At the Western Conservative Summit, we sit down with Jim Daly, an author, broadcaster, and president of Focus on the Family. We discuss the importance of family, strong marriages, and cherishing the blessing of children, especially from a traditional Christian perspective. We also explore what he sees as “ideological warfare” with the left.
Jan Jekielek: Jim Daly, wonderful to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Jim Daly: It’s good to be with you. Thank you so much.
Mr. Jekielek: I actually got a chance to hear you speak a little bit earlier and you were talking about how just about every leader in the country you speak to agrees there is an issue with the American family.
Mr. Daly: When you look at the data, it’s staggering. Now the average marriage age for men and then women is 30 years old and 28. It’s probably seven to eight years older than it was just 15 years ago. The point is people aren’t marrying early enough, and they’re not having children either. That’s a recipe for disaster for the next generation. We need to reinvigorate what the family is about, the importance of family, the wonder, the blessing of having kids. As a Christian, that’s what I believe. And I think we need to reinstill that kind of vision and hope in young people that family is a good thing. It brings great rewards. It’s trying and difficult at times, but family is good. And that comes from my perspective, right from the heart of God.
Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned something actually several times: that everyone agrees on this, but the solution set is different. Tell me a little bit about the contrasting solution sets that you see.
Mr. Daly: Unfortunately, I think in America we have two different views. And they play out in the party platforms. On the Democratic side, I think the breakdown of the family is seen as beneficial to growing government, because when family breaks down, government has to step in and provide additional help.
Look at the African American community, particularly Moynihan had written his great thesis in 1969, I believe, about the number of unwed births in the black family. At that time it was 25%. Now it’s 78%, and men are floundering in that community. They’re not the provider, and they’re not connected. They’re disincentivized to be part of the family, because welfare checks come if they’re not present in the home. That’s probably the purest example of where government policy erodes the family.
And then on the Republican side, we’ve got to do everything we can to try to honor the family. I think Tucker Carlson has been talking about that eloquently. If we’re conservatives, and we believe in the family, we have to incentivize young people to be able to get married and have children, but [that] having children doesn’t make you go broke. And that is a key thing and we should start shaping policies.
I’ll give you an example. In Australia, you have divorce, but there’s a requirement: if you have children 18 or younger in the home, you have to have a six-month “cooling off period” as part of the government protocol. So you don’t get a divorce if you have kids in the home, because they want you to really think about it and get some help to try to communicate better as a couple. That’s a wonderful way that government can intervene to slow that process down to help adults think about what they’re about to do, so they don’t damage their family.
Mr. Jekielek: So they don’t make rash decisions.
Mr. Daly: Correct. Emotional decisions. The healthiest children in the world are in a mom and dad home. And so why mess with that? Why try to deconstruct that? We should try to bolster it.
Mr. Jekielek: It seems like all the data, you know, whether it’s Brookings Institution or Heritage, it all basically says similar things around that.
Mr. Daly: Yes. [Listen to] this statistic: a child who’s in a co-habiting home—biological mom with a boyfriend—is nine times more likely to die. That’s an amazing data set. And that’s across the board. Abuse and other things go up dramatically in a home where the child is not [with] the biological father.
Mr. Jekielek: [So you’re saying that ] they die basically while they’re a child in the home.
Mr. Daly: Right. Because they’re unprotected, they get beaten, whatever. The evidence is just overwhelming.
Mr. Jekielek: We’ve heard [that] there’s kind of a war against the family by certain ideologies. And you’ve spoken about this before. I wonder if you could sort of spell that out for us.
Mr. Daly: I think ideological warfare is what we’re looking at obviously, but ideologically, those on the left, I think, believe the family, from their viewpoint, is unfortunately a bastion of faith and conservative thought. Because where you have intact family right now, you have homeschooling, you have kids growing up with a worldview that’s not consistent with [the leftist] worldview. But when you break that family apart, they’re more susceptible to government programs.
Just look at the Democratic candidates in this election cycle—2020—where they’re promising everybody, they’re basically trying to buy your vote. “We’re going to give you a free college. We’re going to give you many freebies, if you vote for me.” I can’t understand why that’s not seen as electioneering–buying a vote from somebody. But in [this] context, I think that’s the kind of intervention that’s not good for government, because it’s allowing people to feed at the trough on these freebies, these social freebies, without incentivizing them to work hard for what they want.
I was an orphaned kid. I grew up in foster care. I voted for President Reagan when he was taking away my social security benefits. Each of the four years I was in college–25%, 50%, 75%–by the time I was a senior, I had lost my social security death benefit from my mom and dad. But, I still voted for him, because I don’t want to be dependent on the government. They don’t determine what I do in my future. I held two jobs through college and I paid my way through college with no student loans. You can do it. And, I just feel like we need that kind of incentivization with people today; young people particularly don’t need big government to take care of them.
Mr. Jekielek: You gave some very interesting examples earlier of how the government can incentivize people with some regulations to help people constructively. What other role does government have?
Mr. Daly: There’s a big debate right now, or discussion when it comes to family leave; that’s one we’re very interested in. We’re not sure where that’s gonna land, but I have a hunch that if they can construct that in such a way that it doesn’t create yet another big government program–maybe it’s pre-access to social security benefits or something like that–that would make a lot of sense.
And that’s [when] I go back to the idea of creating policy that helps a young family achieve both strong marriages and parenting. I think government now needs to take a look at what they can do to help in those specific ways to make the American dream possible for people, without heavy tax burdens for the rest of us. To be able to incentivize them through, like I said, access to future social security benefits, etc. There are ways to do that, and I think we can do it.
[When] President Obama . . . put out a call because he wanted help with his initiative to help children [find] mentors, I remember showing up at the White House. We got an invitation. I looked around the room at about 75 leaders. I was the only conservative Christian in the room, because others did not want to go because they didn’t want to support this President. I would only say that we can’t be hypocrites. If we’re talking about mentoring, particularly in that case, mentoring black youths to do better in life, we’ve got to show up, regardless of the policies of that President. That to me was a disappointment, and I hope that we in the Christian conservative community, can do all we can to act on our convictions, not just speak about them.
Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned earlier that having children is a blessing. I agree wholeheartedly. Yet having children is very much on the decline and has been for awhile. What do you make of it?
Mr. Daly: I think the bottom line is it shows the growing selfishness in the culture. We’re becoming much more narcissistic, much more selfish in the culture and fearful that we can’t afford children. Well, guess what? I bet for the last 3000 years, people felt they couldn’t afford children. You know? But they were incentivized years ago, because that’s how you ran the farm, and that’s how you did the vocation that you had. And you trained your son or daughter to do that.
Mr. Jekielek: And they’d take care of you later on.
Mr. Daly: Right. Then they took care of you. Now government has stepped into that role. But I do think that we need to honor marriage as it says in scripture … in the book of Hebrews: “Honor marriage,” and then also consider children a blessing from God. As a father of two, I wish I had five kids. Every time I tell my boys, “I wish I had more children,” they look at me with a big smile, “Really?” Like they can’t believe it. But it’s so true. And we’ve got to get back to some very basic parenting fundamentals. I’ll tell you what. I can meet with presidents, senators, Supreme Court justices, [but] the best part of my day is hugging my boys when I get home. And I mean it.
Mr. Jekielek: Those boys are something.
Mr. Daly: They’re good boys. Very normal.
Mr. Jekielek: There’s a program just came to my mind, I think it’s in Hungary. They created a program where basically if you have one child, you get a significant tax break. You have two children and get a more significant tax break. They incentivized in a great way, having more children; it’s actually having an impact on the birth rate. What do you make of a program like that?
Mr. Daly: I think it’s a great idea. And thankfully this current administration, the Trump administration, through the tax code rewrite, did some of that by incentivizing deductions, etc., simplifying it. I think anything they can do in that regard to make it more affordable to have children … it’s expensive today, I get that, but we don’t want to be childless. That’s a disaster.
Even in Russia, I think Putin put a program together to incentivize young people to have children by paying them. So countries are desperate. Places like Italy and other places are on the decline, because their birth rate is below 1.8%, which is what they call the death spiral. You cannot recover from a birth rate below 1.8. It just won’t happen. You’ll continue to have more people dying than are born.
Mr. Jekielek: So basically any means necessary. Given this kind of selfishness in [our] culture that’s been developing that you described, wouldn’t it be problematic that people are having children for this selfish purpose [such as] tax breaks?
Mr. Daly: Those are the worldly ways of looking at things. As a Christian, I think that fundamentally the brokenness in the global culture is [why] Christ brought us humility, selflessness. We do a lot of radio programs that focus on the family, on the issue of marriage. Every expert I’ve talked to, I’ll ask them, why did God set it up this way? Which is quite funny, because usually we attract to opposites. I’m an extrovert. My wife’s an introvert. She’s really smart. I’m not that smart, but she’s a math genius. It’s really interesting to me that opposites attract. That’s how God designed our hearts to come together. And then He says, I’m going to make you more like me in marriage. What does that look like? Selflessness. And it really is painful because we’re selfish creatures. I think we’re born with that [selfish] nature, from my world viewpoint.
The point of marriage is to make us more like God himself, to lay down your life for the other person. When you look at it today, divorce rates, all those other things, the fear of parenting, we consider the cost more than the actual wonder and beauty, of having children–those are all spiritually related issues that go far deeper than a government program. And we’ve got to reenergize people and make them aware of how they’re made, wonderfully made.
Mr. Jekielek: Have you visited some areas where there’s some success with the kind of work that you’re describing? Maybe you could offer a couple of anecdotes?
Mr. Daly: I used to run the international division of Focus. [In] Latin America, there’s some very good things happening when it comes to the issue of marriage. We have an office in Costa Rica. We serve the 18 latin countries. It’s interesting when we look at our immigration issue, I’m thankful that people that are trying to immigrate to this country are coming mostly from a Christian world view, a Catholic world view. Europe has a different problem, with Muslim immigration. And I think in that context, it gives us as conservatives a great opportunity to introduce people coming to this country to those things that have made America so great, which is again, commitment to one another, commitment to the country, and commitment to a healthy family. And I think those are at the bedrock and the core of American history.
Mr. Jekielek: Wonderful place to finish up. Jim Daly, thank you so much.
Mr. Daly: Thanks. Take care.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.