It’s tough out there in the culture wars and Jim Daly has the battle scars to prove it.
But does the top executive of Focus on the Family believe he can ever successfully declare a truce with forces that seem determined to discredit his ministry? Can Daly ever dilute Focus on the Family’s message enough to win his opponents’ approval?
There are radical groups declaring vehemently that the Colorado Springs-based ministry founded in 1977 by Dr. James Dobson is a “hate group” because it opposes same-sex marriage.
Focus on the Family historically also has opposed abortion, divorce, gambling, pornography, pre-marital sex and drug abuse. It promotes teenage sexual abstinence, corporal punishment and school prayer.
“We must speak truth,” says Daly, “but do so in a way that represents the Gospel.”
And that’s the theme of his new book ReFocus: Living a Life that Reflects God’s Heart.
Speaking the truth does not include diluting the Focus on the Family message, he insists. “We must speak truth in such a way that people can hear what we have to say. They can disagree with us without being in violent disagreement with us. We can do things on our side to avoid hostility even though there’s great disagreement. I believe that.”
That’s a tough assignment in today’s cultural environment, which conservative author Andrea Tantaros describes as one in which anyone standing up for traditional morality and speaking out against such issues as same-sex marriage “cannot voice a dissenting opinion without being assaulted” by vitriolic opponents who are “not interested in debating, only suppressing debate. Destroying your life and career is the sentence for anyone who dissents on these issues. The activists will carry out the sentence with the willing assistance of a compliant media.”
Daly’s not so sure the situation is so hopeless. “God knows how the human heart is constructed emotionally,” he says. “He knows if people talk to each other with respect and sincerity, guess what happens, a person’s heart begins to open up. So, I don’t think it’s about diluting the message in order to gain acceptance.”
Our culture is in turmoil, admits Daly. “Part of the difficulty today is that in the past, there was a cohesiveness when it came to our moral code. It was built on Christian principles. Our culture generally understood those principles and agreed with them, even through they knew they couldn’t live up to them. So, people knew they were not supposed to lie. There was a social stigma to stealing, to divorce and to cheating. Many of our institutions were built on the idea of the golden rule and principles of honesty.
“But as the decades have slipped by, we look around and wonder what has happened. How did we get to such a place as we find ourselves today? There’s a bit of panic.
“For example, marriage is an example of God’s character in us,” says Daly. “God starts with Genesis and goes all the way through Revelation using marriage as a metaphor of His relationship to us.”
But today marriage is under attack. “I think one reason today’s culture is so hard on marriage today,” says Daly, “is because it reflects God’s image of humanity – that we’re made in His image, male and female. But to create children together, we become one flesh. Paul says it’s a mystery. And I think it’s a great offense to the enemy of our souls.”
Strengthening the family – long a primary mission of Focus on the Family – remains unchanged, says Daly. “Research shows that today still the best place for the well-being of children is in their biological mom and dad’s home. There’s no other family unit that rivals it. Sure, no family’s perfect because it’s made up of imperfect people. But when a family is functioning well, there’s love in the home and those children are going to do well.”
Daly speaks from experience. He’s the youngest of five children born to alcoholic parents. He ended up in foster care system after his stepfather walked out during his mother’s funeral. What followed were hellish years during which his mentally ill foster father accused young Daly of trying to kill him. The boy’s biological father, who had walked out when Daly was 5, returned to rescue him from a nightmare, but after a year fell back into alcohol abuse and committed suicide.
“I come from a broken childhood. I have a driving passion to try to get every child a better home and to be an advocate for that child who has no home.”
He was on his own at 17, but graduated from high school, then worked his way through college, earning a master’s degree in business administration. He was making a six-figure corporate salary when he responded to a divine call in 1989 and joined Focus on the Family, taking a two-thirds salary cut.
He’s seen the ministry slash staff, force its founder into retirement and now come under unrelenting attack for its defence of traditional marriage between one man and one woman. His response?
“I think what we want to do is be respectful, to speak with sincerity, to listen to what others have to say and follow simple rules of human interaction. Then we can do a far better job of being heard and being understood.
“We have to stay true to the tenants of the faith,” explains Daly. “But in doing so, we look to 2 Timothy 2:23.” In that passage, the Apostle Paul cautions young Timothy not to have anything to do with endless arguments. Paul also wrote to Timothy telling him that quarrels promote controversy rather than advancing God’s work – and that he should avoid people who have an unhealthy interest in ongoing controversy. “Warn them before God against quarrelling; it is of no value and only ruins those who listen,” he warned in 2 Timothy 2:14.
“When we are trying to help people understand spiritual truths, we need to do so with humility and graciousness,” says Daly. That’s why Focus on the Family, for example, shelved a program featuring the owner of Tom’s shoes – who donates a pair of shoes to the poor worldwide for every pair sold. After filming a special with Daly, Tom’s owner came under sharp attack by supporters of same-sex marriage who heatedly attacked Focus on the Family, equating it with Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan or worse. Overnight, Tom’s owner abruptly distanced himself from Focus on the Family.
It was embarrassing – and expensive for the ministry. The special had already been produced and was ready for broadcast. But Daly pulled it.
Doesn’t it hurt to be so viciously and unjustly attacked? How can an organization that stands for good be so fervidly accused of evil? Isaiah 5:20 warns: “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!”
But these are difficult times – and Christians are going to have adjust their presentation in order to be heard, he says. “We’ve focused a lot on righteousness and living righteously – and that is obviously important. But we have to look at God’s grace, too.
“Truth is important, but God’s love is critically important as well. It’s what opens ears and hearts. We have to remember that those who don’t agree with our faith, or our ideology or our religion are not the enemy. They are men and women, like us, created in the image of God and deserving our respect.”
And that’s the theme of his book. He says it’s time that Christians refocus – “looking at making sure we’re offering as much love to the culture as we are truth.
“You know, Jesus was accused of being a friend of sinners and really mixing it up with people who were of the world. That’s what the Pharisees didn’t like about Him, yet it’s the model that Jesus left for us. And it changed the world.”
Daly knows the frustration of spending precious time and dollars in the political arena, then having little results to show for it. With an annual budget approaching $100 million, Focus on the Family spent millions promoting Christian values in the last election. And now, he says, he finds himself thinking these days more about the big picture – the Great Commission, winning the world for Jesus – and less about political platforms.
“So often we expect the world to act like Christians. We’re very grace-filled toward the church acting like the world.” Daly says we must turn that around. “One way to do that is to live out our faith in front of the world in such a way that it glorifies God and brings honor to Him – in our marriages, our families and every area of our life.”
And perhaps it’s time to rethink politics and the church, he says.
“We can’t compromise our principles,” he says. “However, when we divide along party lines, it robs the discussion and the debate. We need to interact with others in a way that will consistently reveal the heart of God to a desperately hurting world. The moral issues of our day transcend the political debate.”
Christians often forget there’s a larger audience out there, he says. Just preaching to the faithful isn’t changing the world. “When we’re just talking to each other and patting each other on the back, we’re not making any progress. But if we engage those on the other side of the ideological spectrum to open up the discussion, to understand each other’s concerns more straight forwardly rather than in terms of caricature, that’s a helpful thing.”
He recalls an invitation he received to participate in a debate at a local college at the invitation of a religion and philosophy professor. He said he realized it was unwise to go into the debate “thinking in terms of score cards – of something I’ve got to win – that I’ve got to win the debate, I’ve got to win, I’ve got to triumph over this person’s ideology or position.
“What Jesus models and what the New Testament teaches is influence.”
He points to the early days of Christianity – the years of terrible persecution of Christians.
“Look at the early church,” says Daly. “The message then was convincing Rome that Christianity was a good thing, such as the way that Jesus elevated women, the way that the Christian community in the early first, second and third centuries developed hospitals and charities and orphanages.
“They did the things we call orthopraxy – the doing of the word. They did those things out of their love for Christ which benefited all. It was so shocking to the culture of that day. But it was Christians’ humanity that it caught their attention.”
The Romans found themselves asking, “Well, why do these Christians love the way they do? Why do they go and care for the downtrodden. Why do they reach out to the sick and contagious of Rome with no regard for their own well being? That puzzled the pagan Romans,” says Daly.
Should Christians just withdraw from the political arena?
“No, I don’t think that’s helpful to the culture,” he responds. “There are two camps – those who would withdraw from debate and instead plan with types of compromise or some kind of understanding.
“Then there are those who believe it’s all or nothing.
“I think the healthy place is right in the center. If we withdraw we’re doing ourselves and our culture a disservice.
“But there again is the difficult balance. How do you stay engaged, yet have emotional distance? The Word is very clear that this is temporal, this is man’s kingdom and that this will all be wrapped up in at some point in time.
“God’s kingdom is the eternal kingdom. Look at Jesus talking to Pontius Pilate or Paul talking to King Agrippa. There is such a calm peace and confidence in them. The attitude is ‘Before you kill me, can I pray for you? I know where I’m going after I die, but I don’t think you know where you’re going.’
“Today, we lack that because I think we’re putting an ordinate amount of trust in the political process. It will greatly disappoint us.
“We know that all fall short – we’re all sinners. I think that’s the biggest problem that our faith plays out in the political arena. We set up really a difficult paradigm – a self perception that we’re perfect and they’re not. That’s not true. We’re all broken people. That’s clear in scripture. We are all sinners saved by grace. Like Chuck Colson used to tell me, you don’t get angry at a blind man who steps on your foot.
“It’s true about spiritual blindness, such as the person who’s involved in the abortion industry. They believe they’re doing a good thing for humanity. They don’t see that from a Christian point view, they are taking human life.
“What compels me is to share the Gospel with people – even people who would disagree with me. I welcome the opportunity to open their eyes to the possibility that there is a God and that He cares for them. All I can tell you is what God has done in my life and what he has shown me – and what I have lived and what I read in the Scriptures. My enthusiasm is to share that with you.
“That’s what I’m worried about when you get right down to it. I’m worried about the barricade that’s impenetrable on either side.
“We don’t really want to engage them. We don’t want to talk with them.
“They don’t want to talk with us.
“That’s unfortunate, because the way hearts are changed is clear engagement.”
“The bigger question,” says Daly, “is the really difficult balance of ‘How do we participate in a democracy within the environment that we live in today?’ Scripture says time is winding down. We’re in the End Times. God wants us to have a Stephen-like attitude. Can we honestly say, ‘Don’t hold this sin against them’? How often do we say that after an argument or debate?
“We have to understand that we’re not here to win. We’re here to influence as much as possible the heart to the listener.
“It might be a little bit, it might be nothing, or it might be remarkable.
“The church and the claims of Christ and the Gospel are as relevant as they were 40 or 50 years ago. But I think younger Christians look at older Christians and think all we want to do is pound down someone’s throat the idea of righteousness.
“We need balance. When we strike it, standing for truth with Christ’s heart, all people are attracted to it, both young and old. I don’t think we should bend in principle.
“But we have to be mindful of the way in which we reach out and the tone with which we do it. If we’re simply politically partisan, we should just become conservative radio talk show hosts.
“The Lord calls us to something far more.
“He calls us to the transcendent values found in the Bible.
“That’s a vision worth refocusing on.”