Welcome to Colorful Colorado

(Sebastian Bergmann/Flickr.com)

As you enter the state of Colorado, signposts along its borders beckon, “Welcome to Colorful Colorado.” In recent years, one color—purple—has dominated political discussions of the state, which went easily for Bush in 2004 and just as easily for Obama in 2008. Driving the region’s scenic highways, in and out of congressional districts where the “red” swathes and “blue” pockets blend, you can see just how Colorado became one of a handful of swing states that will decide the 2012 presidential election.

I live along Colorado’s “Front Range,” where 82 percent of the state’s some 5 million residents call home. Colorado is a large, western state, but the drive through the Front Range takes just over two hours. Coming from the working-class (and historically predominantly union and Democratic) industrial town of Pueblo in the South, a 30-minute drive up I-25 takes you to the base of Pike’s Pike, in the shadow of which sprawls the famously conservative city of Colorado Springs. Another hour northward places you in the capital city, Denver. Another 30 minutes northwest and you arrive in the university town of Boulder, referred to by the state’s more conservative residents as the “People’s Republic of Boulder.”

The drive takes you through some of the state’s richest and poorest neighborhoods; through belching steel mills, resort communities, suburban sprawl, urban gentrification, and a university town’s genteel poverty. Politically, this tour of the Front Range takes you from some of the most Republican and Libertarian to some of the most Democratic and Green political districts in the United States. Religiously, this tour takes you from Colorado Springs, home to conservative evangelical churches, through vast suburbs of spiritual-but-not-religious housing developments, to heavily urban Democratic sectors of Denver, and into Boulder, the spiritual converse of Colorado Springs.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, when reporters were writing about the “culture wars,” many came to Colorado Springs to write dispatches from what was then emerging as the capital city of American evangelical Christianity. A huge number of right-leaning, religious non-profits had moved from California to Colorado Springs. There they enjoyed the low property costs and nice tax breaks offered by a local government desperate to recover from the savings-and-loan bust of the 1980s.

James Dobson, a psychologist with a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California who had made his name with his book Dare to Discipline, developed Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs. The enterprise quickly became an enormously successful hub for his operations, both capitalistic and political in nature. At Focus, the bulk of the employees (numbering 1,500 at its height) occupy telephone cubicles, where they receive crisis phone calls from people often at the most desperate point of their lives. Dobson, meanwhile, calls out to the world on his daily radio program, where he offers personal, and political, commentary.

After its move to Colorado Spring in 1991, Focus’ political commentary moved to the right, and made more explicit appeals to the kinds of audiences that were instrumental in organizing “values voters” on behalf of George W. Bush. At the same time, the megachurch phenomenon took off in Colorado Springs, and charismatic ministers such as Ted Haggard preached a non-denominational, but decidedly conservative gospel to mostly white, middle-class crowds. Haggard, of course, came to public humiliation later in a scandal of gay sex and drug use that shocked nearly all locals (save for the local gay community, many of whom had been in on the secret for a while). Prior to that time, however, Haggard reigned as part of the elite of the Religious Right, denouncing the usual villains of abortion, secularism, and homosexuality.

On television, a special broadcast of Bill Moyers, “The New Holy War,” aired in 1993 and focused on Colorado Springs’s central place in the culture wars. The TV special focused on the 1992 passage of Amendment 2, a state constitutional amendment banning the rights of gays and lesbians to claim discrimination based on sexual orientation. “No special rights for gays,” went the cry of conservative Christian activist and car dealer Will Perkins, who funded the amendment effort. Perkins caricatured the “gay agenda” this way: “[B]ecause of what we do in the bedroom, we want rights in all these other areas.” The amendment’s opponents charged that it amounted to nothing other than discrimination. In 1997, the popular public radio program This American Life gave an entire hour of its show to the phenomenon of “prayer walking.” Organized by local Colorado Springs churches, most notably Haggard’s New Life Church, the Christian faithful walked the city, street by street, praying over each house with the intent of creating a “prayer shield” over the entire city that would protect against the infiltration of evil spirits.

Amendment 2 was the Prop 8 of the 1990s: a state referendum that became a national media frenzy. Much less publicized was the fact that, three years after passage of the amendment, the Colorado Supreme Court struck it down. And less well known, too, is the presence of a thriving Pagan community in the resort town of Manitou Springs, right at the base of Pike’s Peak, just a few miles west of Colorado Springs. And even less known is the fact that the favored local mayoral candidates of the Religious Right typically draw around 15 percent of the vote, a steady but modest bloc which has never proved large enough to elect one of “their own,” even in local elections. Elections for the mayor and city council generally fall to moderate business conservatives. For the most part, culture wars were fought out at a national level. Local politics were, as the saying goes, local.

In 2012, attention has shifted to economic issues, for obvious reasons, and on many points the social conservatives and libertarians find common ground in their Tea Party-style sympathies. Still, the region remains utterly dependent on federal funding for the military, most notably for the Air Force Academy and the military base at Fort Carson. This means that there is ambivalence—some might say hypocrisy—regarding the kinds of “austerity” that evangelical Tea Partiers preach as a necessary rite of self-sacrifice to redeem America. Thus, the local congressional representative for Colorado Springs, Douglas Lamborn, rails against federal spending in many regards, but he continues to defend the funding of weapons systems that even the Pentagon seeks to cut from its own budget. It’s his role, in effect, to preside over the steady transmission of defense pork to the local economy.

What’s more, the hugely destructive wildfire in Colorado Springs in late June called forth even the most libertarian of local politicians to demand, and receive, massive federal aid. Furthermore, among the area’s conservatives, the historic pull of western libertarianism strains to fit in with socially conservative politics. Hence the tendency of the conservatives’ favorite newspaper (the Colorado Springs Gazette) to oppose taking stands on moral issues (such as gay marriage or the War on Drugs), since they assume those decisions should be left to the individual.

If Colorado Springs dominates the southern part of the Front Range, Boulder dominates the North. As home to a thriving community of religious groups and New Age institutes, including Naropa University,* residents of this university town consider themselves the enlightened alternative to the “tax-exempt Savanarolas” in Colorado Springs. Yet Boulder is a small place—deliberately kept small, by zoning restrictions and strict open-space policies—and so much of the political diversity of its area comes from the surrounding communities. In Longmont, Louisville, and Broomfield, residents of relatively modest incomes (including younger university professors) find homes they can afford outside the sky-high housing prices of Boulder living. Contrary to Boulder’s reputation, megachurches have also sprouted up in the area’s suburbs. These churches aren’t as well known as those in Colorado Springs, but they are there, and provide some counterbalance to the university town’s small but solidly Democratic (and Green) vote.

In between Colorado Springs and Boulder lies the sprawling metropolis of Denver, which contains pockets of every conceivable income, race, political opinion, and religious expression. Moderating over the city is a newspaper of moderate sentiment, the Denver Post. And from here, moderating over the state is John Hickenlooper, a governor of pragmatic Democratic sentiment who graduated from self-made brewpub entrepreneur to become a hugely popular Denver mayor before his election to the governor’s office in 2010.

Conventional wisdom holds that the outcome of the national election in Colorado depends heavily on how the Republican turnout of El Paso County compares to the Democratic turnout of Denver and Boulder. In 2008, a relatively dispirited local Republican base in Colorado Springs failed to muster enthusiasm for John McCain (in spite of frequent appearances locally by Sarah Palin, whose job it was to fire up the values votes in town). For the Republicans, compounding the enthusiasm gap problem, the Democratic National Convention came to Denver and with it, Obamamania, which brought out the urban vote, moving Colorado decidedly into Obama’s column.

Yet more recently, the 2010 election saw a Republican landslide in El Paso County and a depressed voter turnout in Denver. The last three years have witnessed a relentless barrage of attacks on the Obama administration on both economic and cultural grounds. When the local Republicans speak of how “our country” has been taken from “us,” they mean it; they sense in Obama a worldview foreign to their sentiments and values.

But too hard a turn to the right could turn off Colorado’s Independents and Libertarians, and help move them back towards the Democrats. Moreover, the retirement of an older generation of evangelicals in Colorado Springs, including the likes of James Dobson, replaced with a “softer,” less politically-zealot style of leadership, suggests that Colorado will not be a red state again anytime soon, in spite of culture warriors still raging up and down the Front Range. Today, Colorado’s true colors bleed purple. And odds are they will for a long time to come.

Paul Harvey teaches American religious history at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. He serves on the editorial advisory board of Religion & Politics.

*Correction: The article referred to Naropa Institute, which was the original name for the educational institution. It is now Naropa University and the sentence has been changed.