Family in compliance with Colorado employment law? Is it following tax law, workman’s compensation, and more?
- Does Focus on the Family require its employees to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement? (NDA) Can someone provide me with a copy of a Focus on the Family NDA if they exist?
- Do they have a problem with sexual harassment or misconduct at Focus? Has sexual assault occurred and has it been handled internally?
- James Dobson left Focus on the Family in 2010. Does he still have influence at the organization currently? Or is Focus immune from Dobson today?
- How are decisions made to become involved in certain political issues? What is the decision making process behind the scenes?
- Is Focus on the Family receiving money from Russian organizations or companies that could be fronts for the Russian government?
- Does Focus on the Family have contacts with the Russian Orthodox Church and other organizations that can be used by the Russian government? The Russian Orthodox church can be a tool for Russian nationalism history teaches us that lesson.
This blog would like to interact with former employees and those who have knowledge of the organization. Focus on the Family is a ministry that has a lot of issues. Lets flush those out and address them. Evangelical Christians should be the most transparent when you think of what they profess to proclaim. Let’s tackle these issues. Thanks for reading and know that I love you guys!