News & Politics

Is Anti-Gay Group "Focus on the Family" Dying as Donations Drop? A Look Back at 7 of Their Strangest and Most Appalling Moves

As donations fall and jobs are cut, are Focus on the Family's days of using gay rights as a wedge issue finished?

When George W. Bush defeated John Kerry for the presidency in 2004, pundits claimed that the wedge issue of gay marriage--up for popular vote in many a state that went "red"--had been a deciding factor, the boogeyman reason many middle American types couldn't commit to a Democrat.

At the time, gay marriage felt like a third rail, and a hopeless one. Prominent right-wing groups like Focus on the Family and its allies seemed successful in their efforts to "otherize" LGBTQ Americans and use bigotry and fear to prevent progress.

Fast-forward to today and the situation has become almost the opposite. Affable, non-confrontational Jay Leno is (affably) hounding Michele Bachmann for her opposition to gay rights, "dont' ask don't tell" is due to expire tomorrow with nary a credible protest, and the GOP field is avoiding discussing gay rights in debates.


In this climate, Focus on the Family is experiencing a record plummet in donations--by $15 million dollars--which has led it to yet another round of layoffs (it let 202 people go in 2008) with its leader admitting a diminishing influence on acceptance of gays.

From the Denver Post:

Conservative Christian ministry Focus on the Family announced today it is eliminating 49 jobs in the latest of several rounds of layoffs in response to ongoing economic pressures.
The family-counseling center in Colorado Springs had a $105 million budget this fiscal year ending Sept. 30, but officials project it will receive donations of only $90 million to $95 million.

This new 7 percent staff reduction brings the employee number to 650, down from a 2002 peak of 1,400 people. In the last few years, Focus has let go almost 500 workers. 

While the Focus on the Family Web site is all sunshine and roses, with pro-family, Christian-tinged advice for the troubled and so forth, much of its nasty political activity takes place under the moniker CitizenLink, where all the headlines are pro-abstinence, anti-choice and anti-gay.

But now, of course, those items are prefaced by a massive appeal for funding. 

The recession surely has contributed to this, but so has the growing popular and mainstream acceptance of gay rights, including gay marriage, particularly among young people and celebrities. Just last year, Focus on the Family's new CEO, Jim Daly, acknowledged that they'd probably lost the issue.

“We're losing on that one, especially among the 20- and 30-somethings: 65 to 70 percent of them favor same-sex marriage,” Daly said in the interview. “I don't know if that's going to change with a little more age—demographers would say probably not. We've probably lost that.”

Daly's group has frequently claimed to have a "love the sinner, hate the sin" mentality, assuring people they weren't out to impinge on anyone's constitutional rights. Nonetheless, their advocacy hasn't been simply anti-marriage: it's been anti-protection for LGBT Americans.

As notes about the shrinking donations for Focus on the Family:

Focus on the Family has spent millions of those dollars fighting laws that recognize gay and lesbian unions – either marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships – and the repeal of “Don't Ask, Don't Tell,” the policy set to expire on Tuesday which bans gay and bisexual troops from serving openly. The group has also railed against laws that protect transgender people from discrimination."

One of the most amazing things about this reversal of momentum on gay rights is that while "social issues" used to be seen as a potential drag for the left, gay rights are actually now buoying other issues in some mainstream venues. For instance, the NCAA actually pulled a Focus on the Family "pro-life" ad from its Web sites after members complained about the advertiser's virulent lobbying for anti-gay causes, which conflicts with the school associations' non-discrimination policy.

The Christian Right is far from dead, but it's good to see one of its biggest wedge issues losing its power to wedge.

Here's a reminder of just some of the extremist positions Focus of the Family has advocated since its founding as one of the biggest, widest-reaching intolerance-boosting organizations in the country. It's important to reiterate that even with a reduced budget, it is a multi-million-dollar media operation with a large political wing--and it's been at the forefront in opposing most progressive social change and promoting backward-thinking social programs. The group has been able to funnel time and money--often successfully--into advocating conservative positions like the ones below.

1.Opposing anti-bullying campaigns due to the "homosexual agenda."Most people agree that bullying and isolating gay teens is a bad thing. Unless, of course, you're Focus on the Family. Recently, Focus on the Family made waves by expressing concern that anti-bullying efforts on behalf of LGBT students were too, err, pro-gay? The ridiculous claim is that activists are using campaigns and awareness efforts around bullying to indoctrinate the youth of America with the "homosexual agenda."  As Alvin McEwen wrote at the time for AlterNet, "This stance against anti-bullying efforts seems to be part of a larger campaign by Focus on the Family to push the inaccurate notion that homosexuals are indoctrinating children in America’s schools."

They have also started a "day of dialogue" as a direct retort to the LGBT-oriented "day of silence," which honors victims of anti-gay discrimination and crimes.

2. Hyping dangerous, discredited "ex-gay therapy:" In 2007, Pam Spaulding reported on the way CitizenLink inaccurately covered a dangerous, dispiriting ex-gay conference, fudging attendance numbers to make it seem like the conference was more successful--and its rival conference more sparsely attended--than it actually was. Focus on the Family's leaders have touted the "homosexuality is a choice" canard for a long time, and they have an "ex-gay" ministry that has been decried by reputable science and health organizations.

3. Declaring that gay marriage will ruin everything--and putting hundreds of thousands of dollars into opposing it: "Homosexuals are not monogamous. They want to destroy the institution of marriage. It will destroy marriage. It will destroy the Earth," FOTF Founder and former president Dobson has been quoted as saying. Dobson was a particularly loud opponent of both gay marriage and civil unions, and his group has been a donor to marriage bans like Proposition 8 (to which they contributed about $500,000) and others. 

4. Undermining science by promoting intelligent design and crisis pregnancy centers: Focus on the Family has been one of the leading proponents of the anti-science Intelligent design curriculum which is a way of sneaking God into the science classroom and undermining evolution. They've also spent time and money promoting crisis pregnancy centers, which often masquerade as medical centers to dissuade women from having abortions. Their efforts have been instrumental in bringing both of these insidious fads to the forefront. They've also pumped time, money and energy into abstinence education and prayer in schools.

5. Praying for rain to wash away an Obama speech:Okay, this is a fairly small and specific one, but significant in illustrating FOTF's worldview. In an attempt to make an "edgy" video for their followers, this is what FOTF ran, as Steve Benen wrote:

Focus unveiled a new video, asking politically-conservative Christians to pray for rain on Aug. 28, in order to disrupt Barack Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention...Shepard called for "abundant rain, torrential rain ... flood-advisory rain." ...
Explaining why he wants everyone to pray for rain, Shepard explains, without a hint of humor, "I'm still pro-life, and I'm still in favor or marriage being between one man and one woman. And I would like the next president who will select justices for the next Supreme Court to agree."
In other words, Obama disagrees with the religious right on culture-war issues, so Focus on the Family wants God to smite Obama with rain. 

6. Claiming that corporal punishment is "purifying" and advocating "obedience" in children: Dobson has had no qualms wading into debates on whether a light spanking is appropriate for child-rearing, and his fervor on the issue is notable. Dobson's justification for corporal punishment is more than a little creepy. Wikiquote has him saying the following two things in his infamous book Dare to Discipline: First, he wrote that "By learning to yield to the loving authority... of his parents, a child learns to submit to other forms of authority which will confront him later in his life — his teachers, school principal, police, neighbors and employers." This is a horrifying nugget that reveals how mindlessly pro-authority his worldview is. He also has said that "[P]ain is a marvelous purifier. . . It is not necessary to beat the child into submission; a little bit of pain goes a long way for a young child. However, the spanking should be of sufficient magnitude to cause the child to cry genuinely." Just in case it wasn't clear.

7. Hating Harry Potter:  From a Focus on the Family Web site response about the wildly popular children's books: "Given the trend toward witchcraft and New Age ideology in the larger culture, it's difficult to ignore the effects such stories (albeit imaginary) might have on young, impressionable minds." This is just proof that FOTF has pretty much stood against everything good in the past few decades--especially contrasted with the fact that Dobson is all about Mel Gibson.

With Focus on the Family's long history of political engagement and activism these incidents and issues are the tip of the iceberg. 

But the iceberg may not have a chance to grow much larger. With opinion about gay marriage changing rapidly and opinion about abortion remaining essentially unchanged despite an invigorated anti-choice movement, the culture warriors of FOTF appear to be losing their popular appeal. The changing tide makes one wonder whether the employees who faced layoffs at FOFT won't be the only ones out of a job in the coming years.

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Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet, a staff writer at RH Reality Check and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in and on the websites of the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. Find her at