A Visit to Focus On The Family

From PFAW’s Right Wing Watch Online

For dedicated watchers of the Religious Right, Focus on the Family has always been a bit apart from the rest of the pack. Its budget far outstrips the other major movement organizations – six times larger than the Christian Coalition’s budget in 1997. Its media reach is far more extensive. Its head, James Dobson, is not only not a minister, he’s a trained psychologist, a profession not always held in the highest esteem by Religious Right leaders.

But perhaps the most striking difference is a product of those distinctions: its message is less overtly political, and it is offered with far greater subtlety.

That point came crashing home to me again recently, when I visited the outfit’s headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

I’ve made this pilgrimage before, but not since the group opened its new facilities on the northern edge of town. The old headquarters was a converted bank, with the radio studio actually built into what was a vault. The new facility is enormous, bright, clean, fresh and soft on the eye.

On the whole, two impressions last longest. First, money just courses through the place. It’s not just a building, it’s a three-building campus, with a fourth building on the way. And from the seven miles of oak chair-railings running throughout the campus to the high-tech touch-me screen wall of computer monitors in the visitors center, you can’t escape the impression that a $100 million budget goes a very long way. Second, the face Focus shows visitors is in many ways a perfect reflection of the way it communicates in its various broadcasts: the far-right political message is so thoroughly submerged in the “family support” message, that you’d miss it if you weren’t listening closely.

Getting There

Mind you, the Focus on the Family headquarters is no destination resort for most of the subscribers to this newsletter, but it’s a mighty entertaining experience. I drove from Denver – about a 75 mile trip from Denver International Airport. And, while locals would tell you that the wave of transplanted Californians has created a sprawling metropolis, viewed through the eyes of an east coaster, it was quite a different experience. The entire journey is conducted in the shadow of the mountains – Focus’s headquarters is just across the interstate from the 14,000-foot splendor of Pike’s Peak. Not too far from Denver, the outlet malls and housing developments give way to the kind of scenery east coast city dwellers rarely glimpse outside Ansel Adams coffee table books.

Shortly before Colorado Springs proper, civilization pops up again. The Air Force Academy football stadium appears from nowhere, followed in short order by what appears to be a state road sign advising tourists that Focus on the Family’s headquarters is coming up. Focus on the Family is a quick jaunt from the interstate.

“Boy, this must have cost a fortune!”

The Focus campus comprises three buildings, a Welcome Center, a building called Administration, and one called Operations, all built on 47 acres of land. The Welcome Center is a true sight to behold. Walk through the front doors into the main lobby and display area and you’re greeted by the first of many friendly Focus employees or volunteers, who cheerfully welcomes you and asks you to sign the guest register. The various displays behind the welcome desk include some of those nifty hyper-interactive displays of the sort you find in science centers aimed at children.

A bit of a techno-geek, I spent a good deal of time playing with that wall of computer screens, hooked up to printers on the other side of an exhibit wall. Follow the menu to the right places and you can read about what Dr. Dobson thinks about a broad range of issues, or read up on the various “ministries” of Focus on the Family. Then press the print key and wait for a little slot in the wall to yield a printout of what you’ve just read.

A sample: on the subject of public education, James Dobson is quoted defending public school teachers and administrators who are criticized for circumstances beyond their control. “Some of [the] critics act as though educators are deliberately failing our kids. I strongly disagree,” he says. “What goes on in our classrooms cannot be separated from the problems occurring in society at large,” he adds. Then, continues the print-out, no longer quoting Dr. Dobson: “While Dr. Dobson is deeply concerned about the many negative trends in our public school system, he is very reluctant to reject public education categorically. Despite the fact that many public schools have been plagued by a secular philosophy and rampant drug and alcohol problems, he personally knows many families who have met with notable success there. Of greater significance to Dr. Dobson, however, is the fact that many families have little choice but to enroll their children in public education. Christian schools are often too far away or too expensive; not all parents are able to serve as effective home educators. In cases such as these, the public schools may provide the only realistic option available.”

It’s a classic Focus on the Family message, I submit. There in 20 lines, we’re told that Dr. Dobson supports teachers; that while it’s reasonable to entertain the idea of rejecting public schools altogether, he’s reluctant; that schools are dispensaries for secularism, drugs and alcohol; that parents don’t have enough “choices.” And yet, the piece stops short of delivering in Dobson’s name the hard political message all that would suggest: vouchers. At the end of the piece, however, is a list of related “resources.” It includes pieces of writing that show no such reluctance. Included on the list are articles and reports that bash Goals 2000 and Outcome Based Education, slam sex education, and attack Planned Parenthood and SIECUS (the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States).

Near the computer wall is a 12′-high globe displaying with little points of light Focus’s various broadcast outlets around the world, a nifty display of storyboards for one of the outfit’s video properties aimed at kids, and a display that lets you listen to that day’s radio broadcast through a telephone.

The theater is around the corner, and in it one can see a 20-minute video on the founding of Focus on the Family. It includes tape of the very first Focus on the Family broadcast from 1977, as well as a clip from George Bush’s appearance on the program, in which the then-President tells Focus listeners that he loves the group’s videos for kids so much that he has three or four of them at Camp David for the grandchildren.

The video also puts forward the party line that Focus became involved in politics “inadvertently,” and only after several presidential administrations requested that the group involve itself in one issue or another. (It reminded me of the way the Soviets said they were “invited” into Afghanistan.) The point about several administrations is illustrated on screen by separate images of Dobson with Presidents Carter, Reagan and Bush, and then with former Vice President Dan Quayle. In case the point is too subtle, it’s followed by a video clip cut for Focus by Ronald Reagan, in which he refers to “my friend, Jim Dobson.”

The Welcome Center also is home to a remarkable children’s play area, built around various Focus video characters. Kids can reach the play area by trudging down the steps with their parents, or they can go up to the third floor of the building and take a three-story twisting slide that deposits them in a mocked-up cave in the middle of the play area, complete with an adult-sized re-creation of a B-17 warplane. (It’s the clubhouse for a group of kids in one of Focus’s video series.)

On Tour

The formal tour of the place is conducted every hour on the hour on weekdays, and it takes participants through the Administration building. This day, we had an early-twenties looking tour guide, a friendly woman who told me afterwards that she’d only been giving tours for a few weeks, after working in the little ice cream shop near the play area for a couple years. My group had a mix of Colorado Springs residents and out-of-staters – two groups from Texas, one from Maryland, one from Chicago.

The tour guide’s presentation was punctuated with all kinds of bite-sized facts: the seven miles of chair railing, the 1,300 employees and 200 to 300 volunteers, the thousands of letters received and answered, the monthly all-staff chapel services in the “chapel-teria,” the weekly departmental prayer group meetings, and more. The most impressive moment on the trip was the observation area overlooking the correspondence department, a sea of dozens of cubicles filled with staffers who receive, process and respond to the upwards of 50,000 letters and calls that come in every week. (Their number.) Focus says 90 percent of those are publication requests. That would add up to about half a million publication requests a year, enough to buy a whole lot of chair railing. The tour guide explained that all of the names and addresses of folks who write in are stored on a computer they call Joshua, which now holds a mailing list of four million names. (I realize the computer’s name probably comes from the Bible, but I couldn’t help thinking about the computer in War Games, the movie that launched the careers of Ally Sheedy and Matthew Broderick. That Joshua mistakes a simulation for the real thing and nearly touches off a global thermonuclear war. OK, so I’m a cable junkie.)

Other nice touches on the tour: we’re led at one point past a display case of the robes Dr. Dobson has worn to collect a number of honorary degrees, one from Pepperdine, the future home of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr. At another point we’re led past a series of pictures of Dr. Dobson with various presidents and political luminaries (if that’s the term for Ed Meese), and a number of letters of endorsement for Focus on the Family, mostly from various governmental bodies in California.

On the entire tour, the closest thing we get to a political message comes when the tour guide tells us that some 30,000 schools have copies of various Focus on the Family videos, and that more than six million children have seen them in school. Unfortunately, says the tour guide, it’s against the law to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ in public schools, and so Focus edits out some messages from the videos before distributing to that market.

The tour ends with a giveaway of several of Focus’s publications, including magazines aimed at doctors, teachers, single-parent families, and a newsletter for “crisis pregnancy centers.” Like so much else about the place, the publications apply a certain restraint when it comes to politics and public policy. An article for the teacher magazine offers suggestions on how to “handle” Halloween. Advice includes bringing in a police officer to lecture on the increased incidence of crime on Halloween, doing a lesson on how much sugar is in candy, asking students to dress up as historical figures rather than in “undesirable costumes,” and otherwise taking all the fun out of the exercise. An article in the single-parent publication offers tips on how “to prevent homosexuality in your children,” and refers to the “modern media’s mythical claim that homosexuality is genetic and therefore something that can be inherited from a parent.” But the same article refrains from the out-and-out gay-bashing so typical of the Religious Right, and even goes so far as to say that “homosexuality is not `caught’ from a gay parent.”

A Literary Finish

After the tour, I wandered past the pictures of Focus’s board of directors (including the Christian Coalition’s Don Hodel) and back to the bookstore. When I took the tour several years ago, I had great fun going through the shelves and identifying the various books that right-wingers had tried to yank out of public school libraries and classrooms. This time, I found the selection a bit tamer, at least with respect to children’s literature – that is to say that if “Charlotte’s Web” (that great proponent of animism!) was somewhere in the store, it at least wasn’t as prominently displayed as it was last time I was in town.

With respect to the grown-ups’ books, however, the same gently political approach was in evidence: amidst the various guides on parenting, money management for mothers, housekeeping, as well as a variety of personal tales of spiritual reawakening, one finds a 1989 videotape promoting Operation Rescue, a series of hardball political reports on various liberal organizations, a book arguing that America is a “Christian nation,” Robert Bork’s “Slouching Towards Gomorrah,” Richard DeVos’s “Rediscovering American Values,” Bill Bennett’s “The Devaluing of America,” and more.

I left the place with the same view of Focus that I brought with me: that it is different than many of its Religious right allies in important ways, and quite similar in others. Here’s a $100 million organization that spends most of its budget on non-political work, and yet has enough left over to be a serious political force; a group whose rhetoric sometimes hides political messages like a toy in a box of crackerjack, and yet communicates its political agenda with great clarity and force.

It’s an impressive enterprise, one to be admired, and one to be feared.