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In Colorado, a wellspring of conservative Christianity

Times Staff Writer

Like many seeking divine guidance, Ted Haggard felt the tug of destiny, climbed a mountain and waited for a revelation.

It was 1984, and the young pastor from Indiana was fasting and praying atop Pikes Peak, looking down at Colorado Springs 14,000 feet below.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. July 7, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 07, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Colorado Springs -- An article in Tuesday’s Calendar section about religious activity in Colorado Springs, Colo., referred to the city as being 14,000 feet below Pikes Peak. It is about 8,000 feet below Pikes Peak.

On the third day something happened.

“I saw in my mind stadiums full of people,” he recalled. “I saw thousands of people going into the world as missionaries.”

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Certain he’d found his calling, Haggard descended the mountain and began traveling around the city praying at open fields and vacant lots, hoping they’d sprout churches.

As years passed, the trickle of evangelical groups moving to the city became a flood. They included everything from Focus on the Family to the Fellowship of Christian Cowboys, which runs camps billed as a “unique blend of biblical teaching and rodeo instruction,” to Hoops of Hope, a ministry combining religion with fancy basketball handling.

“I think God had a plan for this city,” said Haggard, 47, who founded the New Life Church here in 1985 and also heads the 30-million-member National Assn. of Evangelicals. “For years it was Wheaton, Ill., then Tulsa, Okla., and now it is Colorado Springs’ time.”

Founded in 1874 as a showcase for religion, education and clean living, this city of nearly 400,000 has evolved from a sleepy, insular community to a vigorous, influential bastion of the Christian right.

A combination of five military bases, 110 evangelical organizations and domination by the Republican Party has made it a kind of draw for religious conservatives and an epicenter of the cultural wars raging throughout the country today. And with a close presidential election in the offing, Colorado Springs could play an outsized role in the selection of the nation’s next leader.

The most influential group is clearly Focus on the Family. Focus, which popularized the term “family values,” sits on a sprawling 81-acre campus and employs 1,300 people. It’s so big, it has its own exit sign on the freeway, its own ZIP Code and a full-time postal worker to handle the 4 million pieces of mail sent out each month.

“We never planned on being the 800-pound gorilla in town,” said Focus Vice President Paul Hetrick. “But that’s how it turned out.”

As its name says, the agenda is the family and defending against what Focus sees as threats against the family. Over the years, it has opposed any effort to incorporate homosexuality into mainstream American life. It campaigns against abortion, promotes abstinence education and recently launched an all-out attack on the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Lawmakers seek its opinions before making policy, and Focus experts are consulted by journalists and academics looking to understand what religious conservatives are thinking.

But the deep strain of faith and conservatism in Colorado Springs goes beyond those wielding national influence.

This is a place where uniformed soldiers stroll downtown and B-52 bombers soar overhead. It’s a city of megachurches and Christian radio stations, a place where 30,000 people turn out for a passion play and religious conservatives intervene in local politics.

Here Democrats masquerade as moderate Republicans to have a voice in politics, much as Republicans do in liberal bastions like Berkeley or Santa Monica.

Colorado Springs’ El Paso County has 152,394 registered Republicans, while Democrats number 71,099, one of the highest ratios in the country.

“To be a player, you need to be a Republican,” said state Rep. Mike Merrifield, the county’s only elected Democrat. “If you come out of the closet, so to speak, you could suffer. I am the pimple on the perfect complexion of El Paso County.”

Church-based turnaround

In the early 1980s, there were only a handful of Christian groups in town. The city was reeling from the savings and loan crisis, and 300 to 400 homes and buildings were foreclosed on each week.

Desperate to escape its economic slump, Colorado Springs lured businesses and nonprofits, especially Christian organizations, to the town with promises of cheap land, low crime and an array of outdoor recreation.

Haggard’s nondenominational New Life Church grew from 20 members to a staggering 11,000, making it one of the largest in the nation.

“Liberal Christianity is a failed ideology, which is why many mainline churches can’t energize people,” he said. “We are branded as intolerant, and some of us are, but I see Colorado Springs as place where democracy is at its finest. A healthy debate of big ideas is not hate. A healthy debate of big ideas is what we are supposed to be about.”

Over the last few months, Haggard has done just that, serving as point man on news programs around the country defending Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” against charges of anti-Semitism. Gibson previewed the film here before releasing it to the general public.

Christian groups here are regularly courted by Republican political candidates eager to win the support of their highly organized and disciplined constituents. Haggard and James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, say they get at least one phone call a week from the Bush White House seeking their views on issues of the day.

During a recent interview, Haggard received a call from a White House official asking what Christians were saying about same-sex marriage. “When you have 30 million members, politicians want to know what they are thinking,” Haggard said. “I can tell them what real people are talking about.”

His group’s motto is “Cooperation Without Compromise,” and its membership has aggressively lobbied lawmakers against gay and lesbian marriage.

Dobson, whose radio broadcasts reach 220 million listeners a day worldwide, has also vowed to defeat any move to legalize same-sex marriage.

Focus staffers lobby Congress, and the 2.3 million people on Dobson’s mailing list along with his radio audience get the message reinforced constantly. Recently Dobson started Focus on the Family Action, an overtly political organization that will specifically campaign for conservative causes.

“The biggest threat to the family is the attack on the institution of marriage,” said Dobson, a 68-year-old child psychologist. “If that definition is changed and it becomes whatever some black-robed judge says it is, there is no returning from that precipice.”

Focus staffers are assigned certain social issues and expected to master them. They read, study and interview, then write up policy and position papers. They also brief Dobson.

There is a gambling expert, a porn guru and a sexuality analyst, among others.

“We are adamant in our view but keyed into the latest research,” said Linda Klepacki, abstinence program manager. “It’s hard for me to understand how we are painted with the brush of intolerance.”

Peter Brandt, director of the issues response team, nodded.

“It’s the government that has tried to politicize morality, not us,” he said. “A day doesn’t go by that we don’t comment on this idea that somehow we are weirdos for holding the opinions we do.”

As they have grown locally, Christian groups have exerted more influence on local and state politics.

In 1991, the community gained national notoriety when a local group called Colorado for Family Values tried to change the state constitution to prohibit laws protecting gays and lesbians against discrimination.

The measure, called Amendment 2, passed in 1992 with 54% of state voters approving it. Colorado became the subject of nationwide boycotts and was dubbed the “Hate State” by some liberals. The U.S. Supreme Court declared the amendment unconstitutional.

Last April, the City Council voted 8-1 against a plan to give health benefits to same-sex couples who are city employees. Focus members lobbied council members and campaigned against the measure.

“When I go to City Council meetings, I am floored by what I hear,” said Karen Harding, a local lesbian activist. “People look me in the face and tell me I’m not normal. The Focus on the Family people are sweet and gracious, but beneath it there is hate.”

Focus on the Family denies it is hateful.

“We do not believe in marriage between homosexuals, and we don’t believe adoption by homosexuals is in the best interest of children,” Dobson said recently in his office. “That is not hateful. It’s hateful if you start attacking people, making fun of people, calling names. We don’t do that, although they [liberals] do that to us on a regular basis.”

Focus, which began in Arcadia, came here in 1991 for economic reasons. The city courted it, offering cheap land, and a local foundation ponied up $4 million in grant money to help it relocate.

Some blame Focus for the city’s reputation for intolerance. And some evangelicals, speaking on condition of anonymity, say they think the group is too polarizing.

“Focus has given a cast to the community that the community does not deserve,” said Robert Loevy, a professor of political science at Colorado College. “Whatever liberal voice there was in the Republican Party has been stilled.”

Richard Celeste, president of Colorado College and former Democratic governor of Ohio, said it would be unfair to caricature the city as a hotbed of right-wing extremism. “If you want to create a simple black-and-white picture of this town, you can find characters to do it,” he said. “But to put any of these people in a narrow box does the community an injustice.”

Evangelicals here, whether they support Focus or not, say there is a breadth of opinion among them, and they reject the idea that being Christian implies being narrow-minded.

For 54-year-old Christine Glaeser, who attends New Life Church, Colorado Springs is a safe community where she can practice her faith without being ridiculed. Still, she says, there is always room for improvement.

“We are working on trying to love people the way Jesus taught us to love,” she said. “And that is to love unconditionally.”


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