Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Legislating God's Word: A Brief Look at Focus on the Family and their Quest to Build a Christian America

As I write this article, I am sitting five minutes from the Focus on the Family headquarters. I find myself so close to the belly of the American Evangelical Christian beast, by virtue of a brief portion of my self-imposed "sabbatical" in Colorado Springs-- and I must say that the location for Jim Dobson's Christian empire is fitting. In this state, Colorado Springs plays the part of the state's conservative bastion, a doppelganger to the liberal-minded university town of Boulder, just an hour and a half north. For all the commotion Focus on the Family causes on the national scene, their complex is really rather quaint and unassuming. I've strolled through their gift store, and browsed their collection of coffee mugs and doormats adorned with Bible quotes. Much like it's name, the institution appears rather benign at first glance. One would assume that it's a simple church organization and that it would be best to just leave them to focus on their families in whatever religious context they see fit. And this would be a reasonable stance, if this did in fact constitute the full scope of their activities. But Focus on the Family does not act as most traditional religious organizations do, minding their own flock and tending to internal affairs. On the contrary, they are a religiously motivated political action entity. And they are very, very busy.

With the exception of the US Air Force Academy, Focus on the Family may be the only institution that regularly garners national headlines, in the otherwise unremarkable Colorado Springs. Focus on the Family is the creation of the Dr. James Dobson, who I wrote about here when he interviewed Sarah Palin during the election race. Palin, who supported the Iraq War as a "task from God", was heavily endorsed by Dobson's organization.

Dobson uses the resources of Focus to "inform, inspire and rally those who care deeply about the family to greater involvement in the moral, cultural and political issues that threaten our nation". Upon reading this statement of purpose, I was immediately struck by two things. The first was the tinge of victimization. From the outset, the Focus on the Family Christian is being told that their values are threatened. This is a familiar tactic for anyone who tries to rally a group of people to a cause. Conflict journalist Chris Hedges was speaking of war when he noted this phenomenon, but the comparison is apt.
"The goal of such... rhetoric is to invoke pity for one's own. The goal is to show the community that what they hold sacred is under threat. The enemy, we are told, seeks to destroy religious and cultural life, the very identity of the group... The cultivation of victimhood is essential fodder for any conflict"

I was witness to this culture of victimhood when I saw Mikey Weinstein, head of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, speak at Air University. As his speech progressed, and he explained that under the Constitution, Christianity could enjoy no preference in the military, one officer after another broke into hysterics. While they voiced their discontent in varying ways, the central message was remarkably consistent: "you are attacking Christians". For this portion of the audience, Weinstein may have been reasoning with a tire iron as he tried to explain that the Military Religious Freedom Foundation represents more military Christians more than any other group.

I could expand on the irony of a group that constitutes 76% of the American population feeling victimized, but I will return to this later.

The other quality that struck me about this rallying cry is the remarkable sterility. Despite all that is known about Focus on the Family, the words "God" or "Jesus" are never mentioned, but passing reference is made to "moral issues". However, it only takes a little digging into Focus' political positions to see what ideological tenets are behind their curiously vague mission statement. On a range of issues from gay rights, to stem cell research, to gambling, Focus on the Family rallies their supporters to legislate what they perceive as "Christian values".

Recently, through the National Day of Prayer Task Force (headed by Dobson's wife), Focus on the Family endorsed an appearance by evangelist Franklin Graham at the Pentagon. The appearance was promptly cancelled by the Pentagon when Mikey Weinstein came out swinging, noting that Muslim military personnel complained that Graham had made a practice of vilifying Islam as "evil" and "wicked". The Pentagon's cancellation of this righteous hate-monger elicited impressive, if not frightful tantrums from Christian extremists.

It seems rather clear that Focus on the Family could simply avoid controversy by putting their weight behind humble and inclusive practitioners of Jesus' message. Instead they are always postured forward, endorsing divisive figures who demonize other faiths, or politicians intent on taking the nation to war. Such persistent habits lead one to wonder if American critic H.L. Mencken wasn't on to something in his caustic assessment, "Evangelical Christianity, as everyone knows, is founded upon hate, as the Chistianity of Christ was founded upon love."

As part of its agenda to legislate Evangelical Christianity in the U.S., Focus on the Family has a been very heavily involved in the fight against gay rights-- or as they put it "act[ing] to defend marriage from attempts to redefine it as other than one-man and one-woman, or to abolish it as an institution". In support of their position they assert "The existence of two distinct genders reveals God's design for sexuality, relationships and family." It goes without saying then, that Focus has taken it upon themselves to determine what God's design should be for all American families, not just theirs. The theocratic implications of such views are frightening-- but Dobson's organization has a long history of pushing its views onto others.

According to Military Religious Freedom Foundation Senior Research Director, Chris Rodda (who recently appeared on Keith Olbermann), the foundation has received complaints from soldiers in the field concerning Focus on the Family's relatively recent endeavor, The Truth Project. The Truth Project is a program targeted specifically towards Christians. The problem that The Truth Project seeks to rectify is that "only 9 percent of professing Christians have a biblical worldview", and that "today's believers live very similarly to non-believers". The 12 lesson course is designed to bring Christians who have 'gone astray' back to Focus' more fundamentalist worldview. Prospective students of The Truth Project can look forward to a comprehensive biblical indoctrination program that includes lessons on the following:

- Flaws in the theory of evolution, and the "godless philosophy" of Darwinism
- God's established social order, as "family, church, community, state, labor, and the union between God and man"
- The government's "place under the sovereignty of God"
- The American experiment as "an opportunity to set up a system of government designed to keep the state within its divinely ordained boundaries."

[Click here to see the full lesson overview]
According to soldiers in Afghanistan, posters and pamphlets for The Truth Project have shown up in dining halls and other common areas, constituting an unwelcome evangelism in their daily lives. This is an unfortunate, but persistent trend in today's armed forces-- MRFF's most common complaints come from Christian soldiers who have been targeted for evangelizing because they are "not Christian enough". It's still unclear whether Focus on the Family was deliberately using the Chaplain Corps to expose soldiers to these advertisements, but it would certainly fall in line with their standard practice of entangling themselves within military organizations-- it was only a few years ago when it was discovered that Focus on the Family members (civilians) had been given permission to come on the Air Force Academy base to use the firing range (this unambiguous violation of regulations ceased immediately when Weinstein's MRFF raised the issue). It was during a routine conversation with a friend that I would discover that Focus on the Family's penchant for infiltration may go much further.

My friend Erika has been politically active in Colorado Springs for more than five years. During a casual exchange Erika told me about her experiences advocating for Referendum I, a proposed measure in 2006 that would have given Colorado domestic partnerships many of the same legal benefits as married couples. This meager offering of 'almost equality' to Colorado's gay community was opposed, predictably, by Focus on the Family, who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to have the measure defeated by 53% at the ballot box.

Erika explained, "I was working with an activist group, and our intention was to raise awareness for Referendum I, and try to convince people that they should vote for it. Since this is a conservative area, we had agreed to be very careful in clarifying to people that this referendum would not legalize gay marriage, only that it would extend some of the legal benefits of marriage to couples in domestic partnerships"

Having been aware of Focus on the Family's political orientation for some time now, I asked Erika if they had been involved in the fight over Referendum I.
"Oh yeah, they really screwed us up. They had several people infiltrate our organization, and when it came time to walk around the streets with our clipboards, talking to people, they just told everyone they talked to vote against the referendum."

I was so stunned it took me several moments to process what she had just told me. Even for Focus on the Family, I thought, such subterfuge seemed too low.

"Yeah," she continued, "they pretended to be pro-gay rights, earned our trust, and then at the critical moment, when it came time to talk to people on the street, they pulled a 180. They told everyone they talked to that Referendum I would legalize gay marriage in Colorado, and that they should vote against it. It really undermined our work."

"How are you sure these people were with Focus on the Family?" I asked.

"Well we didn't understand it at first," she explained, "we just thought we had a few troublemakers, but the problem kept coming up again and again. Later on, the lead activists relayed to us that all these 'problem people' had actually been members of Focus on the Family. There was an article about the infiltration in my college's newspaper."

She added, "But I think it's important to say that this undermined our efforts. It really screwed our group up, and we don't know how widespread this tactic was, but the referendum only failed by a slim margin."

The activists in Erika's group were never able to determine if the usurpers were acting in any official capacity with Focus on the Family, or if they had organized independently. Opinions differed, with some believing that Focus on the Family had explicitly assigned them to disrupt gay rights groups from within, while others believed the organization's leadership simply looked the other way while their followers acted on their own.

Such deceptive political action targeted at activists seems to be more standard fare for an intelligence agency than a Christian coalition. Lying to a group of peaceful activists to infiltrate their network, and disrupt their good-faith efforts, strikes me as incredibly dishonorable, if not downright un-Christian. I'm no biblical scholar, but I don't think Jesus would have thought too highly of a person who takes advantage of another's trust, with lies and deceptions, all for the grand purpose of denying a vulnerable group of people the right to live as they please. I couldn't let this charge go unanswered, so I contacted Focus on the Family to get their side of the story.

A representative for Focus on the Family issued an immediate and outright denial, calling the charges “bogus” and “confused”, claiming that he “at no time engaged in or assigned staff to engage in [the group’s undermining].” Focus on the Family asserts that whoever the Christian infiltrators were, "they were not associated with Focus on the Family, nor staff of our organization".

For the record, Referendum I was on the ballot the same year as Amendment 43, the amendment to Colorado's constitution that explicitly defined marriage as between a man and a woman. This amendment, backed intensely by Focus on the Family, passed in the state by 56%. Given the prospect of such a ban on gay marriage in 2006, Referendum I seemed to have been a way for the gay community to hedge its bets. At least if gay marriage was banned, the logic went, they could secure some of the benefits of marriage to gay domestic partnerships. Even this watered down proposal was apparently too tolerant for the Christian right, who insist that gay Coloradans (and gay Americans in general) be made to feel like second-class citizens. The irony of a group of people who call themselves "conservative", advocating for government intrusion into the lives of its citizens, is simply overwhelming.

At present, the reality for the gay community in Colorado and many other states, is one of inequality. Under state law they do not enjoy the same privileges as their heterosexual counterparts. Thanks to the strident effort, massive financial backing, and deceptive tactics of Focus on the Family, gay Coloradans will have to make due with being second-class citizens.

Focus on the Family's adherants are indoctrinated with one story after another of attacks on Christianity in modern America. This "cultivation of victimhood" puts them on the defensive, and serves to rally them for a fight they believe to be cosmic in scale. In this hypersensitive state, they perceive harmless acts, like homosexuality, to be attacks on them, and their faith. They react by working tirelessly to manipulate the machinery of the state for the purpose of subjecting all Americans to their Christian worldview. One wonders if any of them will ever be able to see who is doing the attacking, and who the victims truly are.


  1. For Pete's sake, get an editor! Your grammatical and spelling errors undermine the credibility of an otherwise excellent post.

  2. Thanks so much Del! I reviewed this piece, and lo and behold, there were 4 glaring gammatical errors, completely undermining the credibility of this post! If it were not for the keen eye and constructive criticism of commenters like yourself, bloggers all over the world would surely be at a loss. I will make sure and fix these errors as soon as I care enough to do so.