YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Focusing On New and Old Family Values

AMERICAN FAMILY: On the road with the Sipchens. Monday: Lesbians and Latter-day Saints.


COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — If our family goes flailing down the slippery slope of compulsive gambling, I won't blame James Dobson--even though it was after listening to his cassette tapes that we first broke out the poker cards.

Likewise, if our family remains strong and relatively vice-free (by Los Angeles standards, anyway), I won't give the credit to Dobson--although I have come to appreciate his efforts more than I'd be comfortable acknowledging to most of my city-slick friends and relations.

My wife, Pam, and I and our three children are spending the summer driving around the United States looking into family issues. The psycho-evangelical Focus on the Family organization seemed a logical stop, so we set up an interview with Dobson, its founder and president.

In the interim, Dobson was appointed to the U.S. Gaming Commission; on the day we were to meet him, he was testifying in Washington. But we decided to visit Focus' headquarters here anyway. The tour was a revelation.

Before I describe that, though, let's cut to an adventure Pam had a couple of years ago back in the City of Angels. Ashley, then 11, was in our bedroom reading with the radio turned to her classmates' favorite FM station. She went downstairs to get some food. Pam walked into the empty room just as a caller described to the deejay--in considerable detail--a party at which she and other young women had indulged in all variety of sex with a hired male stripper.

As the exuberant deejay and giggly caller chirped away in radio's de rigueur "go, girlfriend!" patter, Pam phoned the station.

"Do you know," she asked, "that your show is popular with fourth- and fifth-grade students?"

Of course, management knew the station's demographics as well as they knew its ad rates. But they had no intention of staunching the public's right to a free exchange of ideas.

Pam and I, on the other hand, saw little difference between the station's behavior and that of a pervert who drops his pants and wiggles lasciviously in front of children walking to school.

We don't want the government to censor anyone. But we feel a responsibility to resist the tendency to view all public space, including that shared by children--airwaves, billboards, etc.--as if it were one big Pussycat Theater.


When Pam told me about the incident, I asked a colleague who covers radio if there were any activist groups confronting that particular form of child abuse. She sighed sympathetically and shrugged: "Only the religious right." Which brings me back to Focus on the Family.

In 1977, Dobson combined his evangelical leanings (he came from a family of preachers) with his doctorate in child development (he taught at USC and was on staff at Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles) to create an organization to preserve the family and "Judeo-Christian traditions."

Twenty years later, Focus on the Family is a multimedia conglomerate that reaches octopus-like into souls and psyches worldwide, and Dobson's political clout makes him a touchstone for any candidate interested in social conservatives' votes.

The first thing our kids noticed as we approached Focus' sprawling hilltop headquarters was the twisted green tube protruding from one of three modern umber and tan buildings.

It turns out that the tube is a slide that sends kids corkscrewing from the top to the bottom of the organization's new $6.5-million visitors' center. While Pam and I had lunch with Focus Vice President Paul Hetrick and several executives, Hetrick's wife, Diane, escorted our children--Ashley, 13, Emily, 10, and Robert, 7--to the center.

As we adults arranged ourselves in a conference room with dazzling views of Pike's Peak, I envisioned Diane cornering the kids and administering some evangelical fitness test: "Do Mommy and Daddy go to church every Sunday, or are you poor children damned to the excruciating flames of eternal hell??"

When we finished lunch and reconnected with the kids, though, they seemed relatively untraumatized. In fact, they loved the place.


Of the many staggering statistics Hetrick spouted, the one that surprised me the most is this: About 48,000 people visited the headquarters in August alone. "Why?" I wondered.

The visitors' center helped answer the question. The main facilities on the multi-acre complex are impressive. Maps light up to show each of the 2,300 radio stations that broadcast Dobson's half-hour shows (including one in Diamond Bar that broadcasts "Focus on the Chinese Family") and an additional 1,500 international stations that beam out foreign language versions of the shows, including "Famille Aujourd'hui" and "Enfoque a la Familia."

Thirteen hundred Focus staffers perform duties that range from answering as many as 10,000 letters and 3,500 calls a day to processing orders for the 6,000 books, tapes, magazines ("Single-Parent Family," "Teachers in Focus," etc.) and "pro-family" paraphernalia stocked in a high-tech warehouse and distribution center.

Los Angeles Times Articles