John Thune, the evangelical Christian elected to the U.S. Senate 20 years ago from South Dakota with the help of right-wing Christian James Dobson, who founded Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family, announced he wants to succeed Mitch McConnell as Senate GOP leader after McConnell retires later this year.

McConnell showed Americans how influential the Senate GOP leader can be, using his power to promote obstruction rather than legislation and reshaping the Supreme Court by refusing to consider one of President Barack Obama’s nominees but moving to advance all of Trump’s nominees.

A graduate of Biola University, Thune is an example of Washington’s reverse revolving door: He was a railroad lobbyist before being elected to the House of Representatives in 1997. He has remained a top recipient of industry campaign donations and a top opponent of industry regulations, even after the destructive train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

Dobson used his platform at Focus on the Family to campaign for Thune.

Thune lost his first Senate race in 2002, but in 2004 Dobson used his platform at Focus on the Family and a new political organization called Focus on the Family Action to campaign for Thune and five other GOP Senate candidates, all of whom won.

Elections for the new Senate GOP leader won’t be held until after national elections in November, but if things go Dobson’s way, Thune will work closely with a reelected President Trump and House GOP leader Mike Johnson, who is long affiliated with Focus and its affiliated activist organizations, the D.C.-based Family Research Council and the powerful legal group Alliance Defending Freedom.

Thune has given mixed signals about his stance on Trump and MAGA World. He called Trump’s role in the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol “inexcusable” but he voted to acquit rather than impeach Trump and recently endorsed Trump for president after first endorsing South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott in the primaries.

Thune also has endorsed double election denier Kari Lake, who is running for a Senate seat in November. Lake claims that both Trump’s 2020 loss and her 2022 loss in the Arizona governor’s race were rigged.

2004 was the year James Dobson quit pretending that he and his Focus ministry weren’t political.

“He hit the campaign trail for Thune in 2004 with a zeal that he’d never shown any other candidate,” wrote Dan Gilgoff in his 2007 bookThe Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical America Are Winning the Culture War.

Dobson supported Thune because he was “incensed” by his opponent, incumbent Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle, who had angered Dobson by supporting abortion rights and opposing some of George W. Bush’s nominees to U.S. appeals courts.

“We’ve got to do whatever we can to take Tom Daschle out,” Dobson promised, and he delivered, making Daschle the first Senate leader in 50 years to lose a reelection bid.

“We’ve got to do whatever we can to take Tom Daschle out.”

Dobson “stumped for Thune at a huge Christian music festival over Labor Day weekend and in a pair of October ‘Stand for Family’ rallies sponsored by Focus on the Family Action, a new political organization Dobson launched in 2004. Through his South Dakota appearances, Dobson reached roughly one-tenth of the state’s population. He also attacked Daschle in full-page newspaper ads paid for by evangelical activist Gary Bauer’s political action committee,” wrote Gilgoff, then a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report.

Now in his fourth Senate term, Thune has been faithful in promoting and supporting legislation that aligns with Dobson’s “family values.”

In 2023 he and Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) introduced the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, designed to protect fetuses who survive an attempted abortion and provide the same care as any other newborn would receive.

The legislation is supported by conservative Christian groups including Focus and its allied organizations (Family Research Council, Family Policy Alliance), Heritage Action and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Thune also has supported legislation that would:

  • Prohibit the secretary of Health and Human Services from restricting funding for pregnancy centers.
  • Prohibit the federal government from conducting, funding, approving or otherwise supporting any research involving human fetal tissue that is obtained pursuant to an induced abortion.
  • Restrict the availability of federal funds to organizations associated with the abortion industry.
  • Amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to provide that amounts paid for an abortion are not taken into account for purposes of the deduction for medical expenses.
  • Prevent the Department of Defense from carrying out the Biden administration’s abortion leave and travel policy.

In a recent interview with the PBS New Hour, Thune confirmed his opposition to IVF treatments, saying, “We’re pro-family, we’re pro-life” and that opposing IVF is a part of that.

Thune supported Lankford’s bipartisan bill tightening the southern border with Mexico and restricting immigration, but GOP support for Lankford’s bill evaporated after Trump told lawmakers he opposed it because he wanted to maintain it as an issue during the campaign.

Thune has blamed Democrats for the immigration bill’s failure and regularly condemns “Biden’s border crisis.”


This article originally appeared in Baptist News Global.