Focus on Family Chief Ready to Start Dialogue

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Jim Daly, president and chief executive of Focus on the Family, has become

the public face of the organization since James Dobson, founder of the

Colorado Springs-based Christian mega-ministry, stepped down from the board

in February. Daly was in Washington last week to participate in President Obama's

White House conference on fatherhood. He has been at Focus on the Family since 1989 and was the organization's international field director for Australia, Africa and Asia.

Staff writer Jacqueline L. Salmon interviewed him. Here is an edited transcript:

Q. Tell me about your plans for Focus on the Family. How do you plan to change the organization or keep it the same?

A. On the social issues, there is consistency. I am pro-life, I am pro-traditional marriage. At the same time, I'm also a person who looks for the conversation. I do want to talk to people who wouldn't necessarily agree with me. That doesn't offend me. I'm kind of a results-oriented person. The question I have is where can we meet on common ground? Like today, can we lift the issue of fatherhood and make a difference in the country together? I think it's a good thing for the country. I don't know on the tougher issues like abortion, like traditional marriage or homosexual marriage, what can be done there. But it's a democracy. We get our voice out there, and that's my goal -- to be part of the process.

When Dr. Dobson stepped down as chairman in February, you said at the press conference, "What we want to see is more families like Barack Obama's." What did you mean by that?

I meant simply a man and woman committed to their marriage and raising their kids. That's kind of core to Focus on the Family's message. That's the irony of it. He exemplifies in his family what we're trying to do every day with all the help that we're trying to provide. We get 10,000 phone calls, e-mails and letters a day. Probably about 10 percent of that 10,000 is emergency-oriented. Some people call in with suicide [threats]. We have a counseling staff of 28. We see as our responsibility as fellow citizens to step into the gap for people and help them. In the arena of the media, 90 percent of our budget goes to what we call nurture and 10 percent goes to the policy area. But when you talk to people, they'll get the impression that it's the opposite.

Do you plan to be as outspoken as Dr. Dobson was on politics? During the presidential campaign, for example, he said that Obama distorted the Bible and said he wasn't going to vote for Sen. John McCain (although he later reversed that).

In the 20 years I worked with him, what people often don't see is that deeply compassionate counselor. That's his background as a child development expert. In that area of policy, he's very feisty -- a black-and-white person. And I think that served the country well in terms of clarifying positions and things like that. We will definitely be rigorous in the policy debate. We're not going to back out of that or back off expressing a biblical worldview in the public square.

My style is to engage and try to influence, not simply to make remarks that maybe are not as informed. I want to find out more about the people that we're talking about. We talked about that today: Everybody who's polarized on the issues can tend to demonize people. We need to be careful with that. We do want a civil discourse. We do live in an amazing country where we hand power off in the way that we do. Even with philosophical differences -- deep philosophical differences -- there is an amazing thing where we can pass through that and we work hard to get people who might promote our values in the next election.

What about on abortion? You were quoted in the Denver Post as saying, "When those who are left, right and center all say, 'Let's make abortion rare.' Let's simply meet at the starting point. Let's shove off the rhetoric and get together on a practical matter." What did you mean by that?

What I meant is I would like to sit down with those who may be pro-choice when they say, "Let's make abortion rare." I obviously am pro-life and would like to see that practice ended because I think in our humanity we can find better solutions to bringing children into the world. From what I understand, there are far more parents looking for infants than there are abortions. It would be nice to create a national database of parents waiting for kids. [We need to find] a kinder, gentler way to approach this topic and see if we can make abortion rare without, as pro-lifers, abandoning our desire to see it eliminated altogether. That would be a great starting point. We have to start somewhere. The very fact that those who can support abortion would say, "We would like to make it rare," says something about the fact that they must not feel good about it. So let's start the dialogue.

For the first time, Focus is opening a Washington office, and you've hired Tim Goeglein as vice president of external relations. [Goeglein had served as special assistant to President George W. Bush and deputy director of the White House Office of Public Liaison and, previously, as an aide to Sen. Daniel R. Coats (R-Ind.).] Tell me what that's all about.

We've known Tim for a long time -- back when Tim worked for Sen. Dan Coats and then, of course, with the Bush White House. We had years of experience getting to know Tim and the person that he is. We wanted Tim to help us relationally. It's very easy to come in and drop the bombshells and leave. But I felt it would be important to build relationships with people here. For whatever reason, they have a stereotype of Focus, and relationships are what it's all about -- again with people who agree with us and people who disagree with us. You can accomplish a lot more if you get to know people.

Are you concerned that there is such a liberal environment here with the Congress and the president?

Of course. But that's the country that we're in. The New Testament talks about praying for the princes and the kings over you, which we try to do for this president as well. At the same time, working within the structure to promote what we believe is healthy for the country. It doesn't need to be a caustic or acidic kind of thing. I think oftentimes there is such polarization on the issues. We just want to be in the debate and express our concerns from a biblical perspective and hopefully be respected in doing that, and, at the same time, we have to respect those who oppose us as well. The nation will decide. I wish this president were a conservative. He's an incredibly engaging person, and he's hip.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company