Focus on the Family
Focus on the Family
Focus on the Family (FOTF) is an international evangelical organization headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado; FOTF's mission is the "care and preservation of the home." Begun in 1977 as a twenty-five-minute radio broadcast by child psychologist James C. Dobson, Jr. (1936–) in response to permissive childrearing philosophies and perceived attacks on the traditional nuclear family, FOTF was part of the larger resurgence of "born again" Christianity in America that began with the presidency of Jimmy Carter. Today FOTF is a multiservice evangelical organization whose reach extends to seventy-two countries in twenty-six languages, with more than thirteen hundred workers and an annual budget of more than one hundred million dollars. Sociologically, one may interpret FOTF as an organizational hub for the contemporary evangelical subculture, providing resources that enable evangelical families to surround themselves with professionally informed but resolutely evangelical interpretations of parenting, marriage, counseling, health care, nutrition, decorating, cleaning, time management, and social/political issues, as well as supply their homes with an array of evangelical entertainment options, from music to radio dramas to cartoons to magazines.
At the center of FOTF's activities is its twenty-five-minute weekday radio broadcast, called Focus on the Family, with Dr. James Dobson, and its monthly companion magazine, by the same name, is mailed to every listener who contacts FOTF (four million now listed). (The latter is part of FOTF's elaborate fund-raising program, which also includes monthly fund-raising letters from Dobson, other mail requests, and on-air solicitations.) Topics covered on the FOTF weekday broadcast are mostly chosen by Dobson but aim for the following distribution: 40 percent on childrearing, 30 percent on marriage, 25 percent on "Christian living" (e.g., counseling, antipornography, spirituality), and 5 percent on public policy. While the latter may be the principal reason for Dobson's and FOTF's recognition among the general public, most of FOTF's broadcasts are concerned with the realm of home and family, with only occasional but strident forays into the public sphere. One of the broadcast's most frequent topics, for example, is child discipline. FOTF advocates spanking children—especially when children willfully disobey their parents. Yet FOTF reminds parents to balance "love and control," and to avoid spanking if they have a violent temper or a history of abuse. Another frequent FOTF topic is marriage relationships. FOTF holds that men and women are different because they were created differently by God—thus men are to be leaders and women are to be nurturers. Failure to recognize this, FOTF maintains, leads to "destructive" consequences for individuals, marriages, families, and the entire society.
In addition to its signature radio program and companion magazine, FOTF also produces subscription magazines tailored for teen boys (Breakaway, circulation 90,000), teen girls (Brio, circulation 170,000), preteens (Clubhouse, circulation 105,000), and children (Clubhouse, Jr., circulation 82,000). These magazines are professionally edited and designed, and feature articles on celebrity evangelicals, on relationships, on leisure, and on remaining devout. The editors work zealously to communicate that fun and peer acceptance are not antithetical to evangelical faith. FOTF is also involved in building professional networks among evangelical physicians, attorneys, executives, teachers, counselors, and pastors. These networks provide FOTF with both advisers and audiences for its efforts to disseminate professionally informed advice from an evangelical perspective. Moreover, the involvement of these credentialed experts helps to convey professional, even "scientific," endorsement of FOTF's message, a factor in no small part responsible for FOTF's success in finding a following in a society whose bases for truth are as pluralistic as America's are.
Yet ironically, this very pluralism, which has allowed organizations such as FOTF to flourish, is viewed with deep suspicion by FOTF. This suspicion, in fact, animates many of FOTF's activities. It may also be its undoing, as evangelicals are themselves far more pluralistic than FOTF or its founder, Dobson, realize. While a majority of evangelicals would support the FOTF position on gender roles, for example, that percentage is dropping steadily, due to the rising acceptance of full equality for women among evangelicals. Similarly, evangelicals span the political spectrum, and while some cluster loudly around the Republican Party, more are suspicious of political activity because it detracts from the primary purpose of evangelization. The pluralism within evangelicalism, if not recognized by FOTF, will eventually lead to FOTF's marginalization from the mainstream evangelical subculture. What is not likely to affect FOTF greatly is the departure of Dobson. By no means a charismatic figure, Dobson owes his success to his commitment to providing evangelicals with professionally informed advice on children and marriage—a commitment readily found among other professionally trained evangelicals.
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Timothy T. Clydesdale