Onward Muscular Christians!

Colorado Springs has always been a conservative town. It is home to the Air Force Academy and to NORAD, the nerve center of the U.S. nuclear arsenal hidden away under nearby Cheyenne Mountain. But over the last decade this city of 280,000 has quietly turned into something else as well: the capital city of muscular Christianity. Like Muslims to Mecca, 28 evangelical organizations have moved their national headquarters to Colorado Springs since 1989--a dozen of them in the last year alone--swelling the number of missionary and parachurch ministries to more than 50. The local chamber of commerce lobbied vigorously to attract religious groups, hoping to create jobs, diversify its mostly military economy and widen the tax base with an influx of civicminded, nonpolluting employers.

Few locals paid the newcomers much attention until last year's election. That's when Colorado Springs car dealer Will Perkins, a lifelong Presbyterian, formed a political-action group called Colorado for Family Values. CFV successfully campaigned for a state amendment banning any laws specifically protecting the civil rights of homosexuals. In reaction, gay and lesbian groups launched a national boycott against Colorado tourism until the amendment is repealed. Since then, Colorado Springs has developed what one city father calls "a climate of intolerance" and some citizens are blaming the evangelical outsiders.

"There's a lot of uneasiness in the community," says Amy Divine, cofounder of Citizens Project, a group recently organized to counteract the evangelicals' influence. "We're seeing a push toward prayer in the schools and pressure to modify school curriculums to reflect religious views." For example, parents from one public school have filed suit to bar the teaching of Greek and Roman myths until the board adds a course in Bible study. At another school, religious conservatives persuaded the board to ban a "Diversity Day" which was to include, among other things, a discussion of gay lifestyles.

Are the evangelical newcomers to blame for these controversial steps? Most of the groups are tiny, apolitical publishing, radio and missionary organizations, like Iranian Christians International, whose interests are centered in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Others, like Athletes in Action International, Compassion International and the Fellowship of Christian Cowboys direct far-flung local and nondenominational programs for children and young adults. Eighteen of the organizations have 15 or fewer local employees and six others are one-person operations. By far the largest (930 local employees) is James Dobson's Focus on the Family, which moved from Los Angeles last year. Altogether, the 50-plus organizations employ fewer than 2,500 people-less than 1 percent of the Colorado Springs population.

But they have taken root in fertile soil. Colorado Springs has six evangelical radio stations, whereas much larger Denver has only two. Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition has established a foothold in Colorado Springs, preparing to run candidates in local elections. Issue-oriented Focus on the Family, generally known for publishing literature on raising children and enriching marriages, has lent its considerable resources to what local evangelicals consider a moral crusade to defend the traditional family. "We've reached the point of critical mass, where these groups feel immensely powerful," says United Church of Christ minister James White, whose denomination supports gay rights. They find allies wherever they look."

Not surprisingly, most of the fundamentalists focus on gay rights. Bruce Loeffler of Ground Zero, the city's gay and lesbian movement, describes the dimensions of what he calls a "hate campaign" against homosexuals. Colorado for Family Values has distributed thousands of pamphlets purporting to portray gay life. Among other things, it alleges that gays "are 12 times as likely" as heterosexuals to molest children and are out to "destroy" the American family. Loeffler also cites a study by Focus on the Family which claims that "homosexual men ingest, on the average, the fecal material of 23 different men per year."

Colorado Springs is at "ground zero" of the gay-rights battle, and the volume of hate seems to be rising. Moral crusades, however heartfelt, too often take no prisoners. If this beautiful city wants to be the evangelical capital of America, then Christians have to get back to first principles: remembering to love their neighbors as themselves.