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A Progressive's Confessional Journey to Focus on the Family

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Many of my fellow progressives and seculars will wonder what possessed me to journey to Focus on the Family as part of the legwork for my new book -- not just with a bundle of questions but an olive branch as well.

Those four words -- "Focus on the Family" -- have been setting progressive teeth on edge for several decades now. In much of the liberal discourse, it's as if a few new adjectives have been added to the title of this Colorado Springs-based faith-and-family organization. The "anti-woman Focus on the Family," you hear it called. Or the "anti-gay Focus on the Family." Some go so far as to slap on the ultimate of pariah designators: "Hate group."

You can't blame the many non-evangelicals who nurse a grudge about Focus on the Family and its founding leader, James Dobson. More than advocates for the evangelical gospel and healthy families, Dobson and Focus became catalysts for a Christian Right political force that demonized liberals and tossed gasoline on the fires of the culture war (while receiving similar treatment from their culture-war rivals).

My teeth have been among those set on edge by Focus. But I have found that when you keep your eyes open, you may be surprised by what you see. And when you maintain an open mind, you might be astonished by the changes that can take place in your perceptions and opinions.

When I first met Jim Daly (it was at the 2011 edition of the Faith Angle Forum), I found him disarmingly likeable. The man who succeeded Dobson as the head of Focus on the Family, Daly exudes none of the stern disapproval of my ilk that I associate with his predecessor. Burly and casual, quick with a smile and glad hand, Daly chatted me up amiably and regaled me and others with funny stories about his young sons.

Fine, but not especially important. What did impress me, though, were the comments he made to the assembled journalists when his turn came to speak at the conference. Worshiping the "idol of political power," Daly confessed, was "one of the errors that we've made, to be forthright and honest. ... Christian leadership has become about the victory, and that's led to us becoming the predator and the world our prey. That's not a Christian doctrine. I'm very concerned about the politicization of the faith."

The president of Focus on the Family said that?

The more I learned about "Focus 2.0," as some call it, and the more I heard about the new tone and emphases coming out of Colorado Springs, the more I revised my opinion of Focus on the Family. I was impressed to learn of Daly and the publisher of the progressive alternative weekly newspaper in Colorado Springs joining forces to rally the community to support foster parents and the agencies that support them and, later, to stage a benefit concert for those whose homes were destroyed in the Waldo Canyon wildfire.

I was likewise impressed when I learned of the hospitality Focus extended to Soulforce when this gay-rights advocacy organization came calling as part of its Equality Ride in 2012. The 18-member Soulforce group, all gay and lesbian, met with Focus people for three and a half hours. The encounter ended with hugs, well wishes and mutual promises to be more careful about the words they use to describe one another.

Daly's confession about worshiping the idol of political power evokes a wider and welcome development I've been finding across evangelical America. While researching my just-released book, "The Evangelicals You Don't Know," I have felt moved by the confessions and apologies I have heard.

Often, these take the form of candid self-critiques of the evangelical movement, particularly the harsh politics with which it has become associated and a tendency to make enemies out of those with the "wrong" religious and political beliefs or sexual identities. This confessional impulse has also manifested in some inspiring scenes of contrition and reconciliation. One of the best appears in the Dan Merchant film "Lord Save Us from Your Followers." In one memorable scene, the Christian filmmaker Merchant sets up a confession booth at the gay pride festival in Portland -- not to hear confessions, but to make them and apologize for the mistreatment LGBT people have experienced at the hands of evangelicals.

Convinced that one good turn deserves another, I decided to weave an element of "confession" into my book -- a quirky and informal secular-progressive version of it, anyway. What better place to say my piece than at Focus on the Family, on the grounds of the organization I had long regarded as the enemy?

Sure, I had some hard questions for Jim Daly. How, I asked him, was the advance of gay marriage threatening my family and other heterosexual couples? How was it not disrespectful for Focus to take over and continue the "Day of Truth" event in U.S. high schools, previously run by Exodus International as a counter to the Day of Silence for gay students and their allies? (Yes, Focus changed the name of the event to "Day of Dialogue" and tweaked the emphasis, but still...)

Beyond questions, however, I had some things to say. It was wrong, I blurted out, that many on my side of the political/cultural tracks continued to demonize Focus as all bad and only bad. Hate group? The respected Southern Poverty Law Center, when it released its list of gay rights-fighting organizations deserving of the "hate group" designation, took pains to point out that Focus had moderated its tone and message and was not on its list.

"I think some of the advocates for gay rights have been too fast and loose with that term 'hate group,'" I told Daly, "and it's really harmed the dialogue."

I brought up the way that much of the progressive discourse defines Focus on the Family as "anti-gay," "anti-woman," and "anti-choice," as though that is all there is to know about Focus. Never mind that the bulk of its time and energy is devoted to the non-controversial task of helping people be better parents, spouses and Christians. Reducing Daly and Focus to negative labels, I said, "is wrong and unfair. I would not want to be subjected to that and I'm sure you don't."

The hypocrisies of right-wing Christians have long been one of my favorite targets. Yet, as I told Daly, I see the ways in which "my side" is capable of hypocrisy, too. I confessed a failure of my team to live up to our stated values when it came to our characterizations of our culture war rivals, even those evolving toward more open and common good orientations. To retain our black-and-white negative views "really goes against what are supposed to be the hallmarks of the secular, progressive community," I said. "You know -- rational, clear thinkers, open-minded, inclusive."

Finally, I brought up the over-the-top rhetoric I often hear from the anti-religion provocateurs who are such a conspicuous part of the secular constituency. The notion that someone's belief in God is no more deserving of respect than a child having an imaginary friend, the idea that all Christians are right-wing idiots -- these and other forms of mockery, I said, are just not right. "It has to suck to be subject to all that," I concluded, "and I'm sorry that you are."

To this and my other admissions, Daly nodded in appreciation, eschewing any impulse to add his own inventory of grievances.

I will use this article to add a note of personal apology. "Focus on the Negative" -- this would well describe my earlier writings and public comments about Focus, which tended to ignore the non-controversial and helpful work Focus has long undertaken. For that I am sorry.

On the flight home later that day, and as I've continued to think about my interaction with Focus on the Family in the months since, some truths have become clearer to me.

Focus on the Family is still conservative, and still evangelical. Focus continues to promote the idea that there is a correct and biblical form of marriage and family formation, and it's built around the union of one man and one woman. For some passionate progressives and LGBT champions, these realities constitute three strikes, and Focus on the Family is out. Nothing good can come of Focus on the Family; nothing good can be said about it.

Even though I disagree with Focus' position on gay rights and many other issues, I contend that the good done by Focus on the Family -- whether it's consoling and counseling a family in crisis, whether it's motivating evangelical church members to adopt unwanted orphans, whether it's teaming up with the publisher of a liberal alt-weekly to raise money for wildfire victims -- is still good. And while I hope for the day when Focus stands up for marriage equality, I can appreciate the steps it has taken to treat gay people and their allies with a new respect and kindness. Take it from the Southern Poverty Law Center: Focus on the Family is not a hate group.

My call to progressives and secularists: In our understanding of evangelical Christians, it's time for an exercise in disaggregation. Not all evangelicals are the same; not everything they do, and believe, amounts to the harmful nonsense we tend to associate with them. Many of the organizations and people we stereotype are changing.

And those confessions and apologies we're hearing? They sound pretty good. I, for one, am willing to accept -- and reciprocate.

A different version of this article appeared in USA Today, April 15, 2013.