Colorado Springs' evangelical image out of focus, officials believe

Denver Post/August 2, 2005
By Erin Emery

Colorado Springs -- U.S. News has dubbed Colorado Springs the "Vatican of evangelical Christianity." The Los Angeles Times proclaimed it "ground zero" for the religious right, and Harper's magazine characterized the city as a "utopia in the making" for evangelicals.

While Colorado Springs is home to more than 100 evangelical Christian groups, from mom-and-pop outfits to the powerful Focus on the Family led by James Dobson, longtime residents and city insiders say the perception of evangelical domination is an oversimplification that has harmed the community economically, keeping businesses, medical professionals and tourists away.

Even the Rev. Ted Haggard, the pastor of the 11,000-member New Life Church who as president of the National Association of Evangelicals frequently talks to White House officials, thinks the perception is off the mark.

"I laugh when I hear it," said Haggard, named by Time magazine as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in the United States. "Colorado Springs has never ever claimed that it is the evangelical capital of anything."

A closer look at the state's second-largest city further scuttles its squeaky-clean stereotype:

The so-called "Vatican of evangelical Christianity" fills 2 percent to 3 percent of the jobs in the city - the same amount as the U.S. Olympic Committee and a host of national sports governing bodies.

Fewer people claim membership in a church - 36.7 percent - in Colorado Springs than the national average of 50 percent, according to the American Religion Data Archive. There are more church members per capita in Denver and Boulder than in Colorado Springs.

By evangelical standards, Colorado Springs is not a "reached" city, which calls for one church for every 1,000 people. El Paso County, which has 400 churches, would need 100 more churches to meet the criterion, Haggard said.

More people file for divorce in El Paso County than in Colorado counties of similar size, court records show.

The perception of evangelical influence has been fueled by skirmishes over same-sex benefits, Planned Parenthood in schools, Mayor Lionel Rivera's recent refusal to sign a proclamation celebrating gay pride week and, on the national front, an investigation of religious proselytizing at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

"People are very quick to judge us," said Richard Skorman, a Colorado Springs city councilman who supports gay rights. "We have Dr. Dobson here and Ted Haggard, and they are policymakers and national leaders who are social conservatives. ... But I think there are many more people who don't like that attention. The business community is particularly uncomfortable with it."

A 1997 Greater Colorado Springs Economic Development Corp. report says the image has harmed the ability to recruit employers.

"Colorado Springs is perceived by many people outside of the city and state as being controlled by religious zealots, a significant detriment to recruiting of talented people which fear the imposition on the general public of extreme beliefs through schools and through government," the newsletter says. "After moving to the city, perceptions are otherwise."

John Cassiani, executive vice president of marketing for the EDC, said the stereotype is especially strong in more liberal, East and West coast cities such as New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

"I hear religious right, ultraconservative. And I've got to try to overcome that perception because some people will actually not put us on their list of places to consider moving to," Cassiani said. "They assume we have almost this Salt Lake City, LDS (Latter-day Saints) type of situation here."

He said the perception comes from the vast reach of Dobson's radio broadcasts, which reach 7 million to 8 million people a week.

"If Focus on the Family weren't here and we still had every other religious organization here, I don't think you'd hear very much about Colorado Springs in terms of religious orientation," Cassiani said.

While the EDC says the stereotype has harmed the ability to recruit, Focus generates millions of dollars for the local economy.

The ministry spends $65 million on payroll annually for nearly 1,400 employees and another $20 million on supplies and services, not to mention the thousands of visitors drawn to the city to visit its headquarters.

Paul Hetrick, a spokesman for the worldwide ministry, said the stereotype is "overdue to be challenged and overdue to be debunked. Those kinds of descriptions are superficial."

Prior to Focus on the Family's arrival in 1991, Colorado Springs, with its exquisite mountain backdrop, five-star Broadmoor Hotel, spectacular Garden of the Gods and Cold War-era NORAD bunker in Cheyenne Mountain, had historically been known as a quietly conservative place.

The city garnered national headlines in 1992 when Springs- based Colorado for Family Values created Amendment 2, which barred cities from passing laws that protected gays from discrimination. The law, passed by Coloradans, was later struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Skorman said the community's external perception changed and, as a result, a lot of "internal censorship" remains.

"There's a lot of fear built around social issues that probably doesn't need to be there," Skorman said.

That fear is shown mostly through silence, said Linda Devocelle, executive director of the Pikes Peak Gay and Lesbian Community Center. But, she believes, the city is changing. She points to a business directory created by the center that grew threefold, from 40 businesses willing to advertise a year ago to 123 businesses this year.

Susan Edmondson, director of the Bee Vradenburg Foundation and a longtime resident, said Colorado Springs has gems all over.

Few people, she said, realize how high it ranks - 48th of 276 cities - on a creative-class index by Richard Florida, author of "The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life."

"We have a little bit of everything here, but lately the focus seems to be on the extreme end of things, and that's not the full picture," Edmondson said. "I don't want to naively say that there is no intolerance in this community. There is, and we have to address it."

For people such as Haggard, whose son Marcus is a full-time student at the liberal Colorado College, there is no question that Springs-based religious organizations have far-reaching influence.

The city itself, though, is like any other, albeit with considerable dialogue about social issues.

"It's a pluralistic society where people can give their best argument," Haggard said.

It's a city where one week there is a gay-pride parade, he said, and the next headline is about an event at his church.

And some residents "probably do march in the gay-pride parade and then come to New Life Church. Welcome to America."

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