Columns » Public Eye

When skiing was the official religion


There's been a lot of talk about red Colorado turning purple and heading for blue. But if you ask Tom Cronin, the state's political landscape looks about the same as it did 16 years ago.

How liberal can this state be, for example, when 40 percent of the people, including a good chunk of Democrats, believe in creationism as in, "God created man in his present form all at once within the last 10,000 years"?

Cronin, a political science professor at Colorado College and onetime Democratic congressional candidate, returned to his CC post last year after retiring as the longtime president of Whitman College in Washington state. Back in 1990, Cronin did a statewide public opinion poll on what people thought about politics. This year, he thought it would be an interesting exercise to repeat it, with the help of Boulder-based Talmey-Drake Research and Strategy.

With 1.5 million more people living here than in 1990, Colorado bucked the national trend two years ago by electing a Democrat to the U.S. Senate and putting the donkeys in charge of the state Legislature. So, surely, opinions have changed.

Guess again. Just as in 1990, Coloradans lean toward the conservative. Only 28 percent of the people who were polled admitted they were "liberal," compared to 41 percent who called themselves "conservative." Registered Republicans still comprise the largest block of registered voters, with 35 percent. The unaffiliated come in second, with 31 percent; registered Democrats make up most of the remainder. We don't trust Washington, are bored by politics and have a libertarian streak a mile long. We like our religion and our guns, and loathe the taxman.

"The typical Coloradan is not a liberal and is not a Democrat," says Cronin.

That said, Democrats certainly can get elected to statewide office as long as they can pass conservative muster. Take Ken Salazar, for example, who was elected to the U.S. Senate two years ago. His family has deep roots in Colorado, and he's orthodox in his religion. Former Gov. Roy Romer was a businessman from the rural town of Holly. This year's gubernatorial candidate, former prosecutor Bill Ritter, is conservative about his Catholicism and stands pro-life on abortion. He is also leading in the polls.

But if there's one big difference in the state of the state, it's that old-time religion.

Back in 1990, Cronin didn't ask people about their religious faith; this is a guy who, when running for U.S. Congress in Colorado Springs eight years before, was more likely to be asked, "Where do you ski?" than "Where do you pray?" (Cronin, who ran against then-incumbent Rep. Ken Kramer, was endorsed by the Denver Post, got plenty of help from then-Congressman Tim Wirth and then-Gov. Dick Lamm and walked away with 41 percent of the vote. When asked to run two years later, he simply reminded people, "I know how to count.")

And, that was all pre-Focus on the Family and before the boom of like-minded religious groups, whose political activities have broadened across the spectrum.

"When I was running for Congress in 1982, a few black churches invited me to speak, but it was unheard of for pastors to ask my views," Cronin says.

Now, 40 percent of the people who were polled said they believe in creationism compared to 15 percent who go with the strict evolutionary explanation. (Another 40 percent supported a combo that the Earth developed over millions of years, but with God guiding the process.) That belief in creationism, Cronin notes, is 9 points higher than found in another statewide poll in 1999.

"People have been sensitized to this by some groups, and in many ways, I don't get it," Cronin says. "When was the last time you were in discussion about evolution and creationism? Most people I know are decided on one side or the other."

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