Trying to focus on the future

As strange as it may sound, the head of Focus on the Family is trying to find just the right place in his Colorado Springs office to put a framed copy of an editorial from the New York Times. Under the headline "Super Bowl Censorship," it defended the Christian group's right to buy a prime chunk of airtime, even if the ad focused on the decision by an ailing Pam Tebow to ignore her doctors' advice to abort her fifth child -- a son named Tim. Protests by the National Organization for Women, NARAL Pro-Choice America and others, it said, were "puzzling and dismaying."

"The would-be censors are on the wrong track," proclaimed the Times. "Instead of trying to silence an opponent, advocates for allowing women to make their own decisions about whether to have a child should be using the Super Bowl spotlight to convey what their movement is all about. ... Viewers can watch and judge for themselves. Or they can get up from the couch and get a sandwich."

Where should Focus on the Family President Jim Daly place this memento? After all, it represents a major event during the final days of founder Dr. James Dobson, the child psychologist who over three decades built one of America's most powerful radio franchises and evangelical ministries. Dobson's farewell broadcast was Feb. 26th.

Daly, who became Focus on the Family president in 2005, is thinking about putting the framed editorial between two photos. In one, Daly is standing with President George W. Bush. In the other, he is standing with President Barack Obama.

"I'll find a spot," he said. "That would be a rather symbolic place to put it."

Daly has worked for Focus on the Family for two decades, focusing on building a global audience of 200 million listeners. He is well aware that some loyalists on the legendary Focus on the Family mailing list -- a major resource when raising money or inspiring grassroots support on hot issues -- are worried about recent strategic moves.

Take, for example, Daly's decision to attend an Obama White House conference on fatherhood. Some also questioned the decision not to fight CBS over the right to explicitly mention abortion in the Super Bowl ad.

"I don't want to underestimate their concerns," said Daly. "There are people who want to see more of the hard-hitting approach. The thing is, I'm not sure that approach still works today."

While it's impossible to say if Focus on the Family will take another Super Bowl plunge, the mainstream-media approach used in the Tebow family ad is a sign to what lies ahead, and not just because the Heisman Trophy winner will soon be playing in nearby Denver.

The goal all along was to use the brief advertisement to point viewers toward a longer version of the Tebow story at, said spokesman Gary Schneeberger. Thus, the crucial post-Super Bowl numbers were these -- 92 million of the 106 million who watched the game told researchers they saw the Tebow ad. Among those who did, 6 percent said the spot and the furor surrounding it made them think twice about their beliefs on abortion. In all, about 1.5 million people went online to watch the more detailed Tebow feature.

Daly and Schneeberger insisted that there was no sneaky, brilliant strategy to hide the ad's contents, other than their desire to keep pressure off Tebow as he prepared for his final college bowl game. Nevertheless, a giant media storm was triggered by an early report that Focus on the Family was planning a Super Bowl ad, coupled with a later wire-service story that the Tebows were involved. The result, said Schneeberger, was the equivalent of $32 million worth of free ink and airtime in national media.

"The people who didn't approve of the ad that they had never seen ended up doing all of our talking points for us," he said. "We didn't have to say anything else."

The key lesson, agreed Daly, was that it's possible to "reach out and hold a dialogue" with an audience larger than the Focus on the Family mailing list. The Super Bowl project proved that the ministry could frame a message in such a way that "people outside of our niche had a chance to catch it and it does appear that some caught it. We think that's progress."

Rush Limbaugh, liberal heretic?

The joke was old, old, old and Rush Limbaugh knew that when -- tongue firmly planted in cheek -- he tweaked it for his flock at the Conservative Political Action Convention. So Larry King dies and goes to heaven, where the CNN star urgently asks St. Peter: "Is Rush Limbaugh here?" Not yet, says his host. Finally, their tour reaches heaven's largest room, where a flashing "Rush Limbaugh" sign hangs over a giant throne. King is confused.

"I thought you said he wasn't here," King asks, in Limbaugh's take on this joke. St. Peter replies, "He's not, he's not. This is God's room. He just thinks he's Rush Limbaugh."

The political question today is not whether Limbaugh thinks he's God, but how many religious conservatives still believe that the radio superstar is on the side of the angels. After all, a rich entertainer who for years has proclaimed he has "talent on loan from God," and that his beliefs are the "epitome of morality and virtue," can expect to hear murmurs in a few pews after his third divorce and waves of headlines about Viagra and mysterious bottles of painkillers.

"Of course, Rush does have his faithful listeners," said philosopher John Mark Reynolds, head of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, an evangelical campus near Los Angeles. "But the people at your local Baptist church are not the people that Rush hangs out with. When they go out to play, they don't do what Rush does when he goes out to play. ... Still, it seems that his base doesn't care. What else could he do to offend them that he hasn't already done?"

No one would dispute that Limbaugh is a powerful Republican voice, just as no one can dispute that Oprah Winfrey's strong voice helped President Barack Obama defeat a crowded field of experienced Democrats. But in recent weeks, the White House has campaigned to anoint Limbaugh as -- to quote chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel -- the "intellectual force and energy behind the Republican Party."

Ever since, conservatives have been firing salvos at one another in bitter debates about Limbaugh's political sins and virtues.

As a Christian conservative, Reynolds is asking a different question: Are Limbaugh's beliefs truly "conservative," as this term would be defined historically or philosophically? In an online essay entitled "Rush Gave a Bad Speech," he underlined a frequently quoted passage in the CPAC address.

Conservatives, stressed Limbaugh, do not view the "average American ... with contempt. We don't think that person doesn't have what it takes. We believe that person can be the best he or she wants to be if certain things are just removed from their path like onerous taxes, regulations and too much government.

"This is a core. I want the best country we can have. We want the most prosperous people. We want to be growing. ... We want this country to be so damn great and we just cringe to watch it -- basically capitalism -- be assaulted and our culture be reoriented to where the people that make it work are the enemy."

Reynolds noted that the speech was built on the "dubious notion that 'the people' are always good and that they will always do what's right, if the state will just get out of their way. This is completely different than the conservative belief that we must maintain checks and balances because we live in a sinful, fallen world and it's wrong to trust either the people or the state -- or the church, for that matter -- with total power."

Limbaugh's vision of unfettered human potential and his complete trust in corporate America is especially jarring, noted Reynolds, in light of the economic crisis unfolding on Wall Street and in communities nationwide.

The bottom line: Limbaugh seems to have little or no sense of sin, which is a vital component in classic conservatism.

"Why isn't it," asked Reynolds, proper "for conservatives to say that pillaging our laws and economic institutions is wrong and a sin and that the government has a valid role to play in seeking justice? We should be able to say that it's wrong to tell lies and it's wrong to defraud the government.

"But you don't hear Rush saying anything like that. Instead, you hear these Utopian views that are not truly conservative. In fact, they are the opposite of conservatism."