The speculations swirling around which Republican candidate would win the favors of the religious-right activists gathered at the Values Voter Summit last weekend obscured what was the ceremonial centerpiece of the event, a “Faith, Family & Freedom Gala Dinner” honoring James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and perhaps the most influential leader on the Right. Featuring a serenade from Lee Greenwood, the singer most famous for “God Bless the USA” (which he called “the nation’s anthem”), the tribute was rounded out by speakers attesting to Dobson’s personal qualities and thanking him for his leadership in political fights, and if anything, it certainly sounded like a fond farewell to the 71-year-old activist.
The AP reports that
out of public view, a new generation of executives is laying the groundwork for sustaining the conservative Christian group as a cultural and political force once the 71-year-old Dobson has left the scene. Most of their efforts are concentrated not in the political realm, but on finding new ways to deliver marriage and parenting advice to a younger generation of families, many of whom distrust institutions or dislike evangelical engagement in politics.
The article notes that Focus on the Family’s massive donor base is shrinking, as “Those who grew up with Dr. Dobson are empty nesters now,” as Focus President Jim Daly put it. And while Dobson’s own senescence has meant, if anything, a more prominent role in political activism, an effort to reach young parents with the kind of stern parental advice Dobson originally made his name with could be impeded by the bareknuckle politicking the group is almost better known for now.
Daly emphasized that Focus on the Family is not backing off its public policy work, and he said the renewed emphasis on relationship advice is not meant to blunt criticism that the group is too political.
But if the goal is to reach younger adults, downplaying politics might be wise. The Christian polling firm Barna Group found this year that nearly half of born-again Christians between 16 and 29 believe conservative Christian political involvement poses a problem for America.
No matter what plans are being made for a post-Dobson world, the man himself shows no sign of quitting the political game: After briefly thanking his friends and family for their kinds words at the tribute, he launched into a tirade against the prospect of “compromise” with the GOP.