Six years ago, Jim Daly—president of Focus on the Family, a nonprofit devoted to evangelical causes—joined a conservative Christian coalition calling for immigration reform that “protects the unity of the immediate family.” “The time has come for Christians to lead on the issue,” Daly wrote on Focus’ website at the time, in a post that called immigration reform “a family issue.” But as outrage mounts against the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” approach to families seeking asylum at the Southern border, Focus on the Family has attempted to steer clear of taking a position. The organization’s Twitter account spent the weekend tweeting about Father’s Day, and the “social issues” page of its website has posts on the Masterpiece Cakeshop court decision and “talking to your children about transgender issues.”
The silence has been especially glaring because so many conservative Christian organizations and leaders see the situation at the border as a moral emergency. Groups including the Southern Baptist Convention and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have denounced the family-separation policy. Eight leaders of organizations including the National Association of Evangelicals and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities signed a letter on June 1 condemning the policy on the grounds that “God has established the family as the fundamental building block of society.” That letter was produced by the same group, the Evangelical Immigration Table, that produced the 2012 statement Daly signed. Though about 10,000 people have privately signed the June 1 statement after its release, according to the EIT, Daly was not among them.
The dissenters to the president’s new policy include Christians who share many of Focus’ values. “On this issue, there is dissension in the ranks,” one ex-employee told me. “There are a number of people who work there who are outraged.” On a press call on Monday hosted by the EIT, Focus’ former vice president of child advocacy, Kelly Rosati, condemned the policy in strong terms. “We do not punish innocent children for the behaviors of their parents,” she said. “I happen to think their parents are heroic for risking everything to try to get them what we all want for our kids. But even if you’re someone who doesn’t happen to think that way, you can still raise your voice on behalf of the innocent children.” (Rosati left Focus on the Family this year after 10 years.)
In response to an interview request last week, a Focus on the Family representative initially sent a brief statement on behalf of Daly. “We’re mindful of the fact that children being separated from their parents can be harmful and traumatic,” it read in part. “We’re following the current debate closely and awaiting the specifics of the proposed legislation intended to address these and other concerns related to immigration reform and border security.”
The representative confirmed that Daly was waiting on legislation that the House of Representatives is expected to vote on later this week. When I checked in on Monday to see whether Daly had had a chance to review the legislation, I was told not to expect any further statements in the near future. But then, midday on Tuesday, the representative sent a longer statement that he said Daly would be posting online later. The post notes that “seeing images of innocent, crying boys and girls in custody is enough to rip your heart out.” But it also uses the crisis as a springboard to discuss issues more firmly in Focus’ stable of pet issues:
Over the weekend, on Father’s Day, Planned Parenthood tweeted the following:
“In our hearts and minds today: all of the fathers and parents who have been separated from their children at borders. Keep families together … You deserve to be together regardless of immigration status. Keeping families together is reproductive justice.”
Are they serious?
Surely, this is the height of hubris. Planned Parenthood permanently separates children from their parents each and every day by taking the life of a child, to the tune of over 300,000 innocent lives a year. In fact, the most dangerous place for a child to be is in the womb of a woman inside a Planned Parenthood clinic.
Tragically, children aren’t just being separated from a parent at abortion clinics or the southern border. Each and every day, millions of kids in the United States are living without a parent because of divorce, abuse, criminal activity, opioid or alcohol addiction or any number of other conditions outside their control. It would be a good thing if the same degree of energy we see exhibited for the border crisis was applied to the domestic crisis surrounding the American family.
The post does not mention President Donald Trump and says the crisis “has been years in the making, a complex consequence of bad policy, unenforced laws and an inability of politicians to make difficult and often unpopular decisions.” Its only calls to action are to move beyond social media sound bites, to pray for American leaders, and for government officials to “work together” for a solution that “preserves the integrity and sanctity of the family unit while also protecting our borders and assuring the safety of our citizens.”
Why would an organization whose mission is “helping families thrive” attempt to stay neutral on one of the most talked-about family-related policy issue of the moment? Conversations with former employees depict an organization beholden to a pool of donors that is white, suburban, aging, and loyally Republican. “The donor base doesn’t allow for the leadership to take a position on these really pivotal issues that could really truly propel the ministry forward, and show the world that we aren’t just this gay-hating organization,” said another former employee. “The donor base limits Focus’ ability to engage in conversations that could put people first and show the love of Christ in a more effective, compassionate way.” (The former employees I spoke with requested anonymity either because they continue to contribute to Focus’ work or because they do not want to jeopardize their relationships there. These interviews took place before Daly released his second, longer statement.)
Focus on the Family was founded in 1977 by psychologist James Dobson, a lion of the original religious right, which was nearly indistinguishable from the Republican Party. The Colorado-based organization has defined family issues broadly over the years, with resources devoted to abstinence, healthy marriages, and parenting, along with political and cultural issues like abortion, gambling, pornography, school choice, intelligent design, and opposition to same-sex marriage. Dobson, who also founded the Family Research Council, stepped down as president and CEO of Focus on the Family in 2003. He has become a firm defender of the president: In January, the now-82-year-old called for a day of fasting and prayer to support Trump and prevent his impeachment.
When Daly became president of Focus on the Family in 2005, many observers saw him as a leader who could take the organization into the new millennium without compromising its core values. He loosened the dress code and said he would sit down with pro-choice activists who shared the goal of making abortion rare. He warned about the dangers of political polarization and of demonizing opponents, and emphasized the importance of “civil discourse.” In a 2011 Christianity Today cover story about Daly’s leadership, he told reporter Sarah Pulliam Bailey that immigration is a family issue precisely because families could be separated.
The next year, Daly signed the immigration reform statement issued by the EIT, which was widely discussed in the evangelical world at the time. (Back then, no one debated the line about protecting “the unity of the immediate family”; the statement was only controversial because of another item about immigrants’ path toward legal status.) The statement was not well-received by Focus’ donors, and discussion about the issue is now discouraged within Focus’ official publications. The first former employee I talked to described an erosion over time of Daly’s intentions—or at least his ability—to be a new kind of leader: “The people he has surrounded himself with in leadership were not on that page.” A recent Focus resource guide to issues relating to the “dignity and sanctity of every human life” included a slim chapter on immigration and refugee issues but omitted any mention of the statement Daly signed.
That former employee describes the problem at Focus as something larger than deference to a graying donor base. “It’s a nationalist worldview,” the ex-employee said. “It’s a worldview that has twisted politics and religion together for so long that they can’t distinguish one from the other.”
Though many evangelical leaders, including Franklin Graham, have spoken up against family separation over the past few weeks, white evangelicals tend to be hawkish on immigration in general. A Washington Post–ABC poll in January found that 75 percent of white evangelicals said “the federal crackdown on undocumented immigrants” is positive (compared with 46 percent of adults overall). But other polling shows a split between younger and older evangelicals on immigration policy, with younger evangelicals viewing immigration more warmly than their elders.
Several former Focus employees depicted Daly as struggling to straddle that gap while steering an organization with a $90 million budget that has faced several rounds of layoffs in the past decade. Having to maintain the loyalty of large donors has meant forgoing outreach to younger conservative Christians who are less loyal to the traditional Republican Party.
Looking ahead, that makes the organization’s weakness look like not just a moral error but a strategic one. “[Daly] has been the president for 10 years and we haven’t seen a big course-correct,” the second former employee said. “A lot of these pivotal conversations that could have set Focus up to be a major leader with younger evangelicals going forward, they’ve missed that ship. They’re still on the dock.”