In 1989, U.S. Marine Leo Brunnick was in the jungle, training a group of Thai Royal Marines. He gestured to the top of a hill and told the Thais to run up there. It was the best position — easy to defend and difficult to invade — and a simple military strategy.
Except it wasn't: The Thai soldiers refused to go up the hill with ammunition and guns because it was a sacred site. And sacred wasn't something you messed with in a country where, on Bangkok's sleek, elevated transit system, signs ask passengers to offer their seats to the pregnant, to the elderly and to monks.
When Brunnick least expected it, religion popped up.
In the Middle East during the first Gulf War, he heard American soldiers say that they didn't like Muslims because Saddam Hussein was one. "But aren't the Kuwaitis Muslims?" Brunnick asked.
"They're a different Muslim. They're independent," the GIs responded.
"What do you mean different? What kind of different?" The antagonism against Islam just didn't add up. "I was the one asking 'What's going on here?' and caring about it," Brunnick remembers.
During his four and a half years of globetrotting with the Marines, Brunnick's fascination with religion grew. He read the major holy books, everything from the Koran to Scientology's The Way to Happiness to "secondary texts on Christian mysticism," as he calls them. "I loved it. I was fascinated by it all."
After getting out of the Marines in 1991, Brunnick got into the tech business. At one point he was working with Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu engineers in Hyderabad, India, on a project. The engineers spoke the same language, and all got along until one brought up his daughter's upcoming marriage; the ensuing discussion opened up so many black holes about marriage and gender issues that they decided to stay away from any more talk about religion.
"There are a lot of people who would like to believe that here we are in the 2010s — modern world, Internet, yadda yadda — and can we just get past all this ancient religion muck," Brunnick says. "But the world is so influenced by its religious traditions that we must have a better understanding of what they are and how they drive how people think and act."
To help foster that understanding, he ultimately started Patheos.com, combining the Greek word for God, "theos," with "path" to create the name. Patheos aspires to put credible information on all the world's religions in one place — a place where those religions can talk to one another, too.
On June 7, a computer window opened in the Patheos office located near the Denver Tech Center. It was an op-ed from the Washington Post responding to a Patheos post: Warren Cole Smith's "Why a Vote for Romney Is a Vote for the LDS Church: One evangelical explains why he cannot support Mitt Romney for President," originally published on May 24.
"What it seems you would like me and six million other Mormons in the U.S. to do is concede a fundamental right granted to all Americans because we don't fit within your definition of what is theologically acceptable. Fortunately, that's not what the Constitution says, and it's not what America teaches," Michael Otterson, head of public affairs for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, had written.
Smith's post had already stirred controversy in Salt Lake City and earned the blogger a listing on the People for the American Way's Right Wing Watch.
Leo Brunnick was stunned by the firestorm.
Smith, the associate publisher of World, a major evangelical news magazine, had written a similar piece on his personal blog in 2007. That post had caught the attention of Timothy Dalrymple, the managing editor of Patheos's evangelical portal. Dalrymple thought that Smith's piece would work well in a Patheos interfaith discussion series between evangelicals and Catholics on the future of social conservatism. He asked Smith if he could edit it and then publish it on Patheos.
Smith agreed; he'd seen Patheos becoming a force in the religious media and wanted "to be engaged in national conversations," he says. But he was surprised by the conversation that followed. "It just kind of blew up on Patheos," Smith remembers. "The issue is inflammatory, but I don't think my article was."
Used to writing for a decidedly evangelical audience, Smith wasn't prepared for the controversy: more than 1,000 comments, many throwing around words like "bigot" and "un-Christian." And Mormons weren't the only ones who were angry; evangelical and progressive Christians called Smith names, too.
Leo Brunnick, now 46, was raised Irish Catholic in a western suburb of Boston; his accent pops out after a vodka and Pepsi or two. He was in the ROTC while at Harvard and entered the Marines after graduating in 1987. He sits straight-backed, drinks large amounts of blue Gatorade (which he refers to as "water"), and has the build and gestures of a football coach. He exudes confidence.