By Tom Krattenmaker
“We’ve said we hate the sin and love the sinner,” the evangelical speaker said to an auditorium of university students and professors. “But … sometimes we hated the sinner, too, and that’s not the Gospel.”
The man making this astonishing admission? Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, the faith-and-family organization based in Colorado Springs that has been riling secular progressives, including yours truly, for many years.
That Daly would let his guard down like this tells you a lot about the change breaking out in evangelical America. It also explains why I brought not just questions but an olive branch as well when I journeyed to Focus on the Family as part of the research for my new book. One good turn does deserve another.
Under the decades-long leadership of James Dobson, the group became a catalyst for the Christian right political movement and took center stage in the culture wars. “Anti-woman,” “anti-choice” and “anti-gay” are the terms often marshaled in liberal discourse today oftentimes when the organization is mentioned. Those plus that ultimate pariah designator: “hate group.”
But the more I have learned about “Focus 2.0,” as some call it, and the more I’ve heard about the changed tone and different emphases coming out of Colorado Springs in the new Daly era, the more I’ve complicated my opinion of the group.
Like many evangelicals, the group has woken up to the downside of the culture war politics and is getting back to basics — which means, in Focus’ case, serving families in the name of Jesus. In addition to de-emphasizing Christian right politics, Daly is reaching out to people who thought they had permanent places on the organization’s enemies list. He publicly credited President Obama for being a good father and husband, and he has stood with Christian leaders of varied stripes in calling for humane immigration reform.
I was impressed to learn of Daly and a progressive publisher in Colorado Springs joining forces to put on a benefit concert for those whose homes were destroyed in the Waldo Canyon wildfire. I was touched when I learned of the hospitality Focus extended to Soulforce when this gay-rights advocacy organization from Texas came calling last year as part of its Equality Rides tour — an encounter that ended in hugs and mutual promises to speak of one another in more respectful terms.
Daly’s acknowledgment of fault evokes a wider and welcome development on the evangelical landscape. As these groups steer themselves out of the culture wars, “new evangelicals” are making disarming confessions and apologies. They are repenting of ungenerous rhetoric about their political and cultural rivals, and saying “sorry” for being part of a movement that seemed to care more about enhancing their power and prerogatives than loving their fellow citizens as their savior taught.
Wrong to criticize
Sure, I had some hard questions for Daly when I traveled to Colorado Springs, most having to do with his organization’s continued opposition to gay rights. But, moved by the confessions I’ve been hearing from Daly and many of his fellow evangelicals, I came with some admissions of my own to make.
It was wrong, I said, that many on my side of the political/cultural tracks continued to demonize the organization as all bad and only bad. Same for the way many progressive activists define Focus on the Family as an anti-gay “hate group,” even though the widely respected Southern Poverty Law Center says the group does not deserve that damning designation. Reducing Focus on the Family to these negative labels, I told Daly, “is wrong and unfair. I would not want to be subjected to that, and I’m sure you don’t.”
I disagree with their position on gay marriage and many other issues. Yet I contend that the good being done by Focus on the Family is still good. And while I hope for the day when the group stands up for marriage equality, I can appreciate the steps it has taken to treat gay people and their allies with a new respect.
My call to progressives and seculars: In our understanding of evangelical America, it’s time for an exercise in disaggregation. Not all evangelicals are the same; not everything they do, and believe, is harmful nonsense. Many of the organizations and people we stereotype are changing. And those confessions and apologies we’re hearing? They sound pretty good. Count me as one who is willing to accept them — and reciprocate.
Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland-based writer specializing in religion in public life and author of the new book The Evangelicals You Don’t Know.