The Adventures of a Norwegian in Colorado Springs

Following up on yesterday's post about Seth Dowland's article, today's post comes to us from Hilde Løvdal, a graduate student at the University of Oslo who writes to share her adventures traversing the country this summer researching her Ph.D. dissertation. Løvdal spent a couple of weeks here in Colorado Springs, and reflects on her experiences.

The Adventures of a Norwegian in Colorado Springs

by Hilde Løvdal

I’m currently working on a doctoral dissertation in American Studies about Dobson and Focus on the Family at the University of Oslo. This June, I ventured on a trip to Colorado Springs to visit the Focus headquarters and get a feel for the city. (And, yes, I’m the one who overheard thediscussion about David Barton’s Drive Thru History America.)

To a Norwegian, it was quite intriguing to get a first hand experience of the political and cultural divide in American society that I’ve seen described in so many ways. I wonder how many times I’ve seen Colorado Springs described as an evangelical Vatican with James Dobson as the uncontested pope of evangelical Christianity. So, I was quite curious about what it would be like to visit the Springs, especially after spending three weeks in its ideological and cultural opposite, Boston. While in Boston, I read Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University, which chronicles a liberal Brown student’s semester “abroad” at Liberty University. Going to Liberty represented, in Roose’s mind, a cultural leap so wide that Liberty just as was well could have been in a different country. And just like Liberty was a world apart for Roose, people in the North-East talked about Colorado Springs as if it were a different country. I was warned, but wished good luck on my trip into the twilight zone of Right Wing fanaticism and bigotry.

I might as just as well mention that I am fairly well versed in popular American evangelicalism, as I grew up as a missionary kid in Japan and in the Norwegian Bible Belt (yes, there is one). Some of the controversies I read about in American religious history and more contemporary contexts are strangely familiar to me, although Christianity has not become as politicized as in the States. (At least so far. We may be heading there. The American Christian Right has inspired fundamentalist and charismatic leaders to form an organization that supposedly speaks on behalf of grass root Christians before this year’s upcoming election.) In other words, whatever culture shock I experienced in Colorado Springs was far from what Roose went through.

I visited the Focus on the Family campus on the north side of Colorado Springs a few times, where I took the tour around the administration building and studied the exhibitions at the Welcome Center. I also had the mandatory trips to New Life Church and the chapel at the Air Force Academy, as well as a tour around evangelical sites such as the Navigators (high noon tea in an English style castle) and The Flying W Ranch (chuckwagon supper served with heartfelt testimonials and cheesy Western music). However, intriguing as these visits were, the more fascinating stuff happened while I was having a cup of coffee or was on the bus.

Travelling alone, I often end up eavesdropping. (To my defense: people often talk very loudly about their private lives in public…) In Boston, I overheard complaints about the gentrification of former working class areas and the cheerful chatter of college graduates, but it was quite different types of conversations that caught my attention in Colorado Springs. For instance, one day while enjoying my daily dose of overpriced Starbucks coffee, I eagerly listened to two parents who discussed sending their kids to a New Life Church youth ministry or summer camp of some sort. The interesting part of this discussion was how pragmatic it was. They did not seem preoccupied with theology and the spiritual content at all, but rather stressed how the kids could use some structure, a sense of community, and to be challenged to work to reach a goal - values that you do not exactly have to be a religious zealot to wish your child to embrace.

On the bus one day, an ad caught my eye. It said: “THE BIBLE TEACHES FACTS. WE ARE IN THE DAYS OF THE BEAST” and went on to warn against the imminent rapture and the United Nation’s role in the last days.[i] As I scribbled down the text, a fellow passenger asked me why I found the ad so interesting. After a brief response, he started telling me about his own faith, and how he first had started reading the Left Behind series because of its Christian content. Previously, he had not been a regular reader, but the series had opened the door to the world of literature for him. He now rejected LaHaye’s theology and described the novels as poor writing, and had moved on to what he claimed was more sophisticated material. Still, he was very thankful for LaHaye’s books, because they taught him the joy of reading.

Hopefully, the stories will help me stay levelheaded as I pour over decades of Dobson and Focus on the Family material. To me, these stories remind me that evangelicalism can be both contercultural and mainstream at the same time. It includes people who adhere wholeheartedly to core evangelical values and to popular theology, but also people who just happen to come across evangelical material or who pick and choose from ministry programs that fit into their lives. Remembering the different levels of engagement people have with evangelical organizations and cultural expressions, will perhaps help me avoid writing an alarmist dissertation about Focus’s power to instigate a theocratic takeover of American society. As disturbing as I find Focus’s Bartonesque version of American history and their mix of patriotism and Christian faith to be, the reality, after all, may be that most people who turn to Focus on the Family do so because of their everyday struggles in their personal lives.

[i]Ad by Bible Research, Sign on bus no. 9, Colorado Springs June 15, 2009.


Randall said…
Hilde: I enjoyed the post. I spent some time researching in Col Springs in 2008. Very interesting town, to say the least.

Max Blumenthal's "The Nightmare of Christianity" in The Nation has some bearing here:

BTW, my wife's family is from Tromsø.
Hilde said…
Thanks - there's so much I could say about Colorado Springs!

Oh, and thanks for the tip about Blumenthal's article. I've seen some of his stuff on his website, but hadn't seen that piece before.

Relatives from Tromsø! People there are known for being generous and warm, in contrast to the climate.

And, I'm glad to see you use the "ø."
Luke Harlow said…
To my own detriment, I don't know how to use the "ø," but I also very much enjoyed this post. Hilde, please keep us up to date on your research. It's great to have a perspective from outside the US on these matters.

Popular Posts