COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Like many seeking divine guidance, Ted Haggard felt the tug of destiny, climbed a mountain and waited for a revelation.
It was 1984, and the young pastor from Indiana was fasting and praying atop Pikes Peak, looking down at Colorado Springs 14,000 feet below.
On the third day something happened.
"I saw in my mind stadiums full of people," he recalled. "I saw thousands of people going into the world as missionaries."
Certain he'd found his calling, Haggard descended the mountain and began traveling around the city praying at open fields and vacant lots, hoping they'd sprout churches.
As years passed, the trickle of evangelical groups moving to the city became a flood. They included everything from Focus on the Family to the Fellowship of Christian Cowboys, which runs camps billed as a "unique blend of biblical teaching and rodeo instruction," to Hoops of Hope, a ministry combining religion with fancy basketball handling.
"I think God had a plan for this city," said Haggard, 47, who founded the New Life Church here in 1985 and also heads the 30-million-member National Association of Evangelicals. "For years it was Wheaton, Ill., then Tulsa, Okla., and now it is Colorado Springs' time."
Founded in 1874 as a showcase for religion, education and clean living, this city of nearly 400,000 has evolved from a sleepy, insular community to a vigorous, influential bastion of the Christian right.
A combination of five military bases, 110 evangelical organizations and domination by the Republican Party has made it a kind of draw for religious conservatives and an epicenter of the cultural wars raging throughout the country today. And with a close presidential election in the offing, Colorado Springs could play an outsized role in the selection of the nation's next leader.
The most influential group is clearly Focus on the Family. Focus, which popularized the term "family values," sits on a sprawling 81-acre campus and employs 1,300 people. It's so big, it has its own exit sign on the freeway, its own ZIP code and a full-time postal worker to handle the 4 million pieces of mail sent out each month.
"We never planned on being the 800-pound gorilla in town," said Focus Vice President Paul Hetrick. "But that's how it turned out."
As its name says, the agenda is the family and defending against what Focus sees as threats against the family. Over the years, it has opposed any effort to incorporate homosexuality into mainstream American life. It campaigns against abortion, promotes abstinence education and recently launched an all-out attack on the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Lawmakers seek its opinions before making policy, and Focus experts are consulted by journalists and academics looking to understand what religious conservatives are thinking.
But the deep strain of faith and conservatism in Colorado Springs goes beyond those wielding national influence.
This is a place where uniformed soldiers stroll downtown and B-52 bombers soar overhead. It's a city of megachurches and Christian radio stations, a place where 30,000 people turn out for a passion play and religious conservatives intervene in local politics.
In the early 1980s, there were only a handful of Christian groups in town. The city was reeling from the savings and loan crisis, and 300 to 400 homes and buildings were foreclosed on each week.
Desperate to escape its economic slump, Colorado Springs lured businesses and nonprofits, especially Christian organizations, to the town with promises of cheap land, low crime and an array of outdoor recreation.
Haggard's nondenominational New Life Church grew from 20 members to a staggering 11,000, making it one of the largest in the nation.
"Liberal Christianity is a failed ideology, which is why many mainline churches can't energize people," he said. "We are branded as intolerant, and some of us are, but I see Colorado Springs as place where democracy is at its finest. A healthy debate of big ideas is not hate. A healthy debate of big ideas is what we are supposed to be about."
Over the last few months, Haggard has done just that, serving as point man on news programs around the country defending Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" against charges of anti-Semitism. Gibson previewed the film here before releasing it to the general public.
Christian groups here are regularly courted by Republican political candidates eager to win the support of their highly organized and disciplined constituents. Haggard and James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, say they get at least one phone call a week from the Bush White House seeking their views on issues of the day.
During a recent interview, Haggard received a call from a White House official asking what Christians were saying about same-sex marriage. "When you have 30 million members, politicians want to know what they are thinking," Haggard said.
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