God's Own Party

For two decades Al Meiklejohn was Mr. Republican in Arvada. His state Senate seat was safe, and Republicans themselves were safe picks for voters looking to speed up business and slow down social change. Meiklejohn is one of those Republicans who ally themselves with chambers of commerce. They used to be called conservatives.

But no Republican is safe anymore, now that the armies of the right have established a beachhead in metro Denver, with a big local church lighting their way. The religious right, through the kind of hard work that even its opponents respect, has seized control of the GOP not only in Colorado Springs, where a top executive of the Focus on the Family religious-broadcasting empire is vice-chair of the county GOP, but also in Jefferson County, the most populous county in the state. Old-line Republicans now derisively refer to their growing city of 100,000 in the northern part of Jeffco as "Arvada Springs." Meiklejohn, who retired from the legislature in 1996--just in time--doesn't even recognize the names of his party's committeemen and committeewomen in his own district.

Waves of evangelical Christians, many of them members of big, non-denominational churches, now do the dirty work of local political organizing. And they've done it well. They control all three legislative seats from Arvada. And Meiklejohn predicts a "sea change" in favor of the religious right in the next legislature, when term limits will drive out a third of the current lawmakers.

"This is a golden opportunity to take over the government," he says. "These people have a view that churches ought to run the government. My view is that churches should flourish and prosper while the government remains neutral. But these people want to impose their views on us by governmental force."

That used to be the warning Republicans issued regarding the left. But now the threat comes from within the party.

"They're held together by some very emotional issues: abortion and state aid to private schools," Meiklejohn says. "Moderate Republicans are, by definition, moderate. They aren't driven emotionally. They are not activists. These citizens who are part of the religious right want to change the world."

Diane Dillingham, president-elect of Colorado Republicans for Choice, writes off Jeffco as already being in the camp of the religious right. Arapahoe County is on the verge, she says. And the Democrats have prospered as a result, she notes: State senators Mike Feeley, Stan Matsunaka and Ed Perlmutter all got their seats by beating religious-right candidates in districts that could have easily gone Republican.

"A lot of moderate Republicans are biding their time," Dillingham says, "waiting to pick up the pieces" after religious-right lawmakers embarrass themselves out of office. And in the meantime, she adds, the party "is right-winging itself into irrelevance."

Pat Miller has a message for moderates such as Dillingham and Meiklejohn: "Quit your whining."

Miller is the political boss of the new GOP in Arvada (her husband is her lieutenant). Like first-term lawmaker Barry Arrington, Miller attends Faith Bible Chapel, the most prominent of the evangelical churches in that area. Less visible is George Morrison, the head pastor at FBC. But he's no less powerful, though he keeps out of overt politicking. The three--Miller, Arrington and Morrison--share strong beliefs about abortion, the issue that is tearing the GOP apart, and they're working hard to fight it. Each feels driven by faith to push a social agenda. It's a supernatural force that, for now, old-line Republicans are powerless to fight.

There's no doubt that 35-year-old Barry Arrington is combative. Coming from what he describes as modest circumstances, he worked his way through law school at the University of Texas, acquired a black belt in the martial arts and developed a reputation for throwing his views right in your face. In the early Nineties he splashed his name on billboards advertising his services to women "injured" by abortion. He helped found the Rocky Mountain Family Council, a political arm of Focus on the Family. While crusading against pornography in the unsuccessful campaign for pro-censorship Amendment 16 in 1994, he denied being a censor but sounded like this century's version of Anthony Comstock: "A woman having oral sex with a dog and persons inserting small rodents into the rectum--don't tell me that's in the same category as Catcher in the Rye." Well-spoken and full of righteous indignation about the state of the world, he utters opinions with the confidence of someone who just knows the truth.

Arrington's zeal strikes his critics as smug self-righteousness, but it's intoxicating to many other evangelical Christians.

Sometimes the pot he stirs bubbles over and he gets burned. One such incident during a bruising 1994 Senate campaign against Perlmutter, he says, is "etched upon" his mind. Arrington's frenzied supporters approached Perlmutter and his family and called him "Perl-murderer" for supporting abortion. Arrington got the blame for the uncouth maneuver, which was widely publicized. His first bid for public office was, in effect, finished.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ward Harkavy
Contact: Ward Harkavy