January 5, 2006
Christian Groups in Colorado Springs
-- Andrew Lee
Just east of Pike's Peak, a Colorado city has become, in the words of US News & World Report, the "Vatican for evangelical Christianity." Colorado Springs, founded as a tourist attraction for wealthy Europeans, is the base for over a hundred evangelical church and para-church organizations, including those of prominent figures in the Christian Right: Ted Haggard, pastor of New Life Church, and Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family. What drew these and other organizations to Colorado Springs? Public officials and clergy should heed the answer, because it illuminates an important intersection of religion, public policy, and business.
Ted Haggard says that God told him to move from Baton Rouge to Colorado Springs. Colorado Springs was already a bastion of traditional conservatism, with the Air Force Academy and NORAD based there, but Haggard moved to Colorado Springs with the mission of saving the city. To make the city more Christian, his congregation prayed over names cut from the telephone book, and in front of empty buildings. Twenty years later, he now heads the New Life Church with a membership of 4,800 and serves as the president of the National Association of Evangelicals.
Unlike Haggard, Focus on the Family transferred from Pomona, California, to Colorado Springs for economic reasons. Although Focus on the Family joined a mass flight away from the smog, traffic, crime, and earthquakes of Southern California, it relocated primarily to expand its building complex. The Economic Development Corporation (EDC), seeking to create employment in the wake of military job cuts and the savings-and-loan crisis, aggressively courted Focus and other nonprofit organizations to establish themselves in Colorado Springs, even dangling a $4 million grant from the El Pomar Foundation in front of Focus as an incentive.
Moreover, California was tax-hostile to religious organizations. In early 1988, Los Angeles County Tax Assessor John J. Lynch opposed tax exemptions for homes used by clergy and churches that provided shelter to undocumented refugees. By contrast, Colorado was a tax-friendly state for religious organizations. The state legislature had passed SB 237, a measure that expanded tax exemption for the property of religious organizations, including daycare centers and land. The environment was so tax-friendly to religious institutions that Colorado's tax administrator resigned under pressure for her decisions to pursue taxation of some religious organizations. For Focus, the transplant to Colorado Springs was a no-brainer; they moved in 1991 and bought their 46-acre estate in 1993.
While some church and para-church organizations may have been divinely directed, most relocated to Colorado Springs for business purposes. Colorado Springs did not possess divine magnetism -- rather, the Colorado Springs EDC simply showed religious organizations how relocation would make good economic sense. The initial movement of some of these organizations would cause others to move to Colorado Springs for networking purposes. This city would become a hub of evangelical activity, much as Las Vegas is for casinos. Focus on the Family not only moved to Colorado Springs; it also likely catalyzed moves by other evangelical groups.
We should note that para-church organizations are businesses. Focus on the Family, like other organizations, must also focus on its bottom line. You will not find their headquarters in poverty-stricken urban areas, because they are national organizations concentrating on finding places where business can be attractive and thrive. These organizations respond to taxes, incentives, and environments like any other business.
But I think clergy and public officials should encourage these groups to set up in areas where the need is greatest. Not only would such organizations bring jobs to depressed areas, but they could do their work where it is most essential. By relocating, these groups might pursue the political goals that obviously interest them, while also giving real help to those in need, returning to the roots of evangelical Christianity, whose call, according to Luke 14, is to serve the "poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind."
Andrew Lee is a researcher at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College.