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Vice President Mike Pence’s visit Friday to Colorado to celebrate the anniversary of Focus on the Family comes at a time of change for the religious right during the age of President Donald Trump.
Focus on the Family was once well-known for its involvement in politics. But under new leadership, it has dialed that back in an effort by younger evangelicals to withdraw from partisan culture wars.
At the same time, many older evangelicals have stayed the course, helping Trump become president and the religious right gain political power.
Trump’s win breathed new life into the older-school political approach that Focus on the Family once embodied.
“There was an emerging view that the evangelical movement had become too politicized,” said Ralph Reed, a prominent evangelical political strategist. “Today evangelicals arguably have more influence in shaping public policy in Washington than at any time since Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority.”
Focus was founded in 1977 by James Dobson, a child psychologist who started a radio show advising Christians about being good parents. That effort evolved into Focus on the Family, which at its peak had more than 1,000 employees and served as a platform for Dobson to weigh in on legislation, sit on White House panels and campaign against gay rights.
Dobson left in 2010 and the organization is now about half the size. It’s led by 55-year-old Jim Daly, who has scaled back involvement in politics and sees himself as part of a younger generation of religious leadership.
Focus remains true to its Dobson-era mission of fighting against laws that ban conversion therapy to “cure” gay people.
But perhaps the greatest contrast between the old and new Focus came last year, when Dobson endorsed Trump while Daly and Focus stayed neutral.
“Those heavyweights in the Christian community” grew up in an era of widespread school prayer and centrality of Christianity in American life, Daly said. “They literally were trying to save the nation from going in the wrong direction.”
Daly said the younger generation knows those days are past and is wary of using electoral politics to rekindle them.
“Jesus does not go after Caesar much — he dealt with people at their point of need,” Daly said, touting the ministry’s radio show, counseling and efforts promoting foster care and adoption.
His arguments echo those of other religious leaders such as Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, who pushed his denomination to formally condemn the so-called “alt right” movement, and Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in California.
The 81-year-old Dobson was vacationing in California and unavailable for an interview.
After moving to Colorado in 1991, the Dobson-era Focus pushed a ballot measure to block any anti-discrimination laws aimed at protecting gays in cities and counties in the state.
The measure passed but was struck down by the Supreme Court. In the process, it inspired several gay Coloradans to become Democratic activists. Ted Trimpa is now one of Colorado’s most prominent political strategists and a close friend of Daly.
Trimpa recalled a private meeting with Daly and several younger religious conservatives before the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. He was struck by how open the new generation is.
“They don’t approach it as ‘you’re doing something wrong, you’re sinning,'” Trimpa said. “There isn’t a core belief that either one of us is counter to humanity — and that’s where we always believed Dobson to be.”
Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, contended that Focus’ softer-edged stance is just a pose.
“Look at the data they put out,” Lynn said, referring to Focus’ arguments against bans on conversion therapy and suggestions that transgender children are being misled. “This is really hard-core stuff and it’s not easily distinguished from the way Jim Dobson talked when he ran the place.”
Jeff Hunt, president of Colorado Christian University, said the less-political approach of those like Daly has opened up a void in religious politics that others filled by enthusiastically backing Trump.
“There’s still a real hunger for continual, strong leadership that Dobson provided,” Hunt said.
Trump won the support of 80 percent of evangelicals, according to exit polls — the highest percentage for a presidential candidate on record.
Since Trump entered the White House, polls have shown religious voters to be his most steadfast supporters. He has rewarded them, appointing Ben Carson, a hero to many religious conservatives and a former guest on Focus radio shows, to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Trump’s Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, has been a strong supporter of religious schools. And Pence, who in a speech earlier this month called Dobson his “mentor,” is a prominent evangelical politician.
Much of the energy that conservative religious voters put behind Trump stemmed from the anxiety they felt during the Obama years, when gay marriage became legal and religious employers were required to provide health insurance that covered birth control.
“Our strength has a lot to do with the way the faith community felt under attack the past eight years,” Hunt said.
Even though Focus wasn’t actively involved in Trump’s win, Daly is happy with the administration. He also admires Pence.
But Daly doesn’t have too much faith that religious conservatives will stay in political power. Democrats, he said, will eventually win again.
“This is fleeting,” Daly said.