Complicating the ‘Evangelical Vatican’

“Most leave college as a stronger beer drinker. We want you to leave college as a stronger Christian,” reads an advertisement from Focus on the Family, an international Christian ministry founded in 1977 and based in Colorado Springs. Meanwhile, a mere 10 miles away on the Colorado College campus, students at a house party have fastened shot glasses to an old ski, supporting a now widely popular party accessory appropriately called “the shotski.” Needless to say, CC students rarely interact with Focus on the Family, and that choice is quite intentional.

“Crazy,” “ultra-conservative,” “non-mainstream Christian,” and “propaganda-y” are stereotypical phrases Harper Tice ’20 associates with Focus on the Family. Moreover, Tice sees herself as representative of the majority on campus; she said most CC students “probably think it’s crazy evangelical Christians.” Above all, Tice said Focus on the Family comes off as “very forceful in their beliefs,” and their beliefs often stand in direct contrast with those of the CC community.

On the first floor of Focus on the Family’s Welcome Center, open since 1994, there is a display case, “Touch of Life,” which details prenatal development. There are small, rubber babies at all stages of in utero development beginning at seven weeks and ending with nine months. To the right, there is information on “Option Ultrasound”: Focus on the Family’s ultrasound initiative that has the intent of preventing abortions. In contrast, Boettcher sells emergency contraceptive to students over the counter.

Brio, Focus on the Family’s monthly teen magazine, has an article in its most recent issue dedicated to dating and relationships titled “Looking for a great date?” The author explores the qualities “worth considering” before dating someone. One of them includes: “Would pursuing a relationship with this guy draw you closer to Jesus Christ or pull you away?” On the other hand, in CC’s monthly publication, Cipher, Sonya Padden ‘19, also wrote about dating and relationships in her piece, “A Practiced Disrespect,” opening with: “‘I can’t kiss you now,’ he said after coming in my mouth. ‘I think I’m going to go smoke… what are you going to do now?’ As if it should have been obvious that nothing else was going to happen in that bedroom. I put on my clothes and left.”

Focus on the Family’s Welcome Center is covered with scripture, characters from “Adventures in Odyssey”—Focus on the Family’s children’s radio program—and stories about women who decided to keep their baby rather than abort it. The walls and bathroom stalls across CC? At any given moment, they are plastered with posters promoting queer sexual education, DACA legislation, and safe drinking habits.

A large plaque in Focus on the Family’s center circle reads: “The Value of Male and Female / We believe that God created humans in His image, intentionally male and female, each bringing unique and complementary qualities to sexuality and relationships.” Meanwhile, at CC, buildings are equipped with an all gender, single-stall bathroom for students who do not identify within the gender binary.

When asked what brought a receptionist, who asked not to be named, to Focus on the Family, she answered: “It was the lord.” When asked what brought CC students to their college, some joke: “It was the weed.”

Focus on the Family is far from the only conservative religious group in Colorado Springs. In fact, the city earned the nickname “The Evangelical Vatican” in the ‘90s because of the immense concentration of conservative evangelicals and religious nonprofits within city limits. For decades, Colorado Springs fostered a narrative as a hotbed for religious conservatism, described in the ‘90s as “ground zero” in the culture wars.

The heavily Republican area surrounded by five military bases was internationally known as a center for Christian evangelicalism. After becoming “the foreclosure capital” of the United States in the late ‘80s, the Springs began recruiting evangelical Christians in hopes of bettering the city’s diminished economy with Christian nonprofits. It worked.

Given the city’s history as pro-military, conservative, and religious, Christian evangelicals flocked to Colorado Springs. As recently as 2005, there were more than 100 active evangelical Christian groups in the city, which at the time had a population of 400,000. Colorado Springs was finally back on the map—this time not for foreclosures.

The evangelical community flourished but began its downfall with the now infamous scandal of Ted Haggard, one of the most influential evangelical Christians in the country during his prime. In 1984, Haggard founded New Life Church, which typically has over 6,000 parishioners at Sunday services at the Colorado Springs location alone. He was also president of the National Association of Evangelicals. However, in 2006, a male prostitute named Mike Jones disclosed that he had sexual relations with Haggard who, according to Jones, was buying and using crystal meth. After denying all allegations initially, Haggard eventually confessed and resigned from both New Life and NAE, and thus began the rewriting and revising of the Christian evangelical narrative in Colorado Springs.

For some, however, the narrative of Colorado Springs as an evangelical stronghold still exists. A mere three years ago, after the Planned Parenthood shooting, The Guardian published an article titled, “Colorado Springs: a playground for pro-life, pro-gun evangelical Christians.”

The caricature of the city seems to be persisting across both our nation and the world, arguably overlooking progression and change seen in the last decade. As reported by the Denver Post earlier this month, “Millennials are moving to Colorado Springs at a higher rate than anywhere else in the country,” and it will be interesting to see how this change in demographic affects the current narrative of the city.

Grace Perry

Grace Perry

Grace Perry has been writing for the Catalyst since January 2018. She is a sociology major and double minor in journalism and Spanish.

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