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Dobson to leave Focus helm

February 28, 2009|Nicholas Riccardi and DeeDee Correll

DENVER — James Dobson is stepping down as chairman of Focus on the Family, the conservative religious group announced Friday -- a change that comes as the political movement Dobson has long embodied has been torn by questions over its direction and priorities.

Dobson, 72, will continue to broadcast his popular radio show, write books and newsletters, speak out on family issues and retain a prominent role at the Colorado Springs-based group that he founded in 1977.

"He'll continue to be a voice to be reckoned with," spokesman Gary Schneeberger said. "He'll still be very front and center."

Dobson will be replaced by retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Patrick P. Caruana, who has been on the organization's board since 1996. Jim Daly, who replaced Dobson as Focus' chief executive six years ago, said the organization would "forever be committed to the fulfillment of the mission so definitively served by both Dr. and Mrs. Dobson: helping families thrive."

The move comes as U.S. evangelicals are reconsidering their movement's tie to the Republican Party and to wedge issues like same-sex marriage that Dobson has long emphasized.

"It's very symbolic, the handing off of evangelical leadership to the next generation, whoever that may be," said the Rev. Joel Hunter, senior pastor of Northland church in Orlando, Fla.

Dobson initially opposed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for president but grudgingly backed the eventual nominee against Democrat Barack Obama, whom Dobson sharply criticized.

Other evangelical leaders, such as Hunter, who offered the benediction at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, have been less confrontational with Obama and are shifting their focus to issues like global warming and combating poverty.

"I think, if anything, it's less enticing for him to be continuing to do this because the Republicans are out of power and because of the identity crisis" in the movement, said Bill Leonard, dean of the School of Divinity at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. "His voice is less central, certainly, to the religious political issues and a new generation of evangelicals.

"There really has been a shift and in some ways, a fragmenting of American evangelism," Leonard said. "A new generation of evangelists is blogging their way around the old power structures and challenging many dogmatic ideas that people like Dobson set forth."

But both Focus and Dobson said Friday that his resignation had nothing to do with any rifts or changing attitudes within the evangelical community.

In a statement, Dobson said: "One of the common errors of founder-presidents is to hold to the reins of leadership too long, thereby preventing the next generation from being prepared for executive authority."

Attendance at evangelical churches has dropped since its peak in the 1990s; a wide range of religious groups have had to make cuts. Focus on the Family laid off 200 workers in November.

In 1970, Dobson's book "Dare to Discipline" was published, bemoaning permissive parenting and advocating spanking. In the late 1970s, he quit his jobs as a psychologist at Childrens Hospital in Los Angeles and as a USC pediatrics professor to host a family advice program. He and his wife, Shirley, founded Focus in 1977 and he moved the group to Colorado Springs in 1991.

Although most of its work revolves around providing religious-based advice to parents, the group is known best nationally for Dobson's forays into politics. Such was Dobson's clout that Karl Rove called him to rally support for President Bush's nomination of Harriet E. Miers to the Supreme Court (which was eventually withdrawn).

Dobson backed former Southern Baptist preacher and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in last year's Republican primary and declared that he could not vote for McCain "as a matter of conscience." But he warmed up after McCain chose Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Dobson said Obama was "distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible."

Focus and Dobson have tried to separate his political statements from the group's core mission, often saying he is speaking as a private citizen.

For years, though, it has been working on a transition plan to ensure the organization endures after Dobson leaves.

Other religious leaders said it was a logical move.

"There's a whole group of us who started to gather in the mid-'70s," said the Rev. Donald Wildmon, who founded the American Family Assn. -- then known as the National Federation for Decency -- in 1977. "Some of my friends, five, six, seven leaders, have already died. You prepare for the day so when the day comes, the ministry can go on. I look for Focus to go on."

Larry Eskridge, associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College in Illinois, said that for all the attention paid to rifts in the evangelical movement, the continuation of Dobson's radio broadcasts and advocacy role shows there is still an appetite for his message.

"The people who have supported him for a number of years, or grown up reading his books, there's a comfort for them that's he's still there," Eskridge said. "It would not be a good thing for the organization to just let him shuffle off."

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nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com

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