Interview with William Schultz (Warren Center Visiting Scholar)

This interview was conducted on October 21st, 2020, over Zoom between Dr. Will Schultz and Ethan Goodnight. It was transcribed using, edited once for accuracy, and edited again for brevity by both parties. Copies of the full transcript or original audio recording are available upon request.
Ethan Goodnight  0:08 Hello, Professor Schultz, it's a pleasure to have you today. Your current project forthcoming from UNC Press is entitled, Jesus Springs: How Colorado Springs Became the Capital of the Culture Wars. As we start out, I'd love to hear about what drew you to Colorado Springs. How do you show that it became, as you say, the capital of the culture wars?
Will Schultz  0:42 Ethan, it's a pleasure to be here, thank you so much for doing this. Needless to say, this whole Warren Center experience has been a tremendous privilege, and I'm looking forward to the rest of the year. As to how I got to Colorado Springs, I came into grad school knowing that I would do something with politics, probably something with religion, though I expected it would be Catholicism, not evangelical Protestantism. I wrote a research paper my second year about religion and the space race and various intersections there: the way that astronauts thought about religion, the way theologians thought about space, and the kind of intersections that you see on the ground in and around the Space Center in Houston. And researching that, I came across a intriguing figure named Jim Irwin, who was an Apollo 15 astronaut. And Irwin claimed that while he was walking on the moon as part of the Apollo 15 mission, he had this intense spiritual experience. When he returned to Earth, he formed an organization called High Flight, which was billed as preaching the gospels of Christianity, patriotism, and the Space Race, and he would go around the country spreading this message. And I noticed that High Flight eventually relocated from Houston, where it was founded, to Colorado Springs. And I thought, “Okay, why?” So, it was through a couple months of archival research there that I started to piece together what made Colorado Springs what it was, which is to say, a concentration of evangelical Christian ministries. There were dozens of them there. They range from, you know, little ones that operated out of a basement to gigantic ones, like the media empire Focus on the Family. It was the home of some of America's largest megachurches. It was nicknamed Jesus Springs because of the presence of so many evangelical groups. And my book is in part an attempt to explain why. And a major element of that story is a story about the economy, about economic change. What made Colorado Springs into a modern city was World War II and the Cold War and military spending, which caused a tremendous amount of growth within the city, while leaving a very conservative, moralistic, patriotic atmosphere. When you combine that with the cheap property and the low wages, that was exactly what a lot of Christian ministries were looking for. They liked the cultural environment. But they also liked the economic benefits of moving there. By the 1980s, the city's business community recognized that these ministries are good business, and they start actively recruiting them. And so, by the late 1980s, early 1990s, Colorado Springs had earned its reputation as -- to use another one of its nicknames -- the evangelical Vatican.
Ethan Goodnight  6:24 There's so many rich dimensions here.  I was wondering, would you say that work on the culture wars in the 20th century can sometimes almost erase local specificity, while also reifying spatial distinctions between, for instance, rural and urban? If so, how do you see your focus on Colorado Springs, on a specific locale, impacting this rural/urban dichotomy that seems to really dominate the literature? And more generally, how else does your focus on Colorado Springs try to shift our historical understanding of the culture wars?
Will Schultz  7:38 That's a really good way of putting it. I would define the culture wars as kind of conflicts over social issues like abortion, gay rights, which go on from the 1970s to the present, though their roots go back further. There's a lot of wonderful books like James Hunter's book Culture Wars, which really defined the phenomenon, or recent books by Andrew Hartman and Marie Griffith. They're all wonderful, and I've learned a lot from them. If the literature on the culture war has a shortcoming, it's a tendency to kind of flatten local distinctiveness into a story of urban versus rural, or red state versus blue state, which is another way that we commonly think of things, and to miss the complexities of the local story. And there's a couple things that I tried to add to that. One on the basic level, showing that it's not just an urban, rural divide. There are these cities, often smaller cities, many of them military dependent, which play a really key role in driving cultural conflict, cities that are hubs of both the military and of conservative religiosity, especially religious media institutions, the way Colorado Springs is home to focus on the family. But you can find a lot of other similar communities: Virginia Beach, which is a center for the Navy but is also the home of Pat Robertson's [Christian] Broadcasting Network; San Diego, which again is shaped by the Navy, by aerospace, but is also home to Tim LaHaye's network of evangelical institutions; or Houston, a key place for the space race, for aerospace, and for Billy Graham, and so many other major evangelical ministers. So these small cities are engines of cultural conflict and political polarization. What I've found by looking at Colorado Springs, by focusing closely on local struggles over taxation, sex education, abortion access, and especially gay rights, is that the culture war framing is less an objective description of reality, than a vision put forward by white conservative Christian activists, who are trying to create that reality by making religion synonymous with social conservatism. But that view is contested. And one of the most interesting things I found about Colorado Springs was even in this city, which has a reputation of Jesus Springs, evangelical Vatican, capital of the culture wars, there are lots of forces for liberalism and for moderation. The Chamber of Commerce, which draws evangelical ministries to Colorado Springs in the first place, later turns against evangelical activists, when the city's reputation as Jesus Springs starts to threaten its ability to draw outside capital. Colorado Springs is constantly trying to recruit not just ministries, but also tech companies like IBM and Apple. The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story about Colorado Springs, in which they quoted an IBM engineer as saying that living in Colorado Springs is like living in a loaf of Wonder Bread. And the business community, working with the city's small but vocal progressive community, tried to offer a different vision of Colorado Springs, one more open and cosmopolitan. So looking at urban space, looking at Colorado Springs to think about the culture wars, gets us beyond left versus right, or just focusing on the right as so many books do, and brings attention to those moderating and mediating institutions, which can often smooth over cultural conflict. Which is not to say Colorado Springs is a progressive town. When gay rights is advanced, it's usually done so in terms of making the city more business friendly. But looking at that kind of moderation, I think, is an essential part of understanding what the American culture wars are.
Ethan Goodnight  13:36 Thank you. “Loaf of Wonder Bread” is just a great, great quote.
Will Schultz  13:42 I've got a lot of mileage out of that.
Ethan Goodnight  13:44 I bet! So, building off of this idea of moderation, I'm also curious how evangelicals in these organizations like Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs have responded to this new effort for moderation. And then, it seems to me that focusing on these mediating influences, that is a bold, much needed message in 2020, two weeks before the election. Do you feel like that mediating influence is still present in Colorado Springs today, or has it become more divided around the presidency of Donald Trump?
Will Schultz  15:04 A lot of evangelicals by the late 1990s, in Colorado Springs, were getting frustrated with the image of their city as a mecca of the culture war, because many of the ministries were not involved in American politics. The big ones like Focus on the Family were, but there were lots of missionary organizations, publishing houses, radio stations -- yes, they might have been conservative, but they were not really culture warriors like James Dobson was, and they didn't want their city to be known as this hotbed of cultural conflict. And so they start working with progressive groups, often those affiliated with Colorado College, or with liberal religious denominations in the city. They create something called dialogue dinners, where gay people and evangelical people can sit down over dinner and talk about their differences. In the late 1990s, Colorado Springs elects a moderate and relatively gay-friendly mayor, with the very appropriate name of Mayor Makepeace, Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace, which again, you couldn't have scripted that any better. It's also that James Dobson is eventually kind of eased out at Focus, because he's seen as being too political and too partisan, too much of a Republican operative. And the new guy who comes after him, Jim Daly, is much more conciliatory. So you do have sort of an encouraging message there of people coming together across their differences, finding common ground, but you also have to note that this is not an unalloyed victory for progressives in the culture war. In fact, Colorado Springs is about as conservative now, if not more conservative, than it ever has been. I believe El Paso County voted for Donald Trump by 20 or 30 points in 2016. It won't be as much this time, but I'm sure he will still carry the county.
Ethan Goodnight  21:02 Thank you. So, since we're talking about Donald Trump, talking about El Paso County, and kind of the resolution of particular culture wars, that's a great segue into the theme for the Warren Center this year, which is Religion and Public Life, and into your other, current project, The Wages of Sin: Faith, Fraud, and Religious Freedom in Modern America. Could you talk a little bit now about this presentation you'll be offering in early November, “Bad Faith: Financial Fraud, Religious Freedom, and the Mighty I AM Movement.” And could you talk about that, or the culture wars, and how you see the work you're doing connecting to this theme of Religion and Public Life?
Will Schultz  21:38 Sure. So the project that I have in the very early stages of development is about fraud and religious freedom in the modern United States. And I envision it as a series of case studies from the 1920s, up to the 1990s. And what I'm going to be presenting two weeks from now at the Warren Center is what I hope to be the first chapter in the book. It's about a movement that is little remembered today, though it still exists, the "Mighty I AM" movement, founded by Guy and Edna Ballard. It was one of the largest of the alternative religious movements that flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, in this very volatile cultural moment. And it drew on older ideas from Theosophy, from Spiritualism, from Rosicrucianism, and various other occult movements. But what the Ballards really brought to it was an incredibly over the top of style. Their promise was that you could gain health and wealth in the here and now by channeling the power of Ascended Masters. Ascended Masters [were] people who had achieved such enlightenment that they escaped from the limits of their physical forms. Jesus was an Ascended Master, but there were others. Saint Germain was the key figure in this cosmology. And thousands of people came to I AM rallies where they shouted commands for health and wealth. Eventually, people started getting a little leery about this movement. The Ballards called upon the Ascended Masters to blast Franklin Roosevelt from the face of the earth, and Eleanor Roosevelt too, and pretty much anyone in that Roosevelt circle. So what ultimately happens and what I talk about in this paper is that the Ballards wind up, or Edna Ballard -- Guy Ballard dies in 1939 -- but Edna Ballard, her son Donald, and the other movement’s leaders wind up on trial for mail fraud. The government essentially argues that this religion is so patently absurd that it could only have been created to fleece people out of their money. The trial consists primarily of the government's attorneys, reading the most seemingly outrageous statements from the I AM texts to make the movement seem absurd. And the idea is that this is not a religion. This is a scam. And that difficulty -- what is a religion, and what is just an attempt to bilk people out of their money -- is the tension that runs through the remainder of the book and is the tension that I try to explore in other chapters. So one of the things that I'm hopeful for with this book is to bring together a variety of religious groups that we don't normally look at together: Catholic priests, evangelical ministers, alternative religious movement leaders, like the Ballards, and think about them all together within this rubric of religious freedom and religious fraud.
Ethan Goodnight  28:28 Religious freedom and religious fraud. This sounds like a book that could be written about 2020 as well.
Will Schultz  28:37 It remains a very real issue. I don't know how closely you follow the Jerry Falwell, Jr. story. Even before his whole Instagram flap, there were lots of investigations showing that there were some very shady financial dealings going on at Liberty, with Falwell funneling huge amounts of money to his friends, often in the form of real estate development, which is a really important part of this story. But yeah, it is a very 2020 story.
Ethan Goodnight  29:22 So as you are in the midst of developing this project, I am curious how much the current climate around evangelical support for Trump is influencing your thinking as you're trying to write a more expansive book about Catholics, evangelicals, and alternative religions? And also, what are your hopes for engaging with this Warren Center community, especially since the project is in such early stages?
Will Schultz  30:05 The challenge for me, what I need to think about, is how much is this a story of evangelicalism and how much goes beyond evangelical Protestantism? Because I think if you ask people about religion and financial fraud, nine times out of ten, they're going to come up with something related to evangelical Protestantism. Probably like, if they're old enough to remember, Jim Bakker and the televangelists of the 1980s. So, I want to try to figure out how evangelicalism gets this reputation without being entirely a book about evangelicalism. I'm not a prosecuting attorney, but I don't want to let non-evangelical religions off the hook, so to speak, because the Catholic Church, mainline Protestantism, Judaism, various smaller religions within the United States, Islam, and Hinduism, have all had similar issues. We always talk about the religious free market in the United States, like, “oh, the US does not have an established church, so that allows all kinds of churches to flourish.” There's a whole literature claiming that that's why America is so religious, because we don't have an established church. But the flip side is that there are these tremendous anxieties about frauds within the religious free market. What do you do with them? How do you draw the line? Do you try to self-regulate the way evangelicals have done with the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability? Or do you perhaps try to call upon the government, the Internal Revenue Service, and trust in them to determine what is or is not religious? And because my interest is in American religion writ large, that's why I'm really excited about this Warren Center year. There are people whose work is very close to mine. Dan Vaca and Kristen Beales both deal very directly with questions of religion in the marketplace. But everyone touches on some aspect of this. And ultimately, I'd say you don't have to be an American exceptionalist to note that the United States really does stand out in some ways for its religiosity. And that has long been the case. Why is that? What are the causes of that? What are the consequences of that? That's why I thought [David] Hollinger's book project is so interesting, because it was an attempt to kind of bring together a unified theory of this. I'm only exploring a small facet of it, as I know everyone here is exploring different facets of it, but I think we're all kind of reaching toward an answer to that same question. Even those like Emily Conroy-Krutz, who look at Americans abroad, that's still a question about American religion. So I've enjoyed the heck out of the presentations so far, and I'm really looking forward to the ones in the future.
Ethan Goodnight  35:34 I'm looking forward to your presentation in a couple of weeks, I believe the day after election day.
Will Schultz  35:40 Yeah, that'll be interesting. I'm going to have to write two different sets of opening jokes [laugh], or, and again, it's like, I have a prediction of what is going to happen, but I also had a prediction in 2016, and I didn't turn out right there. So I'm sure a lot of people will have other things on their minds, but I'm sure we will also still be able to have a good conversation about the 1920s and perhaps their relevance to the 2020s.