Faith at Altitude

Religion and spirituality in the shadow of Pikes Peak

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Not so Pastoral

And you thought the Ted Haggard story was movie-of-the-week stuff. A California pastor is now accused of murdering one of his congregants to get his hands on a fortune.

The pastor is the Rev. Howard Douglas Porter, who leads Hickman Community Church near Fresno. The victim was 85-year-old farmer Frank Craig, bearer of a $4 million trust fund. According to the Associated Press, Porter befriended the elderly farmer and was eventually named as his sole beneficiary.

Craig was killed while riding in Porter's truck, which mysteriously plunged into an irrigation canal in 2004. Porter escaped unhurt. Craig's family brought their concerns to the police, and Porter is expected to formally face charges of embezzlement, murder and attempted murder today.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Jim Who?

James Dobson is one of the nation's most influential religious leaders. He strong-arms politicians, chats with Larry King and helms a radio program that's heard by millions of listeners.

And most folks have never heard of him.

According to a survey by George Barna -- a respected pollster for the Christian set -- 57 percent of Americans have no clue who James Dobson is. Compare that to the 4 percent who don't know Mel Gibson, or the 3 percent who couldn't pick Britney Spears out of a lineup.

Ironically, that makes Dobson pretty well known, at least as far as religious figures go. Other evangelical poo-bahs trailed even that showing. Rick Warren -- pastor for the ginormous Saddleback Church in California and author of "The Purpose Driven Life," was unfamiliar to 72 percent of Americans. And 73 percent said they had no clue who Tim LaHaye (co-author of the "Left Behind" series) is.

According to Barna, most of the folks who do know of Dobson generally like the guy: About three-fourths of clued-in respondents said they had a "favorable" view of Dobson. I guess the whole SpongeBob thing has blown over, eh?

Monday, November 27, 2006

Coming to AIDS?

Compassion International, Colorado Springs' largest Christian non-profit, says that some Americans aren't all that compassionate to HIV/AIDS victims.

According to the Compassion-sponsored study, 39 percent of Americans say they have less sympathy for AIDS victims than for those with cancer, because they feel AIDS victims "got the disease as a result of their decisions or lifestyles." Respondents felt that cancer and clean drinking water were both higher priorities than AIDS, though more would rather combat AIDS than global warming.

Compassion, which feeds, clothes and educates children with funding from donors, recently launched its own initiative to combat HIV and AIDS -- one of a growing number of Christian organizations focusing on the disease.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Big vote

Folks over at New Life Church will vote tonight for members of their senior pastor search committee -- people who will help shape what Colorado Springs' largest church will look like in the years to come.

The membership will vote for six panelists -- three men and three women -- who will join New Life bigwigs Ross Parsley, Lance Coles and Brian Newberg. The voting forum tonight is unprecedented for the church, which grew like gangbusters under the shepherding of the Rev. Ted Haggard for nearly 22 years. When I asked one church leader how long the meeting might take, he said he had no clue -- they've never done anything like this before.

Friday, November 17, 2006

And the World Weighs In

As the Ted Haggard story winds down, the pundits are ramping up their commentary. Ellen Goodman of the Boston Globe says that Haggard's reaction to his own apparent sexual identity suggests he, along with many others, need to come to grips with what she considers the genetic nature of homosexuality. Over in Wisconsin, Jack McMillin says that Haggard's fall exposes the hypocrisy of the Religious Right. The Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson wrote for WorldNetDaily that Haggard's struggles can teach Christians a lot about sin and grace.

One of the more curious takes, however, came from the UCD Advocate, a student newspaper on the University of Colorado's Denver campus. In a column titled "The Great Hypocrisy of Religion," author Jack Knoll uses the Haggard scandal as a launching point for atheism.

"Move beyond the prejudices of your own beliefs and discover what it truly means to be just one of the billions of insignificant humans on this tiny planet in a universe that is, so far, infinite," he writes. "Just because of our species' enlarged cranial capacity, can you or I really be so arrogant as to think our lives have greater meaning than that of a dog or a cat?"

Kroll calls Colorado Springs "ever-ridiculous" and "hate-filled," and says religious beliefs spurred on, among other things, the Holocaust and the "elimination of native populations in the U.S." He also says that Haggard raised "millions of dollars for the Bush campaign." If that was true, that'd be a bigger story than the whole gay-sex-meth thing, though far less tabloid-worthy.

It's a column filled with lots of opinion, broad-brush characterizations and sketchy (or plain wrong) "facts" -- which, I think, all nicely illustrates what a story like this can bring out in people: It can confirm their worst suspicions of religious leaders, movements, cities and even faith in general. That's not to say that there isn't sometimes truth in those surface cartoons, but the full truth is almost always more nuanced, more complex, if we take the time to look carefully.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Value voters reign again?

So, in the aftermath of all this Ted Haggard stuff, rumor has it that some sort of election was held. The results were pretty darn interesting, and some suggest they sounded the death knell of the so-called "values voters" bloc that helped push Bush into office in 2004.

Whoa on that knell for just a minute. The values vote -- whatever that means -- ain't dead yet.

Back in 2004, the values vote was generally defined as folks who were concerned with abortion and same-sex marriage. Those issues are still important to a wide swath of voters, and the Democratic party appeared to acknowledge that by trotting out several pro-life candidates -- most of whom won. Newly elected Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn., is the most high-profile anti-abortion Democrat, but six pro-life Dems found their way into the House, as well.

But many faithful believe that poverty and the war in Iraq are as much about "values" as abortion is, and pollsters hired by Faith in Public Life and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good seem to bear that out. According to their results, which will be released today, Iraq was the No. 1 "moral issue" that affected respondents votes, topping the list at 45.8 percent of voters. That's six times the folks who put abortion on the top of the list, and nearly five times those who put same-sex marriage at the top. And it was the top moral issue among Catholics, "born-again" Christians and frequent church attendees.

While some believe those numbers indicate that Democrats are learning to talk to people of faith a little bit better -- and that evangelicals are perhaps not the Republican lock they once were -- folks at Focus on the Family believe that the Republicans simply screwed up. They took conservative Christians for granted, they say, and the GOP paid the price.

"Republican leaders in Congress during this term apparently never understood, or they forgot, why Ronald Reagan was so loved and why he is considered one of our greatest presidents," James Dobson said in response to the election. "If they hope to return to power in '08, they must rediscover the conservative principles that resonated with the majority of Americans in the 1980s -- and still resonate with them today."

Undoubtedly, this election was not a strong showing by Christian conservatives -- a voting base that some critics believed had taken control of the Republican party. But does that mean the end of faith as a political force? Not by a longshot.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Focus on Haggard

H.B. London, who heads up Focus on the Family's pastoral counseling unit, will join the spiritual restoration team of the Rev. Ted Haggard, former pastor of New Life Church.

Hey, this is pretty interesting, if you ask me.

The last time Focus spoke out on the Haggard scandal was when James Dobson, the organization's founder and chairman, withdrew from that same restoration team, citing that his schedule was too busy to devote the energy such a panel required. The withdrawal was not received well, generating letters to both The Gazette's editor and to little ol' me. I received a mailing from Warren Eller in faraway Florida that, in part, said "Hey, Dobson! If Rev. Haggard had a million bucks for 'Focus on the Family,' would you be too busy?"

I can't speak to Dobson's time commitments, but London appears to be a natural choice for such a committee. Counseling pastors is London's bread and butter: His department receives about 400-600 calls a month from pastors in various states of crisis, many of them clergy struggling with infidelity or addiction issues.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Looking to the Future

New Life Church officially told its congregants Nov. 12 how the church will select its new senior pastor. As The Gazette reported earlier, a nine-member selection committee will choose a candidate, and the church's membership will vote on him.

Here are some additional details, courtesy the New Life Web site.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Russian orphanages, part 2

Here's another update from Anna Fish, our correspondent visiting Russian orphanages.


We left Ivanovo Wednesday morning. Tuesday was our last day there. We had a GREAT day with the children! We began the day by taking them to an Orthodox church service. We bought them Orthodox crosses which the priest blessed and handed out to each child. We later made necklaces with those crosses. On the way back to the orphanage we stopped for french fries and soda. For many of the children the experience of visiting a church as well as eating french fries was a first.

We also did our lessons with the older children (boys and girls were separated) on drugs, alcohol, smoking and sex. It went better than we had expected and the children were very receptive. In fact, one girl completely opened up.

Before leaving Rose (the other team leader) and I had another meeting with the director and her assistant. They were extremely happy with our structure and topics. They really liked our organization and intentionality of dealing with serious issues. We discussed our continued partnership and additional ways to add to what we are currently doing in Ivanovo. The focus was on continuing and adding to training for the children. Continuing with English classes, music classes, computers and speech therapy. They would like to add woodworking classes for the boys as well as physical education for all the kids. We couldn't make any commitments but will address the possibilities upon our return to Colorado. We also bought and presented many computer programs to them (English, grammar, design, physics, etc...). They were thrilled and we feel confident these will be used well.
Saying our goodbyes was very difficult. There were many tears and it was hard to leave. Three days just wasn't nearly enough! On the positive side, however, with this being our fifth trip to visit them, the children know we will return.

We spent much of the day yesterday traveling from Ivanovo to Pokrov. We arrived fairly late in the day so didn't do much programming of our own. The kids and leaders at Pokrov led us in an international country study game, we took a tour of the facility and ended the day with a "disco."
Today we visited the Teachers College and its dormitory here in town. We were welcomed by the principle (or dean). We were shown a video presentation of the college and its programs. Three language students gave us a tour, in English, proving their study has been quite successful. We also had the chance to visit the dormitory which houses up to 300 students. Approximately 40 students at this time are orphan graduates. This number has nearly doubled in the past several years.

This afternoon we spent our time doing lessons, games and crafts. Being such a large orphanage it's harder to see the impact we are making. Tomorrow we're planning on having smaller groups broken up by age and gender. Again we're addressing the more difficult topics. Being a small team at a large orphanage for only a few days, we are praying for God to speak through us in ways the children can hear.

Those Fickle, Fickle Republicans!

James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family, says it's not evangelicals' fault that the GOP lost both houses of the U.S. Congress this week. Republicans ignored so-called "values voters," he believes, and that was their undoing.

"When Congressional Republicans wait until the first of October to begin reaching out to their base, they are destined to lose," Dobson said in a press release. "That was the GOP's downfall. They consistently ignored the constituency that put them in power until it was late in the game, and then frantically tried to catch up at the last minute."

All that said, Focus did its part to get out the conservative vote, pleading with voters via radio, letters and e-mail to "vote their values."

Camp Closes

The children's Christian camp showcased in the documentary "Jesus Camp" has closed its doors, due to vandalism and negative reaction the film sparked.

The camp basically trained children to become soldiers in God's army, with the children taping their mouths shut to symbolize the silence of abortion and weeping balefully over their own sinful natures. Though the film was initially marketed to evangelical audiences, reaction from that Christian community was raw and severe.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Political Matrimony

Mid-term elections sent a horde of new Democrats into office and a stern message to President Bush: We're tired of this war.

Perhaps underplayed this time around was the fact that most states, apparently, aren't too keen on same-sex marriage. This should thrill folks at Focus on the Family, who've spent a lot of time pushing states to enact "marriage protection" amendments. Oddly enough, I've not heard from Focus on the Family. They're still working on their response to the elections, a spokesperson tells me.

In Colorado, citizens voted to define marriage as between a man and woman and nixed Referendum I -- a measure that would, essentially, have given the state same-sex civil unions.
The tune was much the same elsewhere: Idaho passed a marriage definition bill with 63 percent of the vote, South Dakota with 52 percent, Wisconsin with 59 percent, Virginia with 57 percent, South Carolina with 78 percent and Tennessee with a whopping 81 percent.

But one state bucked the trend: In Arizona, an amendment that would've banned same-sex unions failed, 51-49 percent.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Another Sudden Departure

Paul Hetrick, a 20-year spokesman for Focus on the Family, has stepped down to pursue other business opportunities. He said Tuesday the move is not related to the Haggard scandal, nor does it reflect on the organization.

The Tangled Web We Weave

Everyone wants to hop on the Ted Haggard story, it seems. Jay Leno's cracking jokes. James Dobson's doing radio programs. And several Web sites are posting whatever they can muster. Here are three sites worth taking a look at:

First, Harper's Magazine reposted its story on Haggard and New Life Church, called "Soldiers of Christ." Author Jeff Sharlet called New Life the nation's most powerful megachurch, which helped bring scads of attention to the church. This isn't what you'd call a down-the-middle piece: Sharlet definitely draws some conclusions about Haggard, the church and Colorado Springs within the article, and it'd be fair to say that New Lifers thought the story was unfair. But it's worth reading.

Second, Beliefnet posted a first-person account of the scandal through the eyes of New Lifer (and Beliefnet contributor) Patton Dodd. Dodd, who wrote a critical-yet-faithful account of charismatic Christianity in his book "My Faith So Far," takes readers through the roller-coaster: From disbelief and anger to shock and sadness.

Finally, the satirical Web site Ship of Fools ran a review of New Life Church from a local mystery worshipper known only as "Harriet M. Welsch," whom The Gazette profiled a couple of months ago.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

From Russia, with gifts

On Saturday, The Gazette's Life section ran a story about short-term missionaries traveling to Russia, and we promised we'd give readers periodic updates on this blog.

Well, here's the first, from Anna Fish:


We made it to Moscow with NO problems. Couldn't visit Red Square due to demonstrations against the current administration. Demonstrators were wanting to reinstate communism because they felt under communism they were better taken care of.

Went through snow storm but made it to Ivanovo safely.

Today we spent the day at the orphanage. Had a wonderful time with the kids! They were very excited to see us!!!! We did a lesson on identity and positive/negative labeling. Some seemed to take it to heart and were able to begin opening up. Tomorrow we'll address "choices."

Relationships with staff and directors seem to be going well. We had a great conversation with Svetlana (the director) about our current trip and will continue conversation about future plans.


It's been a while since I've had time to update this blog: News around New Life Church has kept me hoppin'. It's been a difficult story to follow: Regardless of what you think of Haggard's politics, leadership style or apparent indiscretions, he was the spiritual leader of 14,000 people who have been left leaderless and hurting.

I spent two services with these folks Sunday morning, and it's hard not to feel their anguish. Some walked into the service already crying, and they didn't stop until after they left -- if they stopped at all. One can't overestimate the influence Haggard had on many of these people. Some would say he saved their lives -- and they'd mean it. I'd imagine some wish he could stay, even with the scandal. Others, I bet, are so hurt they'd rather never mention his name again.

That said, there was definitely a sense of spiritual gumption at New Life -- particularly at the first service. Haggard's not the church, they said; Jesus is. Ross Parsley, New Life's acting senior pastor, said New Life has a "divine destiny" that is still to be fulfilled.

We'll see how it all shakes out. The reality is that megachurches often struggle when their charismatic leader leaves the church, much less under a cloud of scandal. But Parsley promised New Lifers a "miracle." In the coming months and years, we'll have an opportunity to see whether that miracle comes about.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Making (radio) Waves

Are you an AM Radio fan? Are you frustrated because you can't find any good Catholic programming on the dial?

Well, switch your tuner to 970 AM, which, as of midnight today, became part of the Catholic Radio Network.

The Colorado Catholic Herald reports that the network may boost the station's signal from 3,000 to 12,000 watts in the next few years, and perhaps move the transmission tower nearer to Colorado Springs. But most folks in Colorado Springs should be able to receive the signal now, particularly during daylight hours.