Defending Jim Daly

Shame on you Daily Kos. And shame on you Kaili Joy Gray. I never thought in a million years that I’d be in a position where I felt the need to defend Jim Daly of Focus On the Family, but here we are. Daly has stuck his neck out — distanced himself (even if it was just a little) from Focus’ official policy of homophobia and bigotry — and you guys have unceremoniously chopped off his head.

Jim Daly. Photo by Mark Reis
Jim Daly. Photo by Mark Reis. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s what happened. Responding to a question from a distraught grandparent whose grandchild had just come out, Daly had this to say:

I don’t mean this controversially but it may sound controversial. The one big thing is: homosexuality is not a super sin. It’s one of many, including adultery — other things — lying, cheating, gossiping; it’s right there in the list. So often I think in the Christian community, because of the political nature of it today, that we tend to raise it up as something worse than all the others.

I would say to that grandparent: make sure that tether of love stays attached to their grandchild who has come and said, “I’m gay.” They need you more than they realize, and really, that’s family.

And how do you do that? There’s going to be times when you may not be able to condone, obviously, what they’re doing. And you need to explain it in a heartfelt way — the difference.

The response at the Daily Kos was unforgiving. Kaili Joy Gray called Daly a professional bible-humper. She lumped Daly in with other far-right Christian voices, writing sarcastically that gays should take heart!

While your gayness is sinful enough to cause hurricanes, the destruction of the family, drunken boating accidents, and other natural disasters, it is not, according to Focus on the Family President Jim Daly, a “super sin.”

And she finished it up with a blanket indictment of American Christianity’s tolerance. It’s a shame, she said, how the Christian community focuses so much of its attention on hating gay people when there are so many other kinds of sinners out there who need to be hated too. Come on, Christian community, multitask!

Via The Field Museum Library
Via The Field Museum Library

Now, I’m no fan of Focus on the Family, or Jim Daly. Heck, I’m often at the front of the line when it comes to besmirching the ‘good’ name of the Christian Right. But this is unfair. What Daly has done here is make an attempt to inch away from the precipice of hate onto which Focus has backed itself. And what the Daily Kos has done in essence is say: get back onto your ledge, where you’re easy to pin down and mock.

The thing about it is this: Jim Daly is no fool. He knows who his constituents are. He understands the legacy of Focus founder James Dobson — his snarling, unyielding, culture-war crusading — and the kinds of adherents that that legacy attracts.

But Daly is no Dobson. His beliefs are substantively similar — he is, after all, on the inside of the organization. But he has consistently made noises about tolerance, about dialogue with the other side, about the notion that there may — just may — be more pressing problems that need solving in the United States than what some folks like to do in their bedrooms.

On NPR last September, Daly talked about a meeting with an unnamed prominent gay activist. He talked about finding himself at odds with said activist, and about places where the conversation was difficult on both sides. But he also talked about the importance of listening. We ended up talking, he said, and agreeing that we’d meet at Starbucks. No note takers, just the two of us. And it was profound. I mean … when you can sit down and actually just be human with each other and talk, it’s amazing what comes out of that.

My impression is that this is not a meeting where minds were changed, or where the two sides agreed to meet in the middle, or where they even agreed to disagree. But the fact that something like this might have happened at all, and the fact that Daly is willing to talk about it, is a huge deal. The path toward softening the hard-line positions of Focus On the Family, and the path toward softening the hard hearts of its constituents, can only be slow, and can only be taken in baby steps. And that’s what this meeting was.

And that’s what Daly’s comments to that distraught grandmother were, too.

Daly cannot do what Kaili Joy Gray seems to want and come out rending his garments and begging the forgiveness of the gay community. His position won’t allow that, and moreover, I very much doubt he believes he is in the wrong. But what he can do — and has done — is make overtures toward a more civil dialogue. He can attempt to diffuse the politics of homophobia by making the claim that homosexuality isn’t a special sin, but one among the many that we all commit every day. And he can attempt to diffuse the substance of homophobia by telling the folks who look to him as a leader: don’t shun your family — love them. No matter who they are.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that our standards for fighting bigotry should be so low that we give Jim Daly credit for not feeding on bleeding disaster victims. But we shouldn’t be playing Jim Daly whack-a-mole, either. We should trust that he made his comments in good faith. And if that is the case, we should acknowledge that they are a step in the right direction.

Folks on the left — Daily Kos and otherwise — should encourage this kind of behavior. It amounts to an ideological thaw, and an opening toward common ground. Daly is imperiling himself with Focus On the Family by doing even this much. And insofar as that is true, his position is brave, and worthy of praise — not derision.