COLORADO SPRINGS — It’s not just the electoral votes that are purple — that is, a mix of conservative and liberal — in this independence-loving mountain state. It’s the religiously minded voters, too, who seem to operate at a shade more subtle than in other places.
With some of its largest churches unaffiliated with distinct denominations, the Christian community here is theologically diverse, composed of a range of hard-to-summarize beliefs. This spectrum includes the fiscally conservative with the socially liberal, or, just as easily, the other way around.
“The rest of the world scoffs at us when we place our belief in a particular political [party] instead of Christ,” said Matt Heard, the head pastor at Woodmen Valley Chapel, one of the more influential “megachurches” in Colorado Springs, at Sunday’s evening service.
Christians ought to operate with a more heavenly focus, he said.
The state’s Republican voters attend caucuses this evening to cast ballots for the party’s presidential nomination.
A former evangelical fortress?
The state’s reputation as a center for modern-day American evangelicalism, based in Colorado Springs, is over-rated, said pastor Doug Olsen, also of Woodmen. It remains the national headquarters for Focus on the Family, Navigators and other evangelical groups, but the city’s religious leanings are more complicated.
“We’re an ordinary city with human people that happens to have Christians living in it,” Olsen said, adding that his church works with the local government on outreach efforts to the large military community in the area, as well as to its homeless population.
In its old political form, and as partially based out of Colorado, “the Christian right is gone,” said Ted Haggard, the controversial former pastor of New Life, one of the state’s largest churches, who now leads a new church, St. James, in the city. That kind of political power is fractured, and it’s probably a good thing, he said.
As for Colorado Springs, “it’s not a ‘Christian city,’” he said, with, from his point of view, about 20 percent of the population practicing believers.
Colorado’s “Christian culture”
But the city and the state remain culturally Christian, in many spots, said Libby and Matt McKinley.
Matt, a Colorado native (his dad is the pastor of a small church in Lake George), and Libby, a back-and-forth transplant from California (whose father was also a pastor), work at a climbing gym in town. Libby attends the city’s First United Methodist Church. Matt’s an agnostic.
“Most people assume you’re a Christian” in these parts, Matt said.
But “there’s definitely a more liberal side of belief” in the state, Libby added.
Colorado Christians are generally open about talking faith and politics. They also enjoy bursting any stereotypes one might have formed about them.
The church’s role in society, in Colorado and elsewhere
One of those believers bent on bursting typical conceptions is Gordon Flammer, a Denver-based banking consultant. Flammer attends Denver United, whose senior pastor, Rob Brendle, once advised Ted Haggard on political issues.
He said that it’s not unusual for Christians to talk politics, and to disagree.
“Pretty much anytime I get together with my friends from church, we wind up talking politics,” he said.
“Basically, there’s inside and outside the church. We’re only commanded to judge those in the church, those outside belong to God. Outside the church … [Christians] should get involved in politics” as citizens, but with, he said, the driving motivator being the “care of those who can’t take care of themselves.”
“There’s definitely a correlation” between the state’s Republican party and conservatives, said David, but since “younger people tend to dislike labels,” the people of faith here reflect the region’s libertarian streak.
Gordon, for example, says he opposes abortion, but is economically liberal and is not a Republican. Politics for their own sake, he said, are “a zero-sum game.”
The temptation is great, he said, to hop into the political fray while leaving one’s convictions behind.
“It’s difficult to see my evangelical brothers and sisters… change their theology [when] it’s convenient,” he said.
He said “there’s all kinds of beams in people’s eyes,” and, as a self-professing fan of Ark. Gov. Mike Huckabee’s 2008 presidential bid, said a holistic pro-life approach makes the most sense.
“Jesus talks more about mammon than he did about sex before marriage,” Flammer said. He’s distressed when he sees how some “evangelicals care about …money more than life.”
Leaning conservative, but loving liberty
Nate and Mary Schramm live in Evergreen, at the base of the mountains west of Denver. From Fresno, Calif., originally, Nate owns a remodeling business, and Mary is at home with their 21-month-old daughter.
Nate can’t caucus tonight due to work, but Mary will be out, supporting Rick Santorum.
“It’s hard to separate out our Christianity and our beliefs from what we believe as individuals,” Nate said. “We vote along pro-life lines. It’s a really important issue for us.”
They like Santorum, along many of their friends, but are concerned about his national appeal.
“Do you vote for someone who has a shot, or do you go with your gut?” Mary asked.
Ultimately, “God ordains who will lead this country. We need to take our part in it [the political process] …. But it’s [God’s] sovereign choice,” Nate said. “Our passion needs to fall with the gospel and not with a political party.”
Ideologically, that approach suits the state.
“It’s the last stronghold of the Wild West in some ways: it’s a little more open for people to come and do and be whatever they want,” he said.
Moving to Colorado has meant meeting a variety of approaches to living out one’s faith in the public sphere.
“It’s opened our minds to a wide variety of Christians,” Mary said. “It’s a really unique mix of people who are very passionate about freedom in a lot of arenas.”