At one point during the Religion Newswriters Association Conference, I was engaged in a conversation with one of the people from Loyola Press. We had already had a longer conversation and were just chatting at this point. I heard some sort of announcement being made, but being in mid-conversation, I let it fade into the background. A few minutes later I realized it was the lunch announcement and now I had to scramble for a seat. Imagine my surprise when I ended up sitting with the Focus on the Family contingent.
The table had a mix of elderly and twenty-somethings. Two very different extremes but the most extreme thing about those sitting at the table was definitely that there was a vocal atheist and three people from James Dobson’s former group, Focus on the Family.
The young woman sitting next to me was very friendly. Like I had with others at the conference, I asked her what group she was from and what kind of work she did for that group. Allison was proud to tell me that she worked for Focus on the Family and that she was the Senior Publicist for the group. I asked her if she ever had difficulty as a publicist for the group on any issues that she might disagree with the group about. But she told me that she loves Focus on the Family and agrees with them on the issues adding that if there were any issues that she disagreed about, she would certainly be vocal about it.
I was definitely interested in her point of view as a millennial working for Focus. One issue I had to ask her about was the elephant in the room — the gay issue. Allison was quick to point out that the media loves to talk about this, but that only about five percent of what Focus does deals with opposition to homosexuality. Most of the time the organization focuses on family counseling and on their popular radio program.
It might have been around this time that she started to ask about me. I chucked and informed her that I was probably as far away from her religious positions as there could be and that I was an atheist. To her credit, she didn’t stop talking to me after that. It would have been difficult any way since we were sitting next to each other eating lunch.
At one point, I must have mentioned the group’s founder, James Dobson and she was quick to dismiss him in favor of their present leader Jim Daly. In retrospect, I do seem to remember some sort of bad blood between Dobson and his former group. I don’t know much about what happened there, but it probably had a lot to do with all the money he wasted on the whole Prop 8 fiasco. This is probably why Allison was so eager to downplay the group’s anti-gay position. All in all, we had a nice conversation and while we were listening to the then “embargoed” Pew Research panel, she followed me on Twitter.
After the Pew presentation was over, I walked to the other side of the table to talk to the other two young people from Focus. Andrew is the group’s Media Relations Director. He was tall and very Republican looking. I asked him about what Allison told me concerning the focus of Focus on the Family being more about counseling than opposing homosexuality. He agreed with that assessment and went into detail about the importance of keeping families together and relationships strong.
I took this opportunity to ask him a hypothetical. I asked if there was ever a time when a couple really were making themselves miserable and that they might actually recommend divorce. He jokingly asked me if I was having problems with my marriage or if I was asking about “a friend.” I laughed and let him know that I was trying to gauge how strong their commitment was to keeping couples together no matter what. I wanted to know if there was ever a point at which they would actually advocate divorce or if that was absolutely out of the question regardless of the situation.
It seemed from Andrew’s perspective that divorce was only an option when the woman’s safety was an actual concern such as in a physically abusive relationship. This of course plays into the gender stereotype that the man would always be the abusive partner in the relationship because women are considered the “weaker sex.” This is a stereotype that may often be the case, but it is by no means always the case. Nonetheless, I got my answer. Focus on the Family is super committed to keeping couples together except in situations of physical abuse. Divorce is almost never ever an option.
Ashley was the third person from Focus on the Family. I think she was also a publicist for the group, but not as senior a publicist as Allison. During lunch, Ashley was sitting on the other side of the table with Andrew and she stood by Andrew during our conversation. I mean “stood by” both physically and metaphorically. She didn’t say very much at all except for a few words of agreement and support for what Andrew had to say. He had a very commanding presence and was eager to talk about Focus with me even though I was an atheist. Still I thought it was a little odd that Allison sat across the table from the other two. I don’t know if there was drama between them or just that there was a shortage of available seating.
For the record, the answer to the big question is yes, they still all seemed to believe that homosexuality is a sin and those gays who engage in gay sex acts will burn in a fiery pit of Hell for all eternity, but they want to focus more on families and keeping couples together… no matter what! I very much enjoyed my conversations with the Focus team and I hope to interact with them again on the interwebs in the future.
Again, these conversations and the many other conversations I had at the Religion Newswriters Association conference would never have happened without the financial support of Dangerous Talkers. I want to again take the time to thank Dan, Mieko, and two others who wished to remain anonymous. Next I will talk about my conversation I had with an Opus Dei Priest who used to hang out with former Pope Palpatine. That’s right, I am now two degrees away from the former Pope. How awesome is that?