We the (faithful) People: A coalition of religious groups is pushing to redefine faith in Colorado politics
Dr. Malcolm Newton, the president and founder of the Denver Institute of Urban Studies and Adult College, performed a poetic hymn to the interfaith community assembled for the Faithful Tuesdays event on Feb. 12, 2019, at the Colorado Capitol in Denver. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)
“Right now, I think your average person says, ‘Oh, you’re religious? You must be conservative,” said Adrian Miller, executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches, who spoke at the launch of Faithful Tuesdays, a coalition of faith groups who are trying to push legislators to create moral policy and redefine the political voice of religion in Colorado. Jenn Fields has the story of why the groups, ranging from Catholic priests to Colorado Sikhs to Temple Emanuel and beyond, felt the call to make their voices known.
A coalition of faith groups is showing up at the state Capitol every Tuesday and taking on two big tasks: Pushing legislators for policy that reflects their values and trying to redefine the political voice of the faithful in Colorado.
At the launch of Faithful Tuesdays in February, prayers from a Reform rabbi and a Unitarian pastor caused the heads of those gathered to bow, and short sermon-style speeches from a Catholic priest and an African Methodist Episcopal layperson echoed around the grand halls on the west side of the Capitol. Their message: eradicate racism. Seek equality. Push for a moral economy. And tell your legislators you want policy to match those goals.
Many members of the coalition also said they hope to be a voice that challenges the dominant narrative that the religious right is the only voice of faith in politics.
“Right now, I think your average person says, ‘Oh, you’re religious? You must be conservative,” said Adrian Miller, executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches, who spoke at the Faithful Tuesdays launch. That sort of shorthand isn’t accurate, he said.
The coalition includes organizations that have long worked at the Capitol, as well as denominations that are typically more involved in service than policy. And it has brought together faiths that are at odds on some issues.
Faithful Tuesdays rose out of what they accomplished together in the legislature last year, said Jenny Kraska, executive director of Colorado Catholic Conference, whose organization speaks out on policy on behalf of Colorado bishops. The Catholic conference worked with Interfaith Alliance of Colorado on Amendment A, which removed language about slavery from the state constitution, and the payday lending ballot issue that limited interest charged on payday loans. “It came from seeing what we could do as faith leaders,” she said.
“I think some of our (elected) leaders don’t even hear the faith voice in issues of racism, criminal justice reform,” Kraska said. “For us, it’s really common that we talk about the death penalty from the faith perspective.”
Scripture is clear: Do not exploit others
On a recent Tuesday, the Colorado Council of Churches hosted a discussion about homelessness. The Tuesday before, Colorado Catholic Conference hosted a discussion about the death penalty. On April 2, the Colorado Sikhs are planning a langar, a Sikh tradition of serving free meals that isn’t just an act of charity, but an equalizing event that brings together people who might not have otherwise shared a meal.
“In our tradition, there is the seva, which literally translates to service, but it comes down to sitting down with your fellow human beings,” Dilpreet Jammu said of the langar.
Jammu is the founder of Colorado Sikhs and is the board chairman of Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, one of the organizations that started Faithful Tuesdays. Some of the other conveners include Rocky Mountain Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church in Colorado, Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance, City Unite and Mile High Ministries.
At the langar, the topic will probably be economic justice, Jammu said. “In our scripture tradition, it is clear: You’re not to exploit your fellow human beings. That’s considered a big no-no, because you’re literally living off the blood of another person.”
Through the ‘90s and early aughts, the voice of faith in politics in Colorado was a distinctly conservative evangelical Christian one. But the conversation has shifted. Colorado has outpaced the “hate state” moniker that a 1992 anti-LGBT amendment brought the state — plenty of media organizations ran stories about the “hate state” electing the country’s first openly gay governor, Jared Polis, more than 25 years later.
Even Colorado Springs, the epicenter of evangelicalism in the ‘90s, has a different vibe nowadays, said theologian Linda Seger, author of “Jesus Rode a Donkey: Why Millions of Christians Are Democrats.”
“When we first moved here, I felt some of that hate,” said Seger, who has lived in Colorado Springs since 2002. “[And] that evangelicals are the only Christians. It just feels different.” She noted that Jim Daly, the president of the conservative Christian ministry Focus on the Family, doesn’t seem to talk about politics as much as his predecessor, James Dobson, and that the tone at the mega-sized evangelical New Life Church has changed, too.
But the Trump presidency has given progressive Christians plenty of reasons to fight for a voice in politics, she said. “It’s a lot of different things. It’s the gun issue. And it is immigration. And the hypocrisy. And the anger and the lack of civility.”
Every few years, Seger updates her book, which was first published in 2006, for a new edition. In the past few years she became involved in the Colorado Springs Sanctuary Coalition, which helps immigrants facing deportation wait for a legal solution to their case from the safe haven of a church or temple. Nationally, the New Sanctuary Movement has more than doubled the number of congregations willing to take someone in since Trump took office, and Colorado has had several high-profile sanctuary cases.
In Colorado Springs, like Denver, the coalition brings together diverse congregations. “Some of these groups that one might think leans more conservative leans quite progressive on immigration,” Seger said.
Seger, who has a doctorate from Graduate Theological Union, added a section about immigration and the Bible’s call to “welcome the stranger” in her latest edition of “Jesus Rode a Donkey.” “We believe very strongly that the Bible talks of welcoming the stranger, and that does not mean open borders, it means kindness and respect.
“The first mission statement of Jesus when he started his mission — it’s in both Matthew and Luke: to set at liberty those who are oppressed,” she said. “And that’s one of the things progressives take very seriously, that we have to work for the oppressed and the marginalized.”
Progressive and centrist coalitions might be on the rise, but the media spotlight on evangelicals in politics hasn’t changed. Ahead of the 2016 election, national and local news outlets renewed their focus on right-leaning evangelical Christians and whether they would vote for President Donald Trump. The evangelicals-and-Trump think-piece has become a fixture on the national media landscape.
After the unaffiliated, or people who don’t claim any religion, (29 percent), evangelical Protestants are still the largest single faith group in Colorado, according to Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study, but they only account for 26 percent of respondents. Catholics are the next largest group, at 16 percent, and mainline Protestants are third at 15 percent. Non-Christian faiths add up to 5 percent of the population.
“There’s a strong sense that only a certain perspective of Christianity has been put out there. And what we’re trying to do is show that it’s much more complex,” said Miller, who worked in the administrations of President Bill Clinton and Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter and is a member of Denver’s Campbell Chapel African Methodist Episcopal church. He also said he didn’t want to demonize conservative Christians, but rather wished to highlight other facets of Christianity.
“Progressive people of faith, we want to see in Colorado public policy that reflects our values,” he said. “And one way to do that is by showing up.”
Others who were interviewed for this story also spoke of changing the narrative that’s presented in the media about people of faith being a monolithic conservative Christian evangelical force. But summing up Faithful Tuesdays as the polar opposite of that, as something driven by the progressive activism of the religious left, doesn’t capture the breadth of the movement, and the diversity of faith groups — which are not all Christian — involved make it tough to pin down politically as left, center or right.
And as if to underscore their bipartisan tack, two lawmakers spoke at the launch of Faithful Tuesdays in February: Sen. Kevin Priola, a Republican, and Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Democrat.
Focused on issues all can get behind
Jammu called Faithful Tuesdays a “more moderate voice” rather than one from the religious left. “I’ve never seen myself as a left-winger,” Jammu said. “My business background — I’m a fiscal conservative!”
Members of the coalition don’t agree on every issue. “On some issues, Colorado Catholic Conference is going to have overlap with the more left-leaning organizations involved with Faithful Tuesdays,” Kraska said. “But on others, you’re going to have distinct differences.” The coalition decided to navigate this by only focusing on issues they could all get behind.
One bill that highlights the stark policy differences is House Bill 1032 on human sexuality education in public schools. Interfaith Alliance supports the bill, which would prohibit public schools from teaching based on religious ideology or doctrine — for example, adopting an abstinence-only curriculum. Colorado Catholic Conference opposes the bill on the basis that districts and parents should have local control over how they teach human sexuality.
Jill Wildenberg, public policy director for Interfaith Alliance, noted that the Trump bump in activism had helped spike interest in matters of faith in public life — attendance at Interfaith Alliance’s day at the legislature doubled between 2016 and 2017. The group also started a progressive congregation network that met monthly at the legislature for education and advocacy work.
“People have a craving for promoting justice and equality and opportunity through their faith voices that they haven’t had before,” Wildenberg said. Miller also noted that the catalyst for much of what’s happening now with progressive churches is the national conversation.
Patty Lawless, Together Colorado’s lead statewide organizer, took a longer view of why the coalition that has formed for Faithful Tuesdays came together now. (Together Colorado, a member of the national Faith in Action network, was part of early discussions to launch Faithful Tuesdays.) “We’ve been doing this for 40 years,” she said. And while the Trump administration’s policies have put some issues on more people’s radar, the left’s response to him isn’t the coalition’s driving force. “Actually, we’re non-partisan, and we have folks who are part of our work and voted for Trump, too, so it’s bigger than that.”
Then, she added, “Honestly, I think if we had tried this four years ago, I don’t think we could’ve pulled it off. Bringing together the diversity of faith-based organizations we have brought together takes some time — we’ve built relationships over time.”
The investment has already had an effect, she said. “We’ve had people stay after Faithful Tuesdays and go into their legislator’s office. It’s definitely a different level of engagement than we’ve had before.”
The issues that have brought faith leaders to Faithful Tuesdays are as varied as the coalition itself. “People were deeply moved by the refugee ban and separation of families at the border,” Miller said. “People were really pressed into action for that. And then just the overall lack of civility.”
“Praying with my feet.”
People of faith also have a long history of working on civil rights issues. “Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who walked with Martin Luther King in Selma, said — and I’ve used this line a lot, too — somebody asked him why, it was shabbat, and he was not in synagogue, and he said, ‘I am praying with my feet.’ And I think that is a running theme for people who participate in the work that we do,” said Wildenberg, who is a member of Denver’s Temple Emanuel, a Reform Jewish congregation. “This is the work of healing the world, or depending on the faith, this is the work Jesus would want me to do.”
“Go to any faith — there are tenets of that religion that say, we need to help the marginalized, we need to step up and have our voices heard when it comes to people who are in need,” she said.
Jammu noted that in Sikhism, “if there is injustice being done, it’s part of my faith tradition to call it out, and then do what you can in order to stop it.”
In fact, he said, Sikhism calls specifically for political engagement. “Part of the code of conduct, a portion of it says, you have to understand how government works,” he said. “You have to know what is there so that you can quote-unquote petition the king and address the issues when injustice is occurring.”
Colorado Sikhs itself is a reflection of that; the organization started in the late 1990s but coalesced into an official 501(c)(3) in 2012, after a mass shooting that killed six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.
Nation more moderate than Fox portrays
Jammu also thinks the country as a whole is more progressive than the media tells us, and that Faithful Tuesdays is a reflection of that. “Just go and check what percentage of Americans now believe that universal health care is something that needs to be done. Look at the attitudes about transgender persons being in the military … in many ways, the country is already there. It’s just getting our politicians and our policymakers to acknowledge that.”
“We are far more moderate than the Fox News and others would have you believe,” he said. “If you listen to them, it’s just a whole bubble that’s self-created. I still say America’s a better place than what Fox says.”
The final Faithful Tuesdays of this legislative session is April 30, but Wildenberg thinks the coalition will continue and even grow, since more faith groups than the original conveners have expressed interest since Faithful Tuesdays began in February.
“We’re feeling pretty confident that we’ll be doing it again next year, too,” Wildenberg said. “We’re feeling pretty confident that this is something people want to do.”