By now you’ve read about the upcoming Super Bowl’s least-funny commercial: The Colorado-based para-church Focus on the Family’s 30-second anti-abortion spot, starring Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, and his mother, Pamela. (If you missed the dust-up, here’s a quick wrap from our Liz Gettelman). As Evan noted yesterday, CBS’ decision to run the ad has made it a magnet for controversy, given the network’s longstanding policy against airing political ads during the big game (well, unless you count this), and the fact that it rejected an ad for a gay dating site this year. But while Tebow and CBS get most of the attention, there’s a much more significant force at play that’s gone largely overlooked: The ongoing rift at one of America’s most prominent Evangelical organizations.
Neither side is saying much, but the basic facts are this: In October, after a years-long transition process, FOF founder James Dobson announced that he would leave the organization this month. Then, in December, Dobson revealed his new set of plans: He was starting a new venture called “James Dobson on the Family” (James Dobson, in addition to having a bizarre aversion to Spongebob, is also, apparently, a verb). This isn’t the kind of thing one normally does. As one observer told the New York Times, “I can’t think of another example where the leader of a major ministry organization founded it, built it up, then moved on and did something so visibly competitive.” Think Michael Flatley leaving “Riverdance,” and multiply it by a lot.
Dobson’s motives aren’t entirely clear. There’s speculation that his departure reflected a desire to work more closely with his son, Ryan, a firebrand very much in his father’s image (his first book was titled Be Intolerant: Because Some Things Are Just Stupid) who couldn’t take the reins at Focus because he’s gotten a divorce. But the most interesting narrative might be this: That Dobson’s departure represents a sort of splinter faction, in the wake of a perceived softening of the FOF message.
Jim Daly, Dobson’s successor at FOF, has taken a much different tact from his fire and brimstone predecessor. As the Times noted, his organization has publicly praised President Obama, which Dobson certainly never would have done, and in his media blitz ahead of the Super Bowl, Daly has shown hints of embracing a “safe and rare” attitude toward abortion, if not necessarily the “legal” part. As he tweeted on Friday, “Hey everybody, pro abortion and pro life alike, can we find a way to save some kids from dying? One of these kids might cure cancer.” Yes, let’s. And the Tebow ad, for all its controversy, is expected to be fairly tasteful.
For more on FOF’s new foray into “soft power,” check out Stephanie Mencimer’s must-read from MoJo’s January/February issue.
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