Colorado garnered the spotlight in both of the last two national election cycles as an important swing state. It attracted a who's who of American politicians from both major parties: Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, George Bush, and the list goes on. Without a doubt, the state has gained a reputation as being "up for grabs." Almost anyone of any political persuasion can draw a crowd and find a following in Colorado.
For some of the same reasons, Colorado also seems to be shaping up as a popular target for religious ideologues. Last month, Rob Bell, a Michigan-based megachurch pastor turned best-selling author, committed almost an entire week of tour stops to Colorado promoting his book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. The book offers a controversial reassessment of the Christian notion of hell.
Bell isn't your typical silver-tongued evangelist. In fact, upon first impression, he probably looks and talks more like someone who would be teaching you how to use GarageBand at the Apple Genius Bar. Don't be fooled by his geeky veneer. Bell's ideas are generating buzz on par with any political candidate.
Love Wins debuted at #2 on the New York Times bestseller list less than two weeks after its March 15 release and has remained on the list continuously since. It has incited both criticism and praise in the Christian community. Bell summed up the thesis of his book this way:
A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It's been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and that to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus' message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.
One-third (three of nine) of Bell's official book tour stops promoting Love Wins in the United States have been in Colorado. Last month, his speaking tour brought Ikea-like lines to four Front Range speaking engagements even without the enticing lure of Swedish meatballs.
Students and visitors had to be turned away at the door an hour before he spoke informally at Denver Seminary -- a historically conservative Evangelical Christian institution in Littleton, CO -- on April 8 in order to comply with fire code restrictions.
The engagement wasn't part of his official tour, but indicative of the type of reception Bell received at all his Colorado stops. Longtime professors at the school said that it was the most well-attended event in recent memory. Denver Seminary even hosted a follow-up forum on May 3 to debate his ideas.
Bell's disproportionate focus on Colorado might seem out of place to some. Colorado graded out as one of the most irreligious states in the union in terms of regular attendance in a 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. Its religious apathy was bested only by a handful of states in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest. Not surprisingly, the most religious areas were Utah and the Deep South.
The only explanation for the Bell phenomenon in Colorado seems to be opportunity. Due to its lack of religious zeal and uniformity, Colorado may be the closest thing to a religious frontier that still exists in America. Historically, Colorado seems to be a place that has been more keen on diversion than dogma in part because of its unique landscape.
Coloradans, on the whole, are probably more likely to impose their dog's droppings on their neighbor than their religious beliefs.
Bell's visit could be an indicator that Colorado's traditionally laissez-faire approach to religion may be a pheromone attracting spiritual leaders seeking nationwide traction.
Get used to names like Rob Bell and get used to Colorado as religious battleground state. If you aren't religious, beware. Unlike politics, religion isn't bound by an election cycle.