This report aired Oct. 28, 2005 on NBC
COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — For years, American Christians — from the Catholics in Boston, the Baptists in Dallas, and Methodists in Iowa — have worshipped in much the same way.
But now, is something totally new.
Welcome to New Life Church, in Colorado Springs. Every year, this evangelical church marks the Easter holiday with an elaborate staging of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The cast and crew of 750 are drawn largely from the church membership.
An Easter play
For Leon Lowman, acting in the play is an extension of his Christian faith.
“Christ is personal,” he says. “He loves you and he loves me... and wants to be there for everyone. We’re just trying to get the message out.”
Lowman is a 41-year-old former Air Force captain. For Leon, his wife, Venezia, and their four children whose ages range from 4 to 16, life revolves around church activities. New Life offers a sanctuary where the family can find others who share their values.
“My children go to public school, so they’re not sequestered in some catacomb-type environment,” says Lowman. “And so they encounter a lot of different things. By coming here to new life and being involved in the kids’ programs, that gives a balance and they have a positive peer pressure, if you will.”
The entire family is involved in the Easter play — Leon plays the part of a Roman centurion.
In the crowd is Karen Monroe, a 43-year-old mortgage loan officer, invited to the play by an acquaintance. While Karen is a born-again Christian, her husband Tom is not, and they have never belonged to the same church. That’s something Karen would like to change.
“My husband is the head of the household and really I would like to see my kids to see him in that belief,” she says. She is hoping her husband will be moved by the play—and the stirring sermon of Pastor Ted Haggard—moved enough to start attending New Life Church.
The message of New Life Church also resonates with Brandon Bernadoni, a 22-year-old U.S. Air Force Academy cadet. Although he was a varsity athlete, a self-described party animal, and popular with girls, Brandon says he only found true fulfillment in his new faith.
“It’s incredible to know and wake up and feel the light of day just come through the curtains in the morning, and just to feel the presence of God as I walk to class,’ says Bernadoni. “To feel that I have meaning and purpose, and to know for a fact why I’m here.”
A community of 70 million
Bernadoni is one of about 70 million Evangelical Christians in America. Evangelical Christians believe the Bible is the word of God, that salvation comes through personal relationships with Jesus, and that Christians should spread the Gospel. While attendance at traditional churches has been declining for decades, the evangelical movement is growing, and it is changing the way America worships.
The New Life Church is one of the phenomenally popular and successful mega-churches in America, with a membership of 11,000. They can seat 8,000 here in what they call the “living room.” They don’t have pews or stained glass, but this is the new wave in the evangelical movement.
On a typical Sunday, tens of thousands of worshippers attend services at a sports arena at Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, at TD Jake’s Potter’s House in nearby Dallas, and at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. The number of mega-churches in the U.S. has tripled in the last decade.
At New Life, when the parishioners are through worshipping, they can come out to the coffee bar, the child care center, to the book store, or to the prayer center nearby. This is a community in every sense of the word.
Evangelicals have created their own highly profitable pop universe, including Christian rock, video games, and books such as Rick Warren’s phenomenal world wide best-seller “The Purpose Driven Life.” And the New Life Church embraces that culture, opening its services with an hour of Christian rock-gospel.
Ted Haggard, New Life's pastor, is a 49-year-old graduate of Oral Roberts University. New Life Church is a non-denominational, with an emphasis on the Holy Spirit, exuberant prayer style, and a belief in angels and demons.
After the music, Haggard takes the stage for a Bible based lesson in how to be a good Christian.
Tom Brokaw: A traditional Catholic who comes here or an Episcopalian may walk in and walk out and say, “that’s more a concert and pep rally.”
Ted Haggard, New Life pastor: That’s right. Actually, it really is a rally atmosphere. But we teach the scriptures. We have a worship, which are the fundamentals of Christian worship for the last 2,000 years. But I like the lights. I like the fun. I like it fast moving.
When I stand up and teach I try to make the Biblical principles real. So that it applies to how they relate to their husbands and wives and bosses and co-workers that week. I remember, as a little boy, my dad leaning down and saying into cute little Teddy Haggard's face; if you get into trouble at school, you're into twice as much trouble at home.
Brokaw: Most of the churches that I know of, and certainly the ones I attended, at some point, you out loud acknowledge that you were a sinner or that you came face-to-face to guilt that you may feel.
Brokaw: I didn’t see any of that here.
Haggard: Well, we do talk about sin. But, see, the issue is Jesus took care of our sin. And Jesus removes guilt from our life. So the emphasis in our church isn’t how to get your sins removed because that’s pretty easy to do. Jesus did that on the cross. He emphasis in our church is how to fulfill the destiny that God’s called you to.
Brokaw: You’re making it easier for them.
Haggard: Making it easier for them just like Jesus did, just like Moses did.
Ted Haggard believes that America is entering a new period of religious intensity that will alter both souls and society.
Brokaw: What’s the biggest misconception in the media, in the country about the phenomenal rise really of the Evangelical movement in America?
Haggard: It’s not political. It is authentically a spiritual renewal. And people are responding to the goodness of the scripture and the goodness of god’s love, the assurance of eternal life. And so it’s a spiritual renewal that’s taking place and leading to the growth of churches that has political ramifications.
Brokaw: What are the political ramifications?
Haggard: Well, once people make a decision that God created them, then all of a sudden they value life. And they have a higher moral standard.
And as the Easter season turns to summer, a decision by the president becomes a focus of the Evangelicals for spreading their values through the federal judiciary.
Spreading the word
A core belief among Evangelicals is that they must spread the word and bring new believers to their ranks. The people we met at New Life Church on the night of the Easter play tried to do just that in the coming months.
U.S. Air Force Academy cadet Brandon Bernadoni attends a prayer group on campus, and then spends his Friday nights at New Life’s church services aimed at 20-somethings — complete with a DJ, a live band, and smoke machines. It’s a complete transformation from his former hard partying ways, a change he credits to a former classmate and football buddy.
Brandon Bernardoni: The decision for me to come to this church was based on one of my friends from the academy. He was reading some scriptures to me. And he was just kind of opening my eyes.
Tom Brokaw: Did you have a moment where you felt like you were born again in effect?
Bernardoni: Actually, the moment was that night. And we went pretty late into the night. The next day when I woke up, all of a sudden I wasn’t bitter at the world anymore. All of a sudden I felt like I had purpose. All of a sudden I knew exactly why I’m on this earth. Scripture, truth and life sunk into my heart.
Brokaw: Did some of the cadets say to each other, “Hey, did you hear about old Brandon? He found God. Can you believe that?”
Bernardoni: Lots of ‘em say that, actually. To tell you the truth, it did hurt. It hurt me quite a bit at the beginning.
But some of Brandon’s friends are intrigued by the new direction in his life, especially his roommate, Paul Hollrith.
Paul Hollrith: He’sjust going down a different path. And that’s what kind of appealing to me, is that it might be overall it might be better than where I am right now.
Brandon often discusses his new found faith with his friend, and he hopes with all his heart that Paul will experience a similar conversion to his own.
Bernardoni: If he never feels a personal relationship with Jesus, I think he’ll be just kind of missing out on some of the paradise that is to be seen. And I will kind of be torn apart inside a little bit.
Brandon brought his friend to see the Easter play and the story of Jesus’ suffering and resurrection had a real effect on Paul.
Hollrith: The real question for me is where to go next, because I know that I want to learn and know more.
Leon Lowman also had high hopes for the play’s power of persuasion. “We’re hoping that people will actually decide to become a Christian and that would be the ultimate outcome,” says Lowman.
Pastor Ted Haggard encourages New Life members to write down on a prayer card the people whose lives they hope to change.
The Lowmans have won several members of their immediate family over to their beliefs and they hope that Venezia’s older brother, Rudy,who works in the computer industry, will be next.
Like Brandon, Leon’s motivation stems from the depths of his own belief. He wants his brother-in-law to know the certainty that he finds in religion.
Leon Lowman: I try to share this with my brother-in-law, Rudy. I was alone. I was by myself. And just crying out to God. You know, “Lord help me. Give me some direction; some guidance.” And it was just revealed to me inside my heart and inside my mind. You know, the Bible is true, and it was so real. And so there for me that I just wish everybody could experience God like that.
A paycut for faith
The Lowmans’ place their faith at the center of their lives. Leon took a 50 percent paycut when he left his corporate job to work at the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family where he runs a program that offers faith-based guidance to young families.
Venezia Lowman: The financial side of it was very hard, but the other benefits that came out of it have been a huge blessing for us.
Leon Lowman: What it’s turned out to be is an increase in every aspect of our lives in terms of personal relationships, family relationships. Being able to participate with the events at the kids schools. All those things have been a big increase for us.
Venezia Lowman: We had to explain to our kids sometimes we can’t do what everybody else can do because we just can’t afford to go do that. But God is opening up other doors, and giving us other ideas of what to do to try to help our situation. And we’re not in a terrible situation. It’s just different than how it was in corporate America.
Leon and Venezia started a small spa business on the side, but it’s not working out exactly as they had hoped.
Venezia runs the spa with the help of her mother but the family still is financially stressed by their risk… and they are not sure they can stick with it.
Brokaw: The two of you invested so much of your life in this movement. And I know that it’s not been without financial sacrifice. What happens if you hit that intersection, would you have to make some choices? Which way do you go?
Venezia Lowman: Well, what we’ve done is that we’ve stayed on the course where we pray, and we ask God to put us into his will. And we do what he wants us to do.
Meanwhile the Monroe family, who first came to New Life Church to see the Easter play, now is attending a church together for the first time ever.
Tom Monroe: I walked in here sweating bullets. I didn’t know what to expect. But it was good. I really enjoyed it.
While Karen already considers herself deeply religious, Tom is more skeptical— a spiritual seeker.
Tom Monroe: You know, I try and live my life as well as I can. I think I’m a good person. Do I sit there and pray on a regular basis? Probably not. But do I look for something else? I do.
Tom was raised a Baptist, and Karen a Catholic, but like many Americans they aren’t that concerned with religious affiliation. More than a third of modern churchgoers now go to a different kind of church from their parents — that’s up from just 4 percent in 1955.
Karen Monroe: I think as long as the belief is there in Jesus Christ and they are teaching the Bible. I’m not as concerned about it being Catholic.
The Monroes especially like the fact that New Life offers many activities for their children, 9-year-old Teresa and 5-year-old Josh. And Karen loves the fervor of the young people she sees worshipping at Church.
Karen Monroe: You sit and watch those teenagers down there jumping up and down and worshiping God. I think that is so phenomenal.
Although the church uses modern technology, the text of Pastor Ted Haggard’s sermons recall a simpler easier time in America. Tom Monroe feels they relate to his daily life. Tom also enjoys the close study of the Bible at New Life.
Tom Monroe: It’s very easy just to go in and read the scripture and interpret the Bible. I like that aspect of it. This past year has been very tough. And I’ve struggled with it. Just trying, you know, questioning myself is there more to it. Is there more to this life than what i’m looking for—can God help? Probably. Can I find some solace in, you know, the Bible? I probably could.
But as the family becomes more involved in the church, Tom will find himself struggling with some of his doubts... including what the message means for the larger society.
Evangelical Christianity is about more than saving souls. For many, it's also about changing society here and now. How much effect are conservative Christians having on the political landscape?
Mixing politics and religion isn’t new in America. Democrats have long relied on black churches to rally the faithful.
President George W. Bush came of age politically and spiritually as conservative Christian groups such as Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition were forging powerful new combinations in national politics. Evangelical voters have been central to the president’s success.
Karen Monroe: I thought it was wonderful when President Bush openly came out and expressed his beliefs.
Tom Brokaw: Is that a big part of the reason that you were drawn to him?
Karen Monroe: Yes, absolutely. As much as I stay out of politics—I don’t read the paper, I really don’t watch the news since I don’t have time. The kids come first.— And that still was important. Because at least I knew that he is going to preach the word of God. And he’s going to make sure they don’t strike God’s name out of “In God we trust.”
President Bush stays in close touch with the new generation of Evangelical leaders —and they move easily between the church and the political pulpit.
Phone calls from the White House
In addition to his duties as a local pastor, Ted Haggard is also the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, representing 45,000 churches. Haggard is vigilant about the image of Evangelicals; prior to one of our visits he sent an e-mail to his congregation, urging them to be restrained and not to act too “weird” in front of our cameras.
Along with other religious conservative leaders, Haggard belongs to an association called the Arlington Group, the members push for common goals such as banning gay marriage and restricting abortion.
Brokaw: Let me read you what Senator John Danforth, an ordained Episcopal priest, a Republican says, “Many conservative Christians approach politics with a certainty that they know God’s mind and they can advance God’s will through government.” Is he talking about you?
Ted Haggard: Well, I think all of us have a responsibility to advance God’s will through government. But we are in a pluralistic society. We’re not talking about theocracy. We’re not talking about some group of religious leaders dictating to the government how to write law. I’m not a power broker. I don’t call presidents. I don’t harangue the White House.
Brokaw: You don’t have to call him. He calls you.
Haggard: I’ll be talking to the White House in another three and a half hours.
Brokaw: About what today?
Haggard: I don’t know the subject today. We have a regularly scheduled conference call.
Brokaw: They reach out to you?
Christianity plays an increasingly visible role in Washington. The outspoken Republican Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who speaks often and openly of his strict Catholic faith, is a rising star in his party. The newly-elected Republican Senator from Oklahoma Tom Coburn advocated the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions. And conservative Catholics joined with conservative Evangelicals this spring when Congress took the extraordinary step of intervening in the fight over the death of Terri Schiavo.
“I think the country is more comfortable talking about their beliefs and how it impacts them and the system and in their attitudes and actions on a daily basis,” says Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). "You have a very faith-oriented nation."
And Evangelical Christians are expanding their agenda. This spring, the National Association of Evangelicals put together a much broader manifesto and some of the movement’s best known leaders signed it. It included economic justice and the environment.
Haggard: Bible-believing Christians need to be concerned about the environment.
Brokaw: But you also say that concern should be pro-business and free market. Where in cleaning up the air or cleaning up the water in America, did business lead the way without government mandates?
Haggard: Well, I’m not against government mandates. I think the Republicans are missing it on the area of the environment, and I think if the Evangelicals nationwide would communicate that, the Republicans would be interested instantly.
Religious leaders have also urged the Bush administration to intervene in Sudan, to protect Christians in China and North Korea, and to combat global poverty. Still domestic social values remain the focus for most Evangelical leaders and their constituents. In a memo to his organization’s board, Haggard listed the NAE’s number one priority as getting rid of what many see as activist judges.
Brokaw: The order of urgency promoting judicial integrity and restraint, protecting traditional marriage and family, affirming a culture of life, fighting for the hearts and minds of the next generation. And then number five is combating poverty and improving the human condition.
Haggard: Uh-huh. (Affirm)
Brokaw: That’s down on the list. A lot of Christians will say that ought to be number one.
Haggard: Well, that’s not a priority list. That’s an urgency list for that day. That particular day, the most important issue was what’s going on with our activist Supreme Court.
Conservative Evangelicals have been enraged about state court rulings on gay marriage. In a church service, Haggard said: "The Supreme Court of Massachusetts think of this, ordering the legislature that they need to do this or that, unheard of, its lawlessness everyone."
Haggard: Our justices have run amuck in some situations. And, so I feel very responsible to do what we can to get people on the bench that believe in the rule of law.
In August, conservative Christians staged a rally, simulcast to hundreds of churches, to show their support for John Roberts, the president’s choice later for Chief Justice of the United States.
But the evangelical community was divided over the nomination of Harriet Miers to the court. Some supported it. But other evangelical leaders questioned her conservative credentials and pressured the president to withdraw her name. At the heart of the battle over the Supreme Court is one of the nation's most divisive issues — abortion.
Brokaw: Is that your primary objective — to overturn Roe v. Wade?
Haggard: It’s not my primary objective. But it is one of them. I do believe we have a responsibility as Christians, as Evangelical Christians, to protect the poor and the needy, those who can’t defend themselves, those who can’t protect themselves.
Fighting same-sex marriage
Rod Parsley, an Ohio minister and televangelist, was a guest preacher at New Life this past spring.
Last November, Parsley canvassed the swing state of Ohio, urging Christians to register to vote and to support the state’s amendment banning same-sex marriage. The initiative passed.
While Evangelical voters are only one of many politically active interest groups in the country, they are unified, they’re increasingly well-educated and affluent, and energized by their recent victories.
That makes them a powerful force in electoral politics. In 2004, 3.5 million more evangelical voters turned up at the polls than in 2000 - and they voted overwhelmingly for President Bush.
Rod Parsley, Ohio minister and televangelist: That’s what I told folks when they walked into the booth in Ohio to cast their vote and as I traveled across the country even here in Colorado -- I told folks, “When you go in that voting booth and you pull back that curtain, remember God’s still watching.”
Parsley says he is not committed to any one party or politician, but his sermons are strongly pro-life, pro-traditional marriage, and pro-Christian.
Among the sentences in his sermons include, “I will also raise my voice watch me against the agenda of America’s tortured and angry homosexuals” and “I will raise my voice against the murder of the old and the unborn alike.”
Imposing their beliefs?
Some Americans say conservative Christians are trying to impose their beliefs on the country. But devout Christians say mainstream culture is hostile and disrespectful to their values.
Parsley: You have to understand that we’re not on the attack. We’re not on the offensive. It was the Supreme Court in Massachusetts that suddenly found same-sex marriage in the constitution. It’s a federal judge that moves to the forefront after the people say stop partial birth abortion. We’re not in essence picking these fights, but we’re ready to fight them when they are waged.
Among those in the audience for Rod Parsley was the Lowman family.
Brokaw: When you come to vote, and think about the people that you would like to have represent you, how important is it, to you, that they share your faith, and share your views on the matters that are important to this church, for example?
Venezia Lowman: Well, it’s very important to me. I don’t vote based off someone’s political party. I vote based off of what their views are if they align with my views.
Brokaw: And your Christian views?
Venezia Lowman: My Christian views primarily.
Brokaw: Are central to that?
Leon Lowman: Definitely.
Venezia Lowman: Definitely that is what it’s based off—my Christian views, yes.
The Lowmans also support the campaign against what they see as liberal judges.
Brokaw: Do you think judges should meet the test of the Evangelical movement?
Leon Lowman: I think the Evangelical movement has a right to voice their opinion on what kind of judges they would like to have represent the people.
Brokaw: Where do you think the civil rights movement would have been without activist judges?
Leon Lowman: I think that the civil rights movement would not have gotten off the ground without Christians. Christians and Christian belief, are the ones that ended slavery. Are the ones that actually pushed through civil rights. And so I would not want to pull Christianity out of the public discourse ever.
Bringing faith into politics?
All of the emphasis on judges has made Air Force cadet and fellow New Life church member Brandon Bernadoni think about the issue of politics and values much more than he ever has before.
Brandon Bernadoni: I never thought this before. Before I couldn’t care two licks about it. As I read more and more, I want to learn more. And then I want to get more involved and make sure that we stay true to the things that were written on that original document, the constitution. You know, our Bill of Rights.
Pastor Ted Haggard believes that bringing faith to bear on politics is simply democracy at work.
Haggard: We should not be discouraged because of lively debate. And we should not be discouraged or fearful with religious infusion of ideas into that debate. Because that’s the way it should work so that we overall come out with the best idea.
Brokaw: With all due respect, Pastor Ted, people will say that the mega-churches, the charismatic leaders that they have like pastor Ted and others—and their strong involvement in American politics—have put an overlay of religious orthodoxy on American politics. Because they only support those candidates who meet all of their tests, which are very often quite narrow.
Haggard: Yes, and that would be a problem if we were a unified group. Evangelicals don’t have a pope. Evangelicals don’t have a Vatican. Evangelicals are as diverse as the general population of America. There’s no reason to be fearful of the religious community here. There is no government-ordained state church in America. So let the debate continue. It’s that debate that protects all of our freedoms.
At the moment it’s a debate the Evangelicals are winning in the political arena.
From battling sexuality in the media, to challenging the scientific notion of evolution, to fighting to display the Ten Commandments in government buildings— religious conservatives are front and center in what they see as an ongoing war over the culture of America.
But to many of their critics, the Evangelical agenda has the appearance of a single-minded, intolerant crusade.
Controversy at the U.S. Air Force Academy
In Colorado Springs, proselytizing by evangelical Christians at the U.S. Air Force Academy has become a flashpoint.
Mikey Weinstein, U.S. Air Force Academy graduate: Other than my family which is assembled here today, I love nothing more than our country, the military and in particular the military academies. And that’s why this is so extremely, wretchedly painful right now.
Weinstein is an academy graduate, and an attorney who formerly served in the Reagan White House. His sons Casey and Curtis are the third generation in his family to attend a military academy. But now he has gone from a passionate supporter of the academy to being one of its most vocal critics.
Mikey Weinstein: How hard is this? It’s the separation of church and state. This is not Notre Dame, this is not Abilene Christian University or Bob Jones University or Liberty University. It’s the United States Air Force Academy. What is going on?
The Weinstein family is Jewish, and Mikey is outraged by what he sees as an aggressive evangelical Christian culture at a government institution.
Mikey Weinstein: "Unless you accept Jesus you are going to burn eternally in hell"— which both my kids told me they’ve been told numerous times.
Casey and Curtis say they were troubled by the persistent evangelizing of their peers.
Casey Weinstein: Especially in uniform. Don’t corner me and talk to me and tell me what I believe is wrong and what you believe is right and you want to teach me the right way.
The Weinstein brothers also say that as Jewish cadets, they found it difficult to practice their religion or even get basic respect from some of the other cadets.
Curtis Weinstein: They’re like, “How do you feel about killing Jesus?” or something like that and I’ll take them aside and be like, “You know what, I didn’t personally kill Jesus, right?”
And Casey was also bothered last spring, by cadets who blanketed the campus with fliers promoting Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ.”
Casey Weinstein: All 4,000 of the cadet wing eat lunch together at the same time. For at least three days in a row, we had fliers for “The Passion of the Christ” sitting on the table and at every single place setting.
The fliers were removed, but Casey was not alone in his concerns about the atmosphere on campus. A team from the Yale Divinity School observed what it called “stridently evangelical themes” at a service for new cadets.
Mikey Weinstein worries about the ripple effects of the controversy.
Mikey Weinstein: I got a wonderful e-mail from one of my classmates who's a general in Iraq. He said, "Mikey, we cannot dare lose religious neutrality. If we lose religious neutrality at the Air Force Academy, then in the military, all we're doing is giving an undeserved shot in the arm to the people we're fighting here. All the terrorists that are out there, they view this as a crusade.
In June, a report from an Air Force task force concluded that the problems at the academy were not pervasive, but that a “perception of religious intolerance” did exist.
And in August, the Air Force released new guidelines on religion that call for:
- accomodation for all denominations,
- a limit on public prayer and
- avoiding the “perception... that the Air Force supports any one religion over other religions."
But Mikey Weinstein recently filed a lawsuit demanding that members of the Air Force, while on duty, be banned from pressuring fellow members to change their religious beliefs. The Department of Justice is reviewing the suit.
God’s political party?
Jim Wallis, evangelical minister: Religion shouldn’t be a wedge to divide us or a weapon to destroy us. But it should be a bridge to bring us together on the big things.
Jim Wallis is an evangelical minister and the author of a book called “God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.”
Wallis: God is not a Republican or a Democrat. To put God in the pocket of any party is bad theology. It’s bad religion. It’s politicizing faith.
Brokaw: But there are those who would say in response to that we have a right to have in the natural fabric of our lives our fundamental beliefs when it comes to morality or the sanctity of life.
Wallis: I agree with that. And I’m a person of faith. I want to bring my faith to politics. But God is not in the pocket of one party or in the pocket of one nation.
Wallis criticizes conservative Christians for focusing too narrowly on social issues, saying Christians must work much harder to apply their faith to a broader range of issues.
Wallis: The sanctity of life is important to me too, but I want a consistent ethic of life where abortion isn’t the only issue but capital punishment — poverty is, HIV/AIDS are, nuclear weapons are— a whole range of things that threaten human life.
And Wallis also faults the current administration for marrying religion to foreign policy.
Wallis: To say, “They’re evil and we are good,” is bad theology. “God bless America” is not found anywhere in my Bible.
At New Life Church, Pastor Ted Haggard denies that he has any interest in imposing his views on others.
Haggard: We are in the business of trying to spread the love of God and help people live a good life. And we want the freedom to be advocates. Let people argue their best point. Let people try to persuade others.
But the strong and unapologetic message from Haggard and others at New Life is that democracy and Christianity do go hand-in-hand.
Haggard: There’s the theological basis for freely elected government. There’s a theological basis for the rule of law. There’s a theologial basis for many of the ideas that we look and we say “Oh that’s one of the tenants of western civilization.” So when we say the “Christianization,” we don’t mean dipping the infidels in water to try to get them to believe the way we believe. That’s all gone. We haven’t done that for hundreds of years. But instead, we believe there’s an ideology that comes from the scripture that is good for all people.
Is church the right forum?
Newcomer Tom Monroe finds some of the political overtones at New Life Church troubling. Since we met them a few months ago, the Monroes have become regular churchgoers at New Life, they were in attendance one Sunday when the church hosted guest speaker Dnesh Dsouza, a former Ronald Reagan adviser.
Brokaw: Dnesh Dsouza is a well-known, intellectual, and neo-conservative. With a big political agenda.
Tom Monroe: Yes. My first thought when he came up, I thought, “Is this the right forum for this? And then where’s the other view? Where’s the other side?” So it is a one-sided perspective. I was truly taken back. I was shocked. I was looking around going whose going to walk out? Will anybody walk out?
Brokaw: But most of the congregation probably welcomes his presence there, no?
Tom Monroe: The applause afterwards wasn’t as thunderous as i’ve seen in the past.
Tom Monroe says that while he considers himself to be a political conservative, he’s still not sure he wants to talk politics in church.
Tom Monroe: When you go there, you expect to hear, you know, a sermon about the book of the Bible. The word of Christ. And I kinda question, is this the forum? And maybe it is. I don’t know.
Tom’s questions are an important part of the struggle to define what it means be a fervent Christian in America today. But how much successin converting others to their point of view will evangelical Christians have— personally and in the larger political arena?
The obvious success of New Life Church depends not only on the charisma of Pastor Ted Haggard but also on those who have joined the church and become evangelists, spreading the word. It is an essential part of their commitment.
United States Air Force cadet Brandon Bernardoni spent months trying to get his roommate Paul to attend New Life Church, but in the end, Paul renewed his commitment to his Catholic faith.
Paul Hollrith: I would say that it made me like re-think a lot of things. Some minor things are just realizing that I do want to be Catholic. That is my religion—its who I am and I like it.
Brandon says he supports Paul’s decision.
Brandon Bernardoni: To me what’s important is seeking God. And if he’s doing that at a Catholic Church, if he’s doing it in New Life, if he’s doing it at a Protestant Church just down the road. Wherever he’s doing, that’s fine. All I care about is that Paul is seeking God.
Paul and Brandon are aware of the religious controversies at the academy and believe that they’re exaggerated.
Bernardoni:I get excited about coming to church. And i just want people to know my excitement, to know how I feel you know. Sometimes, I think that gets misconstrued into the fact of them thinking that we’re trying to force something that they don’t want at all.
Brandon still sees evangelizing as an essential part of his own beliefs, beliefs that he feels will last far beyond his academy graduation.
Tom Brokaw: What will be more important to you going forward— your military career and your academy training or the transformational experience that you had here?
Bernardoni: Definitely, the transformational experience. Because it’s who I am. It’s the very core essence of my being and that’s how I live my life. And that will never change, regardless of the jobs that I get, regardless of the people that I meet. So that is by far the closest thing to my heart.
As for the Lowmans, they have a dual challenge— to be good Christians, and keep their small business going.
Venezia Lowman: God is faithful. He’s keeping it going, we’ve been open a year. Wwe’re stressed but we’re real blessed in the stress, so it’s I think it’ll work. I think its gonna go it just takes time.
Their other goal is to bring Venezia’s brother Rudy to their church is another struggle. It’s not happened. Rudy says the family get-togethers are much more harmonious when they don’t discuss religion at all.
Rudy: I’m no where near prepared to join the church they belong to and join the belief system that they have. I’m just not heading down that same path at this point in my life. It is frustrating to me because I could be a lot closer to my family if we all believed in the same in the same thing. I think there is some you know we are somewhat distant just because we don’t have the same belief system.
The family will manage to continue to get along, without either side changing their beliefs.
Brokaw: Venezia, what sends you over the top when you read comments about the Evangelical movement?
Venezia Lowman: What makes me angry is when that it’s misrepresented. I’m a Christian, and I love the Lord. And that’s what it’s all about. When it’s misrepresented like we’re fanatics, that is so not true.
Leon Lowman: Hate mongers.
Venezia Lowman: Yeah, we’re hate mongers— that is so not true. I mean and, in my own personal life, I have many friends who are not Christians. I’ve worked with many people who aren’t Christians and that is not at all how an evangelical Christian really is.
Despite Tom’s concerns, the Monroes continue to embrace New Life Church. Tom has started reading the Bible. He even bought one for Karen as a gift.
Tom Monroe: I’m feeling a lot more comfortable everyday that I do it. I think it’s a good foundation for my family.
New Life pastor Ted Haggard sees even more growth for his church— and for his beliefs.
Ted Haggard: In the Christian community, people vote every Sunday morning by where they go to church. All right, so right now, during this particular era in my life—I don’t want to say this boastfully, but I am winning this election right now.
In the meantime, Haggard will continue to consult with the White House and press for a Supreme Court that will outlaw abortion and gay marriage, insisting he’s not interested in a religious take over of the government.
Haggard: There’s no one that’s leading the mega-church movement or involved in the mega-church movement that is in favor of a theocracy. None of us are for that. We’re all defenders of freedom and liberty for all.
Brokaw: Wouldn’t you like to have more members of congress and a senate, however, who adhere to the list of priorities of the NEA?
Haggard: Sure. Absolutely. We would like more representation in the House and in the Senate. We lobby for it. We work for it. We do what we can. And the reason we do that is of course because we believe we’re right. But so do the other groups and that’s why there’s debate in the Congress and debate in the House. So we want to give our best argument. And other people will give the opposite argument. And then somebody else will say, “I think he’s right on that. And I think he’s wrong on that.” That’s the way it should work. It’s a wonderful country.
In fact the Evangelicals don’t have some kind of secret formula. They play by the old rules, they organize around their common beliefs, and they’re highly motivated to advance those beliefs in their communities and at the ballot box. If they’re successful, and they gain control of the presidency and the Congress, they won’t need a theocracy.
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints