Does Dobson’s Departure From Focus on the Family Signal Change?

Amie Newman

James Dobson is finally stepping down as Chairman of Focus on the Family so the organization can "appeal to a new generation." But Dobson is far from retiring. And the organization still has its sights set on the same far right, religiously conservative goals.

It’s been a tough few months for ultra-conservative, religious right organization, Focus on the Family. First came the group’s largest employee cut-backs in it’s thirty year history when in the fall of 2008, it laid off 200 full-time staff positions. Now, founder James Dobson is stepping down after 30 years as chair of the organization.

The Associated Press reports:

Dobson notified the board of his decision Wednesday, and the 950 employees of the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based ministry were informed Friday morning at a monthly worship service, said Jim Daly, the group’s president and chief executive officer.

Dobson, 72, will continue to host Focus on the Family’s flagship radio program, write a monthly newsletter and speak out on moral issues, Daly said.

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In addition, his wife Shirley is relinquishing her duties as a Board member. The organization’s official statement makes no bones about why Dobson is stepping down:

"One of Dr. Dobson’s objectives during the last decade has been to help identify the next generation of leadership for the ministry, and to see it established securely before he stepped away from administrative oversight. That purpose has now been fulfilled, and we applaud Dr. Dobson for this concern for the future of the ministry."

While Dobson is trained as a child psychologist, Focus on the Family is a religious outreach organization whose mission is:

To cooperate with the Holy Spirit in sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with as many people as possible by nurturing and defending the God-ordained institution of the family and promoting biblical truths worldwide.

The guiding principles of the organization state that they are acting on what the leaders believe to be a call from "the creator himself" about the ways in which we all are to live. These guiding principles include espousing anti-choice, homophobic perspectives on the grounds that they act in opposition to God’s plan. Interestingly, on the issue of "sexuality" the organization’s guiding principles state:

Sexuality is a glorious gift from God to be offered back to Him either
in marriage for procreation, union and mutual delight or in celibacy
for undivided devotion to Christ. 

But if sexuality in marriage can be solely for the purpose of "mutual delight", where does contraception come into play? Focus on the Family is anti-contraception, in opposition to comprehensive sexual health education that educates and informs on family planning and birth control, as they are anti-abortion access. Just how is anyone supposed to revel in mutual sexual delight even if married, as apparently God has deemed glorious?

Of course, evangelical preaching can only take one’s values so far in our democracy and Dobson’s desire to affect public policy led him to establish a political action arm that is able to lobby for legislation that he considers an assault on "the sanctity of human life and the institution of marriage." Most recently Dobson railed against Obama’s overturning of the Global Gag Rule, his campaign support for the not-even-introduced into Congress’ Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), Obama’s intent to implement a full range of benefits for same-sex civil unions, expanded family planning funding and more.

People for the American Way’s president, Kathryn Kolbert, in response to Dobson’s announcement today, made clear that his influence on public policy will certainly not disappear:

"James Dobson may be stepping down, but he’s not stepping off the field. Dobson will continue hosting his national radio show and pushing his far right agenda under the cover of folksy advice.

"Dobson has built an audience for himself in the millions and a series of organizations that pull in tens of millions of dollars each year. He presents himself as an expert on raising kids, but his real passion is for enacting the policies of the Religious Right.

"Dobson and Focus fervently support failed abstinence-only sex ed programs, destructive bans on same-sex marriage and adoption, and efforts to undermine fundamental constitutional rights like privacy and church-state separation. Regardless of where Dobson appears on the organizational chart, he and Focus will continue their assault on Americans’ liberties." (emphasis mine).

In fact, Religion Dispatches’ Managing Editor, Evan Derkacz notes that:

"Dobson stepping down as Chairman of Focus on the Family should change things about as much as Philip Morris changing its name to Altria."

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