By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Below is my interview with Jim Daly, president and chief executive officer of Focus on the Family in February. Daly was in Washington, D.C., to participate in President Obama’s conference on fatherhood at the White House. Focus on the Family, a Colorado-Springs Christian mega ministry founded by child psychologist James Dobson, has become one of the standard bearers of the conservative movement.
Daly, 47, steps in as the public face of the organization, replacing James Dobson, the outspoken chairman who stepped down in February, although Dobson will keep his radio show and speak out on issues. Daly has been at Focus on the Family since 1989 and has headed Focus on the Family’s international field director for Australia, Africa and Asia.
What did you think of the fatherhood presentation this afternoon?
It was outstanding. There wasn’t anything lacking in the president’s presentation. He reaffirmed the importance of fathering and the damage done when fathers are lacking in the home. And it’s something that is core to Focus on the Family as well. Thought it was gracious for the White House to extend an invitation to Focus on the Family. We’re certainly going to have enough areas to disagree on certain policies. But one of the things I want to do as president of Focus is when there is common ground that , we can pull together and say, “This is good. This is a good thing.” And personally, I am 47, like the president. I also didn’t have a father. So I can identify with what he describes as that hole in your heart. Anything we can do to help kids fill that void, I applaud. It’s something we’re trying to do every day at Focus and I think it’s wonderful for the government to also lend its support in that way.
Tell me about your plans for Focus on the Family. How do you plan to change the organization or keep it the same?
On the social issues, there is consistency. I am pro-life, I am pro-traditional marriage. At the same time, I’m also a person who looks for the conversation. I do want to talk to people who wouldn’t necessarily agree with me. That doesn’t offend me. I’m kind of a results-oriented person. I’d really like to solve some problems. The question I have is where can we meet on common ground. Like today, it’s like OK, can we lift the issue of fatherhood and make a difference in the country together? I think it’s a good thing for the country. The country benefits. I don’t know on the tougher issues like abortion, like traditional marriage, or homosexual marriage, what can be done there. But it’s a democracy. We get our voice out there, and that’s my goal–to be part of the process.
In that way, there won’t be a great difference. I think the difference will be the dialogue–engaging people who may disagree in a more aggressive way–in a good way.
What did you say to the president?
We shook hands, and I thanked him for the day. And I thanked him for putting attention on this issue of fatherhood and mentioned that, like him, I am 47, and I was raised without a dad. He had made a comment during his presentation that when he called his daughters during the campaign, they would answer with one word. I said, “I was glad to hear you say that because my sons are a similar age and do the same thing, so I’m glad it’s not me.”
He actually said congratulations for becoming president of Focus. I thought that was gracious, and I appreciated that acknowledgment. We have to remember that we’re all human beings. We’re all made in the image of God, and I’m sure everybody is trying hard and, to the degree that we can help in any way, that’s what we want to do.
When Dr. Dobson stepped down as chairman in February, you said at the press conference, “‘What we want to see is more families like Barack Obama’s.” What did you mean by that?
At the press conference, they asked “What do you see the future of Focus on the Family looks like?” And to answer to the question I said, “I know we take a lot of heat for the positions that we take in the culture, but what we really want to see are more families like Barack Obama’s in the United States.” I meant simply a man and woman committed to their marriage and raising their kids. That’s kind of core to Focus on the Family’s message.
That’s the irony of it. He exemplifies in his family what we’re trying to do every day with all the help that we’re trying to provide. We get 10,000 phone calls, e-mails and letters a day. It’s big. In that help, we’re trying to answer questions. We have a counseling staff of 28. Some people call in with suicide [threats]. Probably about 10 percent of that 10,000 is emergency-oriented. What we see as our responsibility as fellow citizens to step into the gap for people and help them. You know, in the arena of the media, 90 percent of our budget goes to what we call nurture and 10 percent goes to the policy area. But when you talk to people, they’ll get the impression that it’s the opposite. Because it’s not real pop and sizzle to talk in the newspaper about a marriage being restored. Journalists aren’t too terribly interested than that. But they’re interested in our position on abortion or gay marriage or something that. So that begins to create an impression that I think is unfortunate.
Do you plan to be as outspoken as Dr. Dobson was on politics. During the presidential campaign, for example, he said that Obama distorted the Bible and said he wasn’t going to vote for Sen. John McCain (although he later reversed that).
in the 20 years I worked with him, what people often don’t see is that deeply compassionate counselor. That’s his background as a child development expert. In that area of policy, he’s very feisty– a black-and-white person. And I think that served the country well in terms of clarifying positions and things like that. We will definitely be rigorous in the policy debate. We’re not going to back out of that or back off expressing a Biblical world view in the public square. That’s the wonderful thing about freedom, and we’ll continue to do that.
Again, just in my style is to engage and try to influence, not simply to make remarks that maybe are not as informed. I want to find out more about the people that we’re talking about. We talked about that today: Everybody who’s polarized on the issues can tend to demonize people. We need to be careful with that. We do want a civil discourse. We do live in an amazing country where we hand power off in the way that we do. Even with philosophical differences–deep philosophical differences–we can pass through that and work hard to get people who might promote our values in the next election. We can hopefully continue to do that very peaceably– engaging in the dialogue and meeting on common ground that helps the nation but that doesn’t conflict with our values.
What about on abortion. You were quoted in the Denver Post as saying, “When those who are left, right and center all say, ‘Let’s make abortion rare.’ Let’s simply meet at the starting point. Let’s shove off the rhetoric and get together on a practical matter.” What did you mean by that?
What I meant is that I would like to sit down with those who may be pro choice when they say, “Let’s make abortion rare.” I obviously am pro life and would like to see that practice ended because I think in our humanity we can find better solutions to bringing children into the world. From what I understand, there are far more parents looking for infants than there are abortions. It would be nice to create a national database of parents waiting for kids.
[We need to find] a kinder, gentler way to approach this topic and see if we can make abortion rare without, as pro-lifers, abandoning our desire to see it eliminated altogether. That would be a great starting point.The very fact that those who support abortion would say, “We would like to make it rare,” says something about the fact that they must not feel good about it. So let’s start the dialogue.
Your past is like something out of a Dickens novel. Your father left you when you were five. Your mother died when you were nine. Your stepfather abandoned the family after that. You went to live with a totally dysfunctional foster care family and then ended up living in a trailer when you were 17.
From my perspective, it was a faith journey. I became a Christian at 15. That helped me tremendously in coping with the trauma going on in my life. I had really solid male role models in my life. My football coach, who was a Christian, was a terrific influence in my life. That’s what’s so important about faith and helping those around you. I’ve written a book called “Finding Home” that tries to talk about hardship and how to get through hardship and make hardship work for you. There is something in the human experience that when you go through brokenness, you can actually thrive coming out of that if you deal with it in a good way. It can also make you very bitter.
For the first time, Focus is opening a Washington office, and you’ve hired Tim Goeglein as vice president of external relations. [Goeglein had served as special assistant to President George W.Bush and deputy director of the White House Office of Public Liaison and previously as an aide to Indiana Republican Senator Daniel R. Coats]. Tell me what that’s all about.
We’ve known Tim for a longtime–back when Tim worked for Sen. Dan Coats and then, of course, with the Bush White House. We had years of experience getting to know Tim and the person that he is. We wanted Tim to help us relationally. It’s very easy to come in and drop the bombshells and leave. But I felt it would be important to build relationships with people here. For whatever reason, they have a stereotype of Focus, and relationships are what it’s all about–again with people who agree with us and people who disagree with us. You can accomplish a lot more if you get to know people.
Were you concerned that there is such a liberal environment here with the Congress and the President?
Of course. But that’s the country that we’re in. We shift power that way. I think we need to work within the structure. The New Testament talks about praying for the princes and the kings over you, which we try to do for this president as well. At the same time, work within the structure to promote what we believe is healthy for the country. It doesn’t need to be a caustic or acidic kind of thing. I think oftentimes there is such polarization on the issue. We just want to be in the debate and express our concerns from a Biblical perspective hopefully be respected in doing that and, at the same time, we have to respect those who oppose us as well. The nation will decide.
I wish this President were a conservative. He’s an incredibly engaging person and he’s hip.