Focus On the Family Editor Faces ‘Internal Pushback’ After Publishing Article Critical of President Trump; Workers at Other Christian Ministries Report Similar Incidents
Earlier this month, Jonathan Martin jotted off a sad tweet. “I’ve lost count of the number of people who say they’ve had ministry jobs threatened/been fired for speaking out in some way in this season,” the Christian author and speaker wrote. Confirmation rolled in: one story from a church planter in California, another from a former worship leader in Indiana. These are “not people who would historically self-identify as progressives, at all,” Martin told me later. They’re “people who see themselves as being very faithful evangelicals.”
Donald Trump has divided conservative Christian communities. Most white Christians support Trump, or at least voted for him. Some who have spoken out against his presidency or his policies, though, have encountered backlash. For a small group of people working in Christian ministry, music, and nonprofit advocacy, the consequences have been tangible: They’ve faced pressure from their employers, seen funds withdrawn from their mission work, or lost performing gigs because of their political beliefs.
Many of these stories suggest a generational divide in the church. Young Christians who describe themselves as theological conservatives don’t necessarily identify as political conservatives, although some who do are also horrified by Trump. The issues they’re passionate about—whether it’s racial reconciliation or refugee care—might not match the priorities of their elders. And the pushback often comes online: Posts on Facebook, Twitter, or personal blogs might prompt a text from the boss or an outraged message from a church friend. For Millennials used to speaking their minds on social media, institutional rules curtailing their freedom—whether they’re standard policies or not—might be jarring.America’s divided political environment has made many religious organizations sensitive about what their employees say and do. “A lot of church leaders are wanting to play it especially safe and not wanting staff members to speak out,” Martin said. This impulse, to quiet political disagreements rather than engage them, will shape how these communities evolve: as places welcome to all who share their creed, or only those who hold certain political beliefs.
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Joy Beth Smith joined Focus on the Family in May 2016 as the editor of Boundless.org, a website for single people in the church. The 28-year-old is fairly media savvy: By the time she started at Focus, she was shopping a book proposal and had bylines at magazines like Christianity Today. When her blog posts for Boundless started getting picked up—including a piece republished by The Washington Post in June—her bosses were thrilled, she told me recently.
But Smith was also pushing the Boundless audience. She commissioned a post about race that she described as “mild”—“it basically addressed that there are still racial divides,” she said. When Omar Mateen murdered dozens of people at Pulse, the gay nightclub in Orlando, she wrote a tribute post, which caused a “bit of a stir” among readers, she said: “I don’t know how you can get stirred up over lives that were lost, but people were. That’s kind of the conservative space we existed in and were working against at times.”
In October, Smith wrote a piece for The Washington Post about her experience with sexual assault, criticizing Trump for his derogatory comments toward women and Christian leaders for not speaking out. And that’s when she started getting serious internal pushback.
Almost as soon as the article went up, Paul Batura, Focus’s vice president of communications, pulled Smith into a meeting with her supervisor, Lisa Anderson, Smith alleges. Batura asked Smith if she could have the piece removed from the Post’s website. That would be impossible, Smith explained; and besides, she had written the piece under her own byline, not as a representative of Focus. Batura told her to remove her affiliation with Boundless from her personal social-media accounts, and at the end of the day, she was given notice of an official conduct warning.The next day, Focus leadership sent out an email to the staff clarifying the organization’s policy on political speech, according to documents shared by Smith. “The most prudent path for all of us—and the most protective approach for Focus—is to leave the policy statements up to Jim Daly, Paul Batura, the quarterbacks, or others authorized to speak on Focus’ behalf,” wrote Joel Vaughan, the chief of staff and human-resources officer at Focus. He added that “it is permissible of course—and often helpful—to agree publicly with positions Focus has taken, such as linking personal pages to Focus posts … or to Jim Daly’s blog.” A few days later, they asked Smith to take down several social-media posts about Evan McMullin, who she was supporting for president. The message was that “‘sometimes the wisest course of action is not to engage,’” Smith told me. “Of course, that’s what Christianity has been doing for years, and it hasn’t worked so well for us.”At the beginning of November, Focus circulated a “spokesperson” policy, according to Smith. It stated that public-facing representatives of the organization were not allowed to comment on candidates for political office, and could only speak on political issues with Focus’s authorization. Smith was asked to take down more posts: Right after the election, she wrote a Facebook status lamenting transgender suicide. “It comes across as smug, disrespectful, and distinctly partisan,” a staffer told her, according to a text exchange Smith shared. “I think there’s a lack of wisdom in going at this on social. Please pull.”
On November 18, Smith’s bosses told her they didn’t think she could be a good spokesperson for Focus on the Family, according to Smith. She was given two options: She could resign, get a severance, promise not to take legal action, and sign a non-disparagement agreement. Or, she could choose to be fired. She chose firing.In an email to me, Batura declined to comment on Smith’s situation “out of respect for the privacy of our current or former teammates.” In general, Focus “[advocates] for biblically relevant issues and [encourages] our employees and constituents to vote for those candidates who most closely reflect and represent their conscience and convictions,” he said. People who represent Focus “are not to ‘get out ahead’ of the organization on issues that could be relevant to the work and ministry of Focus on the Family or speak against an established ministry position,” he continued, citing the organization’s nonprofit status as the main reason for these policies.
Roughly eight months after she moved out to Colorado Springs to join Focus, Smith packed her bags and moved home to Illinois. She talked in only vague terms about the reason for her departure, but after she posted about it on Facebook, a woman in North Carolina named Shannon Dingle reached out. “I just kind of got a sense that it might have been similar to what happened to me,” Dingle said. “I knew how lonely it felt.” Smith, as it turned out, wasn’t the only one who had recently been through something like this.