Jim Daly is the president and CEO of Focus on the Family, a Christian non-profit organization that promotes a variety of positions on family-related issues through media and outreach programs. Daly also hosts Focus on the Family’s flagship radio show, which premiered in 1977 and broadcasts daily on 2,000 stations.
Harvard Political Review: Could you tell our readers why you think Focus on the Family’s work is so important in today’s world?
Jim Daly: Focus on the Family was started by Dr. James Dobson in 1977. He felt that there was not enough solid parenting teaching in how to raise children, and I think Benjamin Spock’s book was out about that same time. Then Dr. Dobson wrote Dare to Discipline, which was a bit of a counter to Dr. Spock’s parenting philosophy. It was a bestseller. Millions sold, and he started Focus on the Family to funnel some of those dollars he was earning from that book.
Focus on the Family started as a radio ministry and just grew from there. … We have about three million each week who listen to the radio program. It’s one of the largest Christian marriage and parenting ministries in the world.
Why do we think it’s so important? I have so many people, every day, tell me, right along the political spectrum, that the work of the family is so critical today. … You’re seeing more and more left-center, center, and right-center researchers come to the same conclusion that we have a crisis in the family. We’ve been saying this now for 38 years. In that regard, I think that Focus’s position is to be at least an answer to a segment of the population that is faith-oriented; to say, “Okay, how do we do a better job in our own marriages? How do we do a better job in our own parenting to really help launch young people in a way that they can be successful?” That’s our bread and butter. That’s what we do each and every day.
HPR: What do you believe are currently the biggest challenges facing Focus on the Family and other similar Christian organizations?
JD: I think that as a Christian organization, some of the biggest external challenges we face and that we’re concerned about would be 501(c)(3) status tax deductibility, that has worked so well for this country forever. As I travel internationally, what I’ve found is that countries that provide that kind of incentive to help organizations provide social services or training in areas that are critical to the well-being and stability of the culture, such as the family, there usually is a spirit of generosity when it’s met with a tax code that rewards that generosity. When you travel in countries where there is no recognition, no tax deduction, you find a less generous community.
So that’s one of the things I’m concerned with externally. By reducing the wonderful work that many faith-based and non-faith-based organizations do for the culture, when you start eliminating tax deductibility for their work, you’re going to see natural reduction in the capacity for those organizations to deliver—and I would suggest a more cost-effective way to deliver—those social services. So that’s one thing we have our eye on right now: the progressive, more left-leaning interest groups beginning to force this issue of taking away tax deductibility for groups like ours.
Looking at other factors that can be of a difficulty to us in this moment, one obviously is the redefinition of marriage and what that means moving forward. My sense is that right now what we have to do, in the Christian community particularly, is concentrate on our tribe, on our group, to be healthier than we are today, because so often when I would sit down with gay activists or others, one of the arguments that they would often make is: “You haven’t done so well with marriage. Why not let us try?” That’s a fair question—I was not offended by the question. My answer would be: “I hear you, and it’s true. The Christian community, by and large, has not done well with marriage. We have too high of a divorce rate, but it doesn’t nullify the truth of God’s word. It just means we are pathetic living it.”
HPR: Some Christians are not opposed to the recent Supreme Court decision on gay marriage. In fact, some are embracing the decision and see upholding gay marriage as compatible with their faith. What are your thoughts on this?
JD: It’s understandable that people, both inside the church and outside the church, are feeling pressure to conform. In fact, I had one journalist ask me after the Supreme Court decision, “When will the Christian community pivot away from their archaic view of human sexuality and get caught up with the 21st century?” I was a little taken back by the question. I said, “You know I’m not the author of the Scripture. I’m not the editor of the Scripture. I’m a follower of the Scripture and by that very definition I don’t have the control or the permission to rewrite what’s written.”
I think people can explain Old Testament scripture like Leviticus and say, “Well, that was done to protect the people at that time.” But when you see that Jesus himself, in the Book of Matthew, reaffirms the Genesis account of marriage being “[a] man shall leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife and the two shall become one flesh,” or in other areas where Paul is saying that they are doing this horrible thing—which is to lie with each other, men giving up the natural function of lying with women and in fact lying with each other—it seems to be an ample amount of evidence to say that in our human sexuality, God has a specific design.
It’s not meant to be mean-spirited or bigoted or any of that. It’s simply saying Scripture seems to be clear. God doesn’t want us to have sex outside of marriage. That’s called adultery. He doesn’t want us to have sex with people of the same sex. That’s called homosexuality, and neither of those is appropriate under God’s design for human sexuality.
We don’t mean to be mean-spirited towards the adulterer. We don’t mean to be mean-spirited towards the homosexual community. All we’re saying is “This is what we read in the Scripture and this is what we’re trying to live by.” … I think that’s going to create legal conflict, social conflict, family conflict, and it’s starting.
HPR: With real wage growth almost non-existent, many individuals are still struggling to support themselves and their families. What would be your message to individuals considering an abortion due to their financial circumstances?
JD: I think, first and foremost, most couples tend to think that financially they can’t afford a child. But it’s kind of like a little kid who says he’s too full to eat anymore and then can consume a chocolate sundae. Some have to find room to do it and I think in the context of my family.
I was raised in a poor family. My mom and dad divorced when I was five. There were five kids in the family and my mom was a waitress and she didn’t have government handouts. She just worked hard, and then my older brother began to work to provide some dollars, and the point of that experience is simply to say that somehow we found a way. And I would say that’s what I would trust.
When you look at it on paper and you’re trying to do a financial analysis of having a child and raising a child and you’re making 20, 30, 40,000 dollars a year and you’re seeing that it’s going to cost you $200,000 over the next 18 years to have a child—I think that’s quite frankly a fear tactic.
You can go, “Oh my I can’t afford that car, I can’t afford that house, I can’t afford that child.” But when you stick with it and you embrace life, I think the irony of ironies is you can find a way to make it happen. You may not be able to do all the family vacations that you want to do or purchase all the wants that you have, but it’s hard in America not to have your needs covered and to trade off having a child. At least from a Christian perspective, the very blessing of marriage is children. It’s not self gratification. I think putting that decision off because seemingly you can’t afford it, I’d say take a bite of the sundae, you’ll find a way to gobble it all then. Parenthood is awesome, and I think we need to get to the point again where we see childbearing and parenting as an incredible, awesome experience.
HPR: A recent Pew Research study claims that by 2050 the global Muslim population will nearly equal the Christian population. Why do you believe the Islamic faith is currently spreading at a faster rate than the Christian faith, and what should Christians do to see similar growth?
JD: On the one hand, they think the Muslim faith is attractive to many people because it promises if you do these certain things then you get a reward. In fact, if you look at the ultimate promise it is that if you die in jihad fighting the infidels, if you die in that struggle, you’re rewarded with 70 virgins and you immediately go into their version of heaven. So I think from that standpoint, for some people, it can be a very compelling argument and a very compelling structure: if I pray five times a day and do the right things, live in essence under a kind of almost Old Testament law, then there’s a promised reward for me.
I think in Christianity the difference is, and it’s an old statement, but it’s not us trying to earn our way towards God, it’s God providing a way for us to be in a relationship with Him. For me personally, I think that’s a far more compelling faith expression and a much more real one with the evidence of who Jesus was and the apostles and all that took place archaeologically and historically and the evidence for what it is that Christians believe. But fundamentally, I think we don’t need to be overly concerned with numbers. I mean, this whole thing started with one person, and then 12, and then hundreds, and then thousands, and with the benefit of time and history of 2000 years we can look back and say that Christianity has grown significantly into the world’s largest faith. For us to be fearful of Islam taking over as the number one faith, I don’t think that’s the calculus. I think for us, it’s: “Are we living it well? Are we living it truly?” And by doing so [we can attract] more people into this faith, a faith of hope and love, as opposed to rigorous tradition and promises.
HPR: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
JD: I would come back to marriage and parenting, which is the core for Focus on the Family. I think again, even as I meet with Democrats and Republicans, politicians, educators, all levels of society, a very common statement that I hear is: “Focus on the Family is in the exact position to address the core issues that are facing the culture right now.” There’s broad agreement that the family is struggling right now and that the family is at the epicenter of the culture, and I agree wholeheartedly. I think that when families are healthy, culture is healthy. When families are unhealthy, the culture is unhealthy. I think it’s in all of our interests, regardless of political [position], for us to consider family as the most important institution in the culture and [think about] what do we need to do to help bolster its well-being. If we can do that, I think that we’ll be in a better position down the line.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Update (11/25/15): This interview has been updated to reflect minor edits made for the HPR print edition.
Image credit: Focus on the Family