Father Dobson May No Longer Know Best

I have seen dark hours in my life, and I have seen the darkness gradually disappearing, and the light gradually increasing. One by one, I have seen obstacles removed, errors corrected, prejudices softened, proscriptions relinquished, and my people advancing in all the elements that make up the sum of general welfare. I remember that God reigns in eternity, and that, whatever delays, disappointments and discouragements may come, truth, justice, liberty and humanity will prevail.

--Frederick Douglass, Dec. 7, 1890

I keep this quotation on my bedside table. When I need a bit of encouragement about the progress of human rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, I read it. I took it with me in my pocket on April 16, 2012, when I flew into Colorado Springs to join up with the Soulforce Equality Riders at a historic first meeting with Focus on the Family (FOF) leaders.

For those of you who don't track the Christian right or radical religious right, FOF is the mega-watt organization founded by Dr. James Dobson. For many years Dobson has been "Father knows best" on the radio, one of our nation's most prolific writers and speakers on family issues, and arguably the most influential political spokesperson for the Christian right. He has said, "The homosexual agenda is a beast. [It] wants our kids. ... And the only thing that's standing between them and that agenda ... are those of us who believe in the Judeo-Christian values of this country." He has also said that if gays are allowed to legally marry and adopt, "[b]arring a miracle, the family as it has been known for more than five millennia will crumble, presaging the fall of Western civilization itself."

For the last decade Soulforce has been asking for a face-to-face meeting with Focus on the Family to discuss our concerns about Dr. Dobson's harmful speech about gay people, and to offer him our prayers for healing from his homophobia, but each time we pulled up to the FOF headquarters in Colorado Springs, our volunteers were arrested for trespassing.

Something changed this time. It appears that Father Dobson may no longer know best at FOF. In fact, he is no longer there, having departed with his son in 2010 to start a new network that competes with FOF. Many have speculated on why Dobson decided to leave (or was forced to leave), but in any case his exit opened an opportunity for Soulforce to enter into dialogue with leaders at FOF, and we are grateful.

At our meeting, Vice President Gary Scheenberger apologized for FOF leaders (Dobson) having us arrested in our prior visits. He indicated that the new FOF President, Jim Daly, had encouraged FOF leaders to meet with us. Scheenberger then arranged a five-on-five meeting in which five of our leaders met face-to-face with five of theirs.

We felt good about the meeting and look forward to the next one. We hope a future meeting will be initiated by FOF leadership as a sign of good faith in our discussions. We've invited ourselves in the past and would prefer to be invited.

In our next discussions, we may continue to agree to disagree about what the Bible says about homosexuality, but we hope we can agree that public broadcasting is not an appropriate venue for Dobson's characteristic diatribes about gay people. We hope that FOF will end or not support any programs or statements that suggest that gay people can change their orientation, be cured of homosexuality, or learn to act straight even if they are gay. Too many innocent people get hurt. We hope they will eliminate any statements from their publications that state or imply that homosexuality is inconsistent with God's design for humankind. Imagine what that kind of statement sounds like to a young person questioning her or his sexuality and/or gender expression.

Daly and Scheenberger have their work cut out for them in cleaning up FOF's image and redirecting their energies toward saving the lives of children and spreading the Good News rather than attacking gay people. I think we can help them when they are ready. And I believe that President Obama has taken a step that will make it even more difficult to maintain organizational fitness if your public position is unequivocally anti-marriage-equality.

I am encouraged by the fact that the newly minted FOF in a post-Dobson era is taking hits for being "soft on gays" rather than continuing the hard line taken by Dobson. Here is one example of the pressure Daly and FOF leaders are under, from the Illinois Family Institute, an organization of religious extremists distinguished by the Southern Poverty Law Center as one of the top 24 hate groups in America:

Far too many churches and para-church organizations (i.e. FOF) are adopting the emasculated approaches to the pro-homosexual movement. Not only are we not proactive -- in preparing our youth to understand the specious secular arguments used to normalize homosexuality but we are not even sufficiently reactive just when the cultural threat is greatest; when Obama has appointed lesbian law professor Chai Feldblum to the Equal Employment opportunity commission; when he has appointed Kevin Jennings, homosexual founder of GLSEN to be the safe schools "czar"; when the "hate crimes bill has passed congress, when the employment nondiscrimination act is soon up for a vote; when the student nondiscrimination act has been proposed; when the safe schools improvement act has been opposed and when efforts to eradicate marriage continue unabated; we need warriors who are willing to confront lies and protect children.

--Illinois Family Institute, April 2010

I think it is good news when a radical-right group accuses one of its affiliate organizations of being "too soft." In scripture this kind of pressure is called the "refiner's fire," and over time the intense heat can turn sooty black ore into brilliant silver. We look forward to that shining day for FOF.

And things are heating up for them. They've had layoffs. Like most nonprofits, money has been tight. On the one hand they are dealing with the radical-right pressure, and on the other they are dealing with another kind of pressure at the local level in Colorado Springs, where, up until recently, they had enjoyed "most favored nation" status. When you drive away from the FOF offices, you see bumpers stickers that say, "Focus on Your Own Damn Family." One of the FOF leaders told me that it will be a happy day when none of these bumper stickers remains. No one wants that type of publicity for an organization.

What is real for FOF is that the skeletons created by Dobson's anti-gay campaign and patriarchal messaging continue to rattle, and FOF leaders have to clean out those closets to forge on to a new day of mission. Most of us who are gay have dealt with our own skeletons as we have learned how to come out of the closet and live with integrity even when deeply oppressed by society and our own internalized homophobia. Perhaps some of what we have learned can help FOF leaders as they leave the anti-gay part of Dobson's legacy behind and forge a new day.

We appreciated our welcome to their headquarters and our dialogue. I believe we found a small patch of common ground on which we could "call a truce," pray together, and talk about scripture and the use of particular language. I am praying for their discernment and, in fact, relief from their homophobia now that Father Dobson is no longer on campus to regularly inject any anti-gay virus. If you pray, I hope you will join me and take time to write FOF leaders and tell them you are praying for their healing.