This Week in God

THIS WEEK IN GOD…. First up from the God Machine this week is an important transition period for one of the religious right’s last remaining powerhouses.

Focus on the Family, the evangelical radio ministry that grew into a powerhouse of the religious right, enters a new era this month as founder James Dobson steps down, ceding his microphone to a leader with a markedly different style and set of priorities.

Mr. Dobson, a 73-year-old child psychologist, will record the last of his daily radio broadcasts for the Colorado Springs-based ministry this month.

Taking over from him will be Jim Daly, an M.B.A. who has been with the ministry for two decades and became its president in 2005.

Historically, groups like these fare poorly when there’s a change in leadership. The Christian Coalition, for example, was a heavyweight political force, until Ralph Reed left. The Moral Majority enjoyed considerable influence, before its leadership broke apart.

And while Focus on the Family was never really a cult of personality, Dobson’s role and appeal to the group’s followers will be hard to replace. Indeed, the right-wing evangelical group has already been in decline in recent years — Focus’s budget has dropped nearly $20 million since 2008, and the organization has shed nearly 300 employees. (It can obviously still raise enough money to run a Super Bowl ad, but the question is what comes next.)

Complicating matters further, Daly, filling Dobson’s shoes, apparently intends to create a softer, gentler Focus on the Family, steering clear of Dobson’s “sharp personal attacks,” and investing less energy in trying to ban abortions. Daly is also eyeing a broader base of issues — moving beyond gays and abortion — including immigration, which Daly says is leading families to be “torn apart” through deportations.

Don’t be too surprised, then, if Focus on the Family slips even further from its religious right perch. As the WSJ noted, “Adopting a broader agenda and a softer tone also gives Focus on the Family a less distinctive niche in evangelical politics.”

Also from the God Machine this week:

* TV preacher Pat Robertson’s ties to former Liberian President and suspected war criminal Charles Taylor continue to draw interest.

* My friend the Rev. Barry W. Lynn believes it’s imperative that President Obama change course when it comes to the White House Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which has not strayed nearly far enough from the Bush model.

* It’s fair to say the National Prayer Breakfast has never received this much attention in its 50-year history.

* And in some circles, the Tebow/anti-abortion ad that’s scheduled to run during the Super Bowl is almost as noteworthy as the game itself.