And Then There Was One

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Focus on the Family announced today that founder James Dobson is officially stepping down as chair of the organization. It’s a move that’s long been in the works–six years ago, Dobson resigned his position as president and CEO of Focus, and internally the organization has been paving the way for current CEO Jim Daly to take full control. But today’s announcement is significant, not least because it leaves Chuck Colson as the remaining member of the quintet that launched the Religious Right to still hold a position of organizational authority. 

The Religious Right is very much still around–but the era in which it dominated political and cultural discussions has come to an end. Both Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy died in 2007, and that same year Pat Robertson resigned as chief executive of the Christian Broadcasting Network, although he continues to host “The 700 Club.” Like Robertson, the 72-year-old Dobson will retain his platform as host of his Focus on the Family radio program, leaving the public impression that the two are still very much involved as political players. 

But in reality, Dobson’s departure was a necessary step taken to ensure Focus on the Family’s survival, which has been shaky for the last few years. For an organization that prides itself on being able to mobilize vast numbers of supporters and listeners, Focus’ reach can sometimes be embarrassingly limited. When Dobson criticized Obama’s faith during the campaign last summer, some Obama-supporting clergy started a petition called “James Dobson Doesn’t Speak For Me” and gathered more than 10,000 signatures in a few days. Focus responded by blasting an email request to its mailing list asking individuals to register their support on the Anti-Dobson site. Fewer than 900 people did so.

The ministry has been in financial trouble as well lately, as Rita Healy reported last year for TIME:

[I]n 1994 Dobson’s monthly newsletter had a circulation of 2.4 million copies. Today, that circulation is about 1.1 million. Also, in the 1990s, Dobson was drawing audiences of 15,000 or more to his speeches; but in the lead-up to the 2006 mid-term election, only about 1,000 people heard his anti-abortion speech at the 2,500-seat Mt. Rushmore National Monument amphitheatre. Daly explains that the event was a last-minute invitation and that Dobson rarely accepts speaking engagements.

According to news accounts and audited financial reports posted online for potential donors, the organization’s staffing is down (30 layoffs last September). Total donations and number of donors are down as well. Focus orders and resells copies of Dobson’s tapes and books, which are the evangelist’s personal business; but those purchases have declined from $678,000 in 2004 to $269,000 in 2006. His last book was published in 2001; another is not anticipated until 2009. The whole Dobson family, including wife Shirley, daughter Danae and son Ryan, produce books and tapes, but revenue from all Dobson-family materials are down, from $781,000 in 2004 to $307,000 in 2006.

The situation got even worse last fall, when Focus was forced to lay off another 200 employees. One of the reasons for the organization’s troubles has been its failure to effectively appeal to the next generation of Christians. The original James Dobson supporters are not being replaced by younger families. One reason Dobson was initially so effective at generating support for political issues and candidates was because of the respect and trust he had built over decades of work primarily focused on dispensing parenting advice. I was surprised when I first heard Dobson’s name come up in political contexts in the 1990s because like many evangelicals I knew him only from the relatively anodyne Focus on the Family inserts that appeared in my church bulletins.

Today’s young Christians, however, know Dobson best as a divisive, controversial political figure. And they haven’t been lining up behind him. That’s one reason for the move announced today, says D. Michael Lindsay, a sociologist at Rice University who has written extensively about evangelical elites. “In some ways, this frees [Dobson] to be even more dramatic in his comments,” Lindsay told me, “but at the same time it takes him completely out of the organization. It’s a real investiture of power in Jim Daly.” The 48-year-old Daly has young children and is very well-liked within Focus, where Dobson’s more strident personality has alienated some staff in recent years. “Now is the time to let Daly emerge as the new voice of Focus,” says Lindsay. It is the only chance the once-formidable religious institution has of staying afloat. But it may be hard to achieve so long as James Dobson’s microphone stays on.

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