Rev. Ken Hutcherson
Focus on the Family denied allegations by a high-profile ally that its founder, Dr. James Dobson, was “pushed” out of his 33-year-old radio program as part of the ministry’s alleged effort to become more acceptable to mainstream society.
Rev. Ken Hutcherson, a well-known pro-life and traditional-marriage advocate in the Pacific Northwest, asserted in a WND column that the Colorado Springs-based ministry has a “new focus; an image change designed to make them accepted and well-liked rather than standing for righteousness in an unrighteous society.”
Hutcherson – senior pastor of Antioch Bible Church in Kirkland, Wash., and a former NFL linebacker – said as far as he knows, he’s the only one who has talked to “both sides” about the decision to end Dobson’s tenure with the radio program, referring to Dobson and Jim Daly, who took over as CEO and president in 2005 and now presides over the board of directors.
Hutcherson, who frequently finds himself in the middle of public controversy as an opponent of homosexual activism, organized a “Mayday for Marriage” rally in Seattle in 2004 that drew 20,000 participants and spearheaded a similar event in Washington, D.C., later that year that attracted 140,000. He also is known for his occasional calls on-air to talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh, a personal friend.
Dobson, Hutcherson wrote, “is too gracious to ask the question, but someone has to, so I will: Why is he off the air at Focus on the Family when he and his son are starting their own radio program elsewhere so he can remain on the air?”
Dobson, 73, plans to launch a new radio show May 3 with his son, Ryan, called “Family Talk with James Dobson.”
Focus on the Family’s chief spokesman, Gary Schneeberger, responded to WND’s request for comment with a statement.
“We admire Rev. Hutcherson and the good work he has done for the cause of Christ and in support of families. He is, of course, entitled to his own opinion about the work we do, whether we agree with that opinion or not,” said Schneeberger, the group’s vice president for ministry communications.
Dobson told the Associated Press last month the new radio show isn’t competition for Focus on the Family, noting that Focus agreed to donate $1 million to help him launch it.
“I’m not setting out to construct some magnificent organization like, frankly, this one is,” he said. “But I also do not believe the Lord is done using my voice in the culture and speaking to parents.”
Asked to directly address Hutcherson’s claims, Schneeberger told WND he would let the statement and previous statements by Dobson and Daly regarding the transition speak for themselves.
In an interview with WND, Hutcherson affirmed that his view of Dobson’s departure from the radio program is “the natural conclusion” based on his conversations with both Dobson and Daly.
“I’m not speculating, I know what the truth is,” he said.
Hutcherson believes that while Dobson obviously wanted to make a transition in leadership, his desire was to continue doing the radio program he built up to a listenership estimated at 1.5 million in the U.S. and 200 million worldwide.
Before Dobson hosted his final Focus on the Family radio show Feb. 26, Daly said that week marked “the completion of a transition period that probably started more than 10 years ago.”
When he resigned as chairman of the board one year ago, Dobson said in a statement that one of the “common errors of founder-presidents to hold to the reins of leadership too long, thereby preventing the next generation from being prepared for executive authority.”
“I have wanted not to make that mistake with Focus on the Family, which is why I stepped back, first from the presidential duties six years ago, and now, from board chairmanship,” he said at the time. “Though letting go is difficult after three decades of intensive labor, it is the wise thing to do.”
Dobson handed over executive leadership in 2003 to former Reagan Cabinet member Donald Hodel and then, two years later, to Daly, who is 48.
In February 2009, Dobson stepped down as board chairman, and his wife, Shirley Dobson, resigned as a board director. They were elected to the positions of founder and chairman emeritus and director emerita, respectively.
‘Pillars will remain the same’
Senior Vice President Tom Minnery said just prior to Dobson’s final broadcast that the group’s “pillars will remain the same.”
“Our devotion to our cause of the family, our devotion to the notion that life is sacred, to the notion that marriage is one man and one woman, those will never change,” he said.
In his WND column, however, Hutcherson asked, “What is this new Focus on the Family?”
“There is a tendency after many years of success,” he wrote, “for new blood and new minds to come in with a new plan. (I’ve always thought: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!) Just because something sounds new and elegant does not guarantee it will be better.”
As an example of a product from the “New Focus on the Family,” Hutcherson pointed to the much-hyped pro-life Super Bowl ad featuring college football star Tim Tebow.
“It said nothing,” Hutcherson wrote. “What a great opportunity that was to promote the pro-life position by revealing what abortion really is. But I guess they didn’t want to offend the world and wanted to make sure everyone loved them.”
Focus on the Family’s new chief Daly held up the Tebow ad as an example of how the group intends to maintain its mission to oppose abortion by emphasizing positive stories and doing more to promote adoption.
Tim Tebow and his mother pose for Focus on the Family’s Super Bowl ad
“The message we’re trying to go for is, Yes, there is a choice right now, and I think the better choice is life,” Daly told the Wall Street Journal in an interview.
In the Feb. 6 Journal story, “Evangelical Group Seeks Broader Tent,” Daly indicated he would employ a softer tone in contrast to Dobson’s sharp personal attacks on politicians.
“I don’t see evil behind everything,” Daly said
Daly told the Journal he preferred to build bridges with others.
The paper noted that while Dobson blasted President Obama for “fruitcake” ideas, Daly praised the president for his devotion to family and last summer attended a White House event celebrating fatherhood.
Focus leaders, the Journal said, “intend to join a growing movement in the evangelical community to broaden their agenda beyond abortion and gay marriage. They say they want to frame political work as an inspirational call to do good – not just to oppose what they view as sinful behavior.”
In his column, Hutcherson characterized the “current emphasis at Focus” as “being loved and understood.”
“I have read the entire Bible from Genesis 1:1 through Revelation 22:21 – and while it says, ‘The truth shall set you free,’ nowhere does it say, ‘Sensitivity shall set you free.’ What set the Focus board free to take Dr. Dobson off the air?”
Hutcherson said he’s “not very happy with the new, progressive, ‘loving’ leadership at Focus on the Family.”
“However, it is God’s ministry, and He will do with it what He pleases.”
‘Not very wise’
Hutcherson told WND Dobson apparently was surprised when the board told him in November his last broadcast would be Feb. 26 but had no other choice but to submit to their wishes.
“This is a bad economic decision, it’s a bad spiritual decision, and it is not very wise,” Hutcherson told WND.
Dobson said in a recorded message to radio listeners in November that he found out at the Nov. 5 board meeting in Atlanta that the board had already decided to ask him to resign.
“The board of directors voted privately, on Wednesday, before we got there, to ask for my resignation, although their request was made with kindness and respect,” he said. “We can only guess the reason for their decision, because, frankly, I don’t fully know. But it apparently had to do with closure on my tenure and the beginning of another.”
Dobson explained, “If I had spoken first, I would have offered three possible dates for our departure, all of them in 2010.”
But he emphasized that he “expressed my agreement with the decision and said that Shirley and I had felt the Lord was leading us to the same conclusion.”
Hutcherson said his church’s e-mail inbox was “blown away today” in response to his column.
“We can’t even keep up with it,” he said. “Everyone is saying, ‘Yeah, we knew something was up, but what?’ and, ‘Thank you for asking the question, you’re really bringing to light that there was something not right that we couldn’t figure out,’ and, ‘Thanks for letting us know,’ and, ‘We want to know how we can support Dobson.’”
Hutcherson told WND he thinks the board thought Dobson was “going to go, be quiet, sit in the corner and not do anything after they made that decision.”
“They underestimated how much he wanted to be on the radio to speak to people about God and encourage the families to be righteous,” he said.
Hutcherson recalled that when he heard Dobson was going to start a new radio program, he telephone Dobson and asked him, “What is going on, why would you start a new program when you could just stay on Focus?”
He then called Daly and asked the same question.
“The first thing I got was mad,” he said. “I think that I have been as gracious as I could be in the [WND commentary].”
He said no one from Focus on the Family has responded to him about his column.
“They are not going to talk to me for another week or two,” he said. “I’m sure they’ve got to get themselves in line before they talk to me, if they know I’m serious and I’m not going to back down on what I said.”
He wants to see the board “work things out” with Dobson but is not sure Dobson would come back.
“But they need to get him back on the radio if they want that ministry to continue to grow,” he said.
The Journal reported Focus on the Family’s donor support already has been falling. Its budget for the current fiscal year is about $132 million, down from $151 million in the 2008. Several publications have been closed in recent years, and the organization cut nearly 300 employees. It currently has a staff of 860.
Hutcherson told WND the ministry, overall, needs “a very aggressive person to take it from Dr. Dobson to another level.”
“Someone as crazy as I am,” he said. “And they didn’t do that, because they want a new image.”
Hutcherson said he was not speaking on behalf of Dobson but raised the issue because “it’s the right thing to do.”
“It scares me to see what can happen to this ministry after all these years of being the ‘watchman on the wall’ for families,” he said. “There is a strong possibility that it could die.”