Evangelical leader Daly rethinks politics, 'culture war'
By Mitchell Landsberg
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES - As the head of Focus on the Family, Jim Daly might be considered one of the nation's leading culture warriors - a title that certainly applied to his predecessor, James Dobson, who founded the organization and built it into a powerhouse of the conservative evangelical movement.
And, to be sure, Daly threw the considerable resources of his organization - which opposes abortion and same-sex marriage - behind the campaign to defeat President Barack Obama, paying for millions of mailers that listed the presidential candidates' positions on issues that were important to "values voters."
In the aftermath of the election, however, Daly is willing to say things that few conservative evangelical leaders are likely to say. He believes, for instance, that the Christian right lost the fight against same-sex marriage in four states in part because it is on the losing side of a cultural paradigm. He says the evangelical community should have been considering immigration reform years ago, "but we were led more by political-think than church-think."
And, along the same lines, he argues that evangelicals have made a mistake by marching in lock step with the Republican Party.
"If the Christian message has been too wrapped around the axle of the Republican Party, then, A) that's our fault, and, B) we've got to rethink that," he said in a phone interview, which followed a pre-election interview in his office in Colorado Springs, Colo.
These are controversial views in Daly's world, and he concedes that they have stirred anger among some of his fellow conservative Christians. But Daly, who exudes preternatural cheerfulness, said he believed that evangelicals needed to win over friends, not make more enemies, and that the results of the election underlined the need to reach out to people with whom they have disagreements - including Obama - and seek common ground.
"Maybe we've been looking in the wrong direction and we've got to be more ecumenical," he said. For years, he said, evangelical conservatives were content to persuade the Republican Party to adopt their principles on social issues.
"I guess that's all good, except when you don't win elections," he said. He added: "I think what we've got to do in the Christian community is be far more humble ... and not call it a war, a culture war."
None of this is likely to assuage those in the abortion rights or gay rights communities. Indeed, the political wing of Focus on the Family, CitizenLink, was involved in fighting the same-sex marriage statutes on the ballot in Maryland, Maine, Minnesota and Washington. Victories in all four states broke a 32-state streak of success for groups, including Focus on the Family, that support "traditional marriage" laws.
Still, Daly parts ways with many of his associates when he says that the evangelical right is "fighting an uphill battle of demographics" on gay rights, as he did in his recently published book, "ReFocus: Living a Life that Reflects God's Heart." In it, he says that Christian conservatives need to have confidence that they will prevail in the long haul but, in the meantime, to "engage the culture with winsomeness and with great patience and confidence."
He also said it would behoove conservatives to forge a working relationship with the Obama administration, which he said he tried to do in the president's first term, most prominently by taking part in Obama's efforts to combat fatherlessness and encourage more two-parent families. Daly said he and Obama shared the experience of growing up without a father, and he hoped to continue working on the issue during Obama's second term.
"Frankly, after the election, I felt sorry for President Obama in one respect: He's got a tough job," Daly said. "We need to pray for him, as the Christian community. I mean ... I think President Obama needs divine guidance." He stressed that he did not mean that in a condescending or sarcastic way.
"I'd say the same thing about Mitt Romney" had he won, Daly said. About Obama, he added: "We have these differences and they're deep, but in reality, he's simply a human being. ... If a Christian holds that back and he or she isn't willing to pray in that way, they're not living a Christian life in that regard. If hatred or anger has built up to that level, then they're missing the Gospel of Christ."