James Dobson Signs Off At Focus On The Family

James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, gives his final radio broadcast for the organization Friday. CNN religion writer Dan Gilgoff talks to Steve Inskeep about how changes at Focus on the Family reflect broader changes in the evangelical movement. Dobson became an overtly political leader. New leadership is seeking to soften the group's message.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Elsewhere on the radio dial today, a leading Christian broadcaster is making a transition.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: That's the music announcing Focus on the Family, broadcast by James Dobson for three decades. Now he's leaving the show and the organization he founded.

Mr. JAMES DOBSON (Founder, Focus on the Family): The Lord has led us, he's put his hand on my back and it's been very clear that he's saying it's time to go, it's time to let go.

INSKEEP: The people who've listened over the years include Dan Gilgoff, who wrote a book about the religious right. Dobson was a loud voice among conservatives, though he didn't speak loudly on the show.

Mr. DAN GILGOFF (Author): Dobson comes along and he's, you know, this licensed therapist that talks about really emotional issues. You know, he'll let tape roll with a grown man breaking down on air talking about dealing with alcoholism. He just kind of provided something of a sanctuary on the dial for family advice and I think millions of his listeners developed a relationship with him, a rather intimate one, on their drive to work or over their lunch break.

INSKEEP: Dobson leaves the program today, though he will start another with his son. The change suggests an evolution in the Christian right.

Why is Dobson leaving Focus on the Family?

Mr. GILGOFF: Dobson is leaving, he says, because organizations that are founded by charismatic leaders often make the mistake of keeping those leaders around for way too long. And so once that leader exits the scene - and Dobson himself now is approaching his mid-70s - the organization undergoes an identity crisis and, in some cases, is hard pressed to survive.

INSKEEP: What is the organization without him?

Mr. GILGOFF: That's yet to be seen. Right now they have about 860 staffers. And it's important to note that that's down from a high of around 1,400 staffers. So they've been hard hit by the economy out there. And they've also been hit by a failure so far to appeal to a new generation of Christian listeners out there.

Focus on the Family's main pipeline into the country is Dobson's daily radio show. And the average age of the listener now is about 50 years old. And for an organization that's built around promoting healthy families and appealing to 20 and 30-year-olds, that's a problem.

INSKEEP: And at the same time, you mentioned the radio show. Dobson says he's leaving Focus on the Family but he's not leaving radio.

Mr. GILGOFF: He's not. He's joining his son to host a new radio show that's going to be called James Dobson on the Family. You know, it's anticipated that this will be competitive with Focus on the Family's current radio programming.

INSKEEP: Well, is he telling the truth then or the whole truth, that this is really all about making sure that Focus on the Family can continue?

Mr. GILGOFF: Well, I think some of it is about that. But I also think that it signals his desire to get a lot more political. What's ironic about that, though, is because Dobson's appeal to his radio listeners was never primarily political - it was always family-based - he's a psychologist dispensing advice on, you know, raising healthy families - the more political it got, the more he kind of scared off listeners that were coming to him for family advice.

And so at this point he really wants to take it more in a political direction. And I think it raises questions as to how, you know, relevant he'll continue to be because that was never his primary selling point.

INSKEEP: And the organization Focus on the Family without him is becoming a little less political, isn't it?

Mr. GILGOFF: It is. Dobson was the classic culture warrior. And his replacement, Jim Daly, is someone who's much more in the conciliatory mode of someone like Rick Warren, who on the campaign trail in 2008 hosted the only forum where the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees actually sat down together.

So it's that model of conversation and kind of talking to one another, dialogue, that the new face of Focus seems to represent.

INSKEEP: You know, you wrote a book called "The Jesus Machine," and the subtitle of that was "How James Dobson, Focus on the Family and Evangelical America Are Winning the Culture War." Is there still a culture war and are they still winning?

Mr. GILGOFF: I think, much to everyone's surprise, the answer is yes and yes. On the one hand we've elected a very socially liberal president in Barack Obama. On the other hand, you know, an issue like abortion was one of those that has, at least temporarily, sidetracked health care reform. So I think the culture war rages on and the right, I think, is clearly still winning.

INSKEEP: Does that mean the right has not been defeated, they're not in retreat here, they're just retrenching and changing their tactics a little bit? And that's what we're seeing in the reshuffling of Focus on the Family and James Dobson?

Mr. GILGOFF: I think some of it is that but some of it, I think, is more sincere than that. Evangelicals have been sensitive to the way they have been branded in the media in recent years and some are upset with how closely they've been associated with confrontational culture warriors like James Dobson.

For instance, every time you talk to Rick Warren, he goes out of his way to emphasize that he is not a Christian right leader, never was, and doesn't want to be.

INSKEEP: Dan Gilgoff of CNN, thanks very much.

Mr. GILGOFF: Steve, thanks for having me.

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