If a germ touches me, it dies,” the faith healer proclaimed at the height of the pandemic. Not everyone was so lucky: though he personally claimed to be protected by faith-based immunity, Andrew Wommack’s constant flouting of local health ordinances, his desire to pack the sanctuary at Charis Bible College with hundreds of people at a time, led to multiple fatal outbreaks of the virus in Teller County. Now, three years later, Wommack’s ministry empire has infected Woodland Park with a new strain of contagion, this time through the ballot box.
From the pulpit, Wommack preaches a fiery version of Christian nationalism, focused more on society than scripture, advocating for a near-theocratic merging of Christian principles and public institutions. His doctrine is wed to no real theological tradition, presenting as an incomplete reduction of Calvinist reconstructionism, Pentecostal dominionism, and American folk religion. He runs schools, churches, missionary organizations and political nonprofits. Soon, he hopes to run Woodland Park.
Since I started my investigation into the drama consuming the Woodland Park School District, where right-wing billionaires and national advocacy organizations have embarked on a program to remake public education in their own image, I have been asking one overarching question: why Woodland Park? Of the thousands of school districts in the country, why did a national right-wing apparatus descend on this one?
Andrew Wommack is the answer to that question – and he’s made no bones about that fact.
“Man, as many people as we have in this school here, we ought to take over Woodland Park,” Wommack told a crowd at Charis Bible College in April 2021, where he reigns supreme over a growing local property portfolio and hundreds of loyal voters.
Right-wing pastor Andrew Wommack says that with just the people associated with his Charis Bible College, “we ought to take over Woodland Park, [Colorado]”: “This county ought to be totally dominated by believers.” pic.twitter.com/AgxTqFJj27
— Right Wing Watch (@RightWingWatch) April 28, 2021
It was the latest and most explicit of the prophet’s political proclamations, and it was not idle chatter. By the time of that quip in 2021, Wommack had already ushered one of his disciples onto city council; by the end of the year, another would be serving on the school board.
The ultimate goal? To end the world.
Christian nationalism” burst into the mainstream of American political discourse in the aftermath of its violent incarnation at the January 6th insurrection, when hordes of Trump supporters descended on the capitol, clutching Bibles and flags, taking lives. The term itself, though, – “Christian nationalism” – leaves something to be desired. If you poll Americans, you will find tens of millions of self-identified Christians, and a few million self-identified nationalists; but you would find very few self-identified Christian nationalists. Instead, you would find Methodists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Baptists, and more than a few Catholics, imbibing similar sermons, casting similar ballots, considering themselves distinct from one another.
That’s because Christian nationalism has less to do with Christianity than it has to do with nationalism. It is a flattening force, planing-down the once vibrant doctrinal distinctions between, say, the sacred mystery of Catholicism and the rational inquiry of Calvinism, smoothing out the bumps in the body of Christ so that it may be more effectively applied to political ends.
Put simply, Christian nationalism is the co-opting of the sacred by the profane.
The ideology started growing roots in white culture and western power structures long before January 6th. The apartheid regime in South Africa considered itself a Christian nationalist government in the mid-20th century, with Prime Minister BJ Vorster explaining “christian nationalism” in 1942 as “an ally of National Socialism.” In Italy, Vorster said, “it is called Fascism; in Germany, National Socialism, and in South Africa, Christian Nationalism.”
Similarly, Spanish caudillo Francisco Franco co-opted Catholicism, using the faith as one of the tentpoles upholding his 39-year reign. Nacionalcatolicismo – National Catholicism – as Franco called it, was developed not for Catholic reasons, but for nationalist ones: to anoint his own rule and unite the people of Spain beneath it.
Andrew Wommack’s particular strain of Christian nationalism grew out of the American evangelical ferment of the 1970s, when traditional mainline churches were losing steam, being supplanted by a more charismatic form of Christianity which had arisen from the hippie subculture of the 1960s. At the same time, religious communities across the country were emerging from a decade of social turmoil, a decade of sending their sons to die in the hot jungles of Vietnam, attempting to reconcile how to live by their faith in an increasingly chaotic modern world. These circumstances gave rise to a new strain of Christian nationalist thought: dominionism.
Like Christian nationalism more broadly, dominionism evolved along various parallel branches and goes by many names. At its core, it is an aspiration to theocracy. It is a belief that the government of the United States should be transformed into an explicitly Christian institution, and that the law of the land should align with the laws of god as they appear in Christian scripture. Like any belief system, its adherents are arranged along a spectrum, from those who want to see Christian values embodied in civic institutions, to those who want to see civic institutions fully subsumed by Christianity. As what’s called a “Seven Mountains Mandate” (7M) dominionist, Wommack is on the latter end of the spectrum.
The Seven Mountains Mandate is a movement within dominionism to conquer the “seven mountains of society” for Christ. The seven “mountains,” according to movement adherents, are the cultural spheres of religion, family, government, media, business, entertainment, and education. Thanks to his syndicated radio show and his series of Truth & Liberty Coalition events, Andrew Wommack has emerged as a leader of the movement, specializing in the “mountains” of government and education.
Though representing a hyperminority of American Christians, some leaders within the Seven Mountains Mandate movement have risen to prominence in right-wing circles in recent years, such as Donald Trump’s spiritual advisor, Paula White, and Rafael Cruz, father of U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, who is a pastor and a 7M adherent. Conservative activist Charlie Kirk and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have been linked to the movement as well.
From different places in society, these leaders are all pulling towards the same destination, the conquest of society for Christ, using the Seven Mountains as a roadmap to get there. And they believe that when they get there – on that glorious day when the dominionists have finally seized the seven mountains of society – they will receive the reward they have been striving for: the apocalypse.
For Andrew Wommack, the conquest of Woodland Park is not about property taxes or mill levies; it’s not about local power or local issues. For Andrew Wommack, it’s about triggering the Second Coming.
Wommack’s grip on Woodland Park, where he moved his ministry in 2010 from nearby Colorado Springs, is strong. His organizations collectively own hundreds of acres in Teller County, and enough housing for hundreds of people, and counting. According to local reporting, Charis Bible College – a chain of “Bible training colleges” run by Wommack, with its main campus and headquarters in Woodland Park – aims to provide “on-campus housing for more than 1,000 students by 2030.”
For context, fewer than 2,500 ballots were cast in Woodland Park’s 2022 mayoral election. Wommack’s handpicked candidate, Robert Zuluaga, lost that race, but retained his seat on the Woodland Park city council. If Charis were to continue increasing enrollment and student housing, the math in local elections would move inexorably in Wommack’s direction.
Even without importing more voters, Wommack has a comfortable setup in Woodland Park: his global ministry empire, which extends far beyond Teller County, encompassing schools and training facilities in 18 countries, generates tens of millions of dollars annually. According to a 2019 independent auditors report – the most recent year for which such a report has been released – Wommack’s combined ministries generated $62,814,026 in revenue that year, while sitting on more than $117 million in assets. A pretty sum to fit through the eye of a needle. And, if that weren’t enough, allies like Zuluaga in the local government help ensure that Wommack’s ministries can hold onto as much of that money as possible, in part by granting property-tax-free status to Charis Bible College’s student housing.
Despite operating with various levels of tax-exemption, Wommack funnels much of his empire’s cash into indirect political influence operations, such as Charis Bible College’s Practical Government School. According to Charis, the Practical Government School provides candidate training for Wommack disciples to “positively impact government,” and “restore God’s purpose in government.” A Charis syllabus of Practical Government School lectures includes titles like “Christian Heritage of American Gov I & II,” “The Role of the Church and Pastors in Government,” and “Seven Mountains of Influence.” The syllabus also includes courses titled “Government According to the Bible” and “How to Run for Office.”
The list of instructors for the Practical Government School is equally noteworthy, including a number of controversial figures like David Barton, whose 2012 book about Thomas Jefferson was once voted the “least credible history book in print,” and bishop Joshua Lwere, a Ugandan clergyman who is best known for lobbying on behalf of that nation’s Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014, better known as the “Kill the Gays bill.” Lwere’s advocacy for the bill was once a source of enough shame for GOP Congressman Ken Buck to cancel an event with the bishop, but no such shame has prevented state Senator Mark Baisley from teaching at the Practical Government School alongside Lwere. Baisley, who represents the area in the state legislature’s upper chamber, has traditionally lived in Douglas County but established residency for his current Senate district by registering to vote in a house in Woodland Park, where the other registered voters are Charis students. Baisley claims to rent and live in the top floor of the home.
The other major avenue through which Wommack seeks to exert dominion over the “mountain” of government is through his series of Truth & Liberty conferences and live streams. The conferences, held on the Charis campus in Woodland Park, allow Wommack to fete and promote his chosen politicians, and have included appearances by U.S. Reps. Lauren Boebert and Doug Lamborn. At the 2022 conference, prominent Seven Mountains Mandate pastor Lance Wallnau declared that Colorado was a test case for evangelicals taking over governments.
Truth & Liberty is also where Wommack overlaps with some of the secular political entities and organizations influencing the course of events in Woodland Park. Truth & Liberty works closely with Tony Perkins, the long-time president of the Family Research Council, which is part of the American Birthright coalition. The overlap extends to funding, too, to some degree: Wommack’s ministries have received contributions from The Servant Foundation – a philanthropic vehicle controlled by evangelical Hobby Lobby founder David Green, which has also made contributions to Birthright coalition member organizations like John Eastman’s Claremont Institute, per the entity’s 2022 tax documents. Earlier this year, Truth & Liberty produced a video defending the American Birthright curriculum.
Through Charis and Truth & Liberty, Wommack is making steady progress towards conquering the “mountain” of government – but that’s only one of the two mountains he has his sights set on. The other is education.
In that realm, too, Wommack has made strides. In 2021, Truth & Liberty targeted 17 school districts with its “Christian Voter Guides,” which ranked candidates based on where they stood on the all-important issues of “Critical Race Theory,” “Parental Rights,” “Boys Playing Girl Sports” (yes, it says “girl sports”), and “Gender Identity Pronouns.” As part of that effort, the organization endorsed all four members of Woodland Park’s conservative school board slate.
While all members of the conservative school board slate in Woodland Park were doubtless grateful for Wommack’s support, one of them has a connection to the charismatic healer which goes deeper than the rest; a connection which brought her to Woodland Park in the first pace, which convinced her to run for office, and which has placed her at the center of the controversies roiling the small, scenic school district for the past two years.
Suzanne Patterson goes by Sue. By her own admission, she is not a natural politician, not the kind of person who craves the spotlight. Despite those natural inclinations, she has already shown a knack for accomplishing the politically difficult: she won election to public office only 19 months after moving to the state.
A mother and grandmother who, according to her website, spent more than 20 years advocating for people with developmental disabilities, Patterson never pictured herself in office. “I never dreamed that my name and being an elected official would go in the same sentence,” Patterson said in a 2022 video address. After her family’s 2020 relocation to Teller County, though, she “felt a deep moral obligation to serve in the local community,” which ultimately led to her decision to run for the Woodland Park school board in 2021. Her campaign website focused on issues like “fiscal accountability” and “keeping decision-making at a local level,” making no mention of her deeper motivations, or her connections to the religious empire wielding so much power in the town.
It was not fate that brought the Pattersons to Woodland Park in 2020. It was Charis.
Though Patterson has not returned my requests for comment, social media profiles belonging to her and her husband, Ray Patterson, have allowed me to establish a timeline of when and why the couple relocated to Colorado in the spring of 2020.
In 2019, Sue Patterson graduated from the Washington D.C. campus of Charis’s Practical Government School. According to his Facebook profile, Ray Patterson also studied at the D.C. campus. While Sue finished her third year in D.C. (Charis is a three-year program, with the third year focusing on specialization via programs like the Practical Government School), Ray did not. Instead, the couple relocated to Teller County in spring 2020, with Ray’s Facebook indicating that he enrolled in his third year at Charis’ Woodland Park headquarters in August of that year.
Despite keeping quiet about these connections during her candidacy, Patterson has been more open about her affiliations since winning office. In April 2022, she filmed a video address for one of Wommack’s “Citizen’s Academy” presentations, in which she spoke about her experience with the Practical Government School. In the video, Patterson said that the Practical Government School allowed her to see “how much our country needs elected officials and people in government with a Biblical worldview, because God was the principles [sic] our country was founded on.”
“If it doesn’t align with God’s word, then it’s not for our country,” Patterson said in the recorded address. “We need people with Biblical worldviews in government and to run our country. That’s what it’s all about.”
Like many of Wommack’s acolytes – at least two of whom were arrested for participating in the January 6th insurrection in Washington D.C. – Patterson has shown a penchant for extremism. In addition to supporting most of the school board’s decisions over the past two years, emails and social media posts show Patterson staking-out controversial positions on race, religion, abortion, COVID-19, and more.
“A nation who kills millions of babies for convenience every year… But has SHUT businesses down to save adults. Does not have your health as their best interest,” Patterson posted in January 2021. “Breathing in your own body WASTES is dangerous. Wake up people. It is a way to control LIFE itself. As the government sees fit. They do not conform to the very rules in which they impose on us.”
“White men fought against white men to abolish slavery,” Patterson posted the next month, in February 2021. In a Facebook post about slavery and abortion, she claimed that some “mostly Democrat[ic]” slave owners “tried to beat Jesus Christ out of slaves black & white,” and that “Democrats are still doing it now.” Democrats, Patterson claimed, “are still trying to divide us as children of God.”
“Who is the racist here?” she asked. “Killing babies is racist.”
In February 2023, a concerned parent emailed the Woodland Park school board to express concern about the “christian/political direction the board is taking,” and the “personal agendas” of school board members, specifically citing the adoption of the American Birthright standards as a cause for concern.
“Public schools are government-funded entities,” the parent wrote. “There is supposed to be a separation of church and state.”
“I took an oath to uphold the United State [sic] Constitution as well as the Colorado State Constitution,” Sue Patterson wrote in reply to the concerned parent. “Can you show me in either constitution where it says ‘separation of church and state?’ I look forward to your reply.”
In a later reply on the same email thread, Patterson fired-off a screed reminiscent of her Facebook posts, lecturing the parent about the supposed Christian origins of the United States. “Like it or not, that is the undeniable history of this land and the beginnings of this nation. And that covenant remains,” Patterson wrote, continuing to deny that any separation of church and state exists.
The belief that the separation of church and state is a myth was popularized by David Barton, an instructor with Charis’s Practical Government School, and the aforementioned author of the “least credible history book in print.” As a point of fact, the separation of church and state is guaranteed in the very first amendment to the Constitution, separated by a mere comma from the clause enshrining the protection of religious liberty: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Just as Patterson has faithfully supported Wommack’s teachings in the public eye, Wommack has supported Patterson and her school board colleagues through their recent political turmoil. In addition to endorsing the conservative slate in 2021 and using Truth & Liberty’s airwaves to defend the American Birthright curriculum, Wommack’s Charis Bible College students have lent the Woodland Park school board in-person support by showing up in bulk to board meetings. At the May 2023 board meeting where superintendent Ken Witt’s contract was renewed, more than 100 Charis students showed up to the meeting early to occupy the seats, ultimately leaving hundreds of parents outside in the rain.
“If we show hundreds of people that stand up in support of the school board, I think we’ll overwhelm the opposition,” Wommack said on the Truth & Liberty call-in show earlier the day of the meeting. During the show, details of the school board meeting were put on the screen, with an exhortation that viewers “arrive early to get a seat.”
The dynamics at play are concerning: if Patterson, in her role as a school board member, was put in a position of needing to choose between the will of the voters and the will of Andrew Wommack, it’s not clear that she would choose the former. Such tangled loyalties in any elected official should be cause for concern, but doubly so when it comes to Woodland Park, where the future is being made.
With Wommack in the frame, the image of Woodland Park I have been attempting to develop for three months is almost fully in-focus. We now know – to call back to the questions I posed at the beginning of this investigation – why groups from around the country are focusing time and resources on Woodland Park: because they are part of Civics Alliance’s astroturfed American Birthright coalition, and each receive substantial funding from conservative foundations on a generational mission to remake the public education system. We know that the deep ties to political insiders and influencers came to the district not with the election of the school board, but with the hiring of attorney Brad Miller and superintendent Ken Witt – men who have their own ties to the network of organizations pushing the Birthright curriculum. We also know now why the town’s hyper-political religious sect is so focused on the happenings of the local school board: because they, too, are engaged in a long-term project to alter the very foundations of our public institutions.
The tangled knot untied along the way was the result of the twist in the story: what’s happening in Woodland Park is not just one takeover, not just one attempt to craft a playbook that can be exported to other districts and other states. It’s two.
Neither faction has hidden its intent. David Randall, executive director of Civics Alliance, boasted that Woodland Park is “a model not only for other school districts in Colorado, but also for school districts around the nation.” Lance Wallnau, the pastor and speaker affiliated with Andrew Wommack, declared at last year’s Truth & Liberty conference that Woodland Park was a test case for taking over other local governments.
Civics Alliance answered the question why Colorado? Wommack answers the question why Woodland Park. I believe now that the answer to that question is that Civics Alliance alighted on the district where the ground had already been softened, where an ideologically sympathetic board had already been elected, where professional reformers had already been brought in, and – most importantly – where a spiritual strongman with takeover notions of his own would be able to wield inordinate control over a sizable number of voters.
It’s that swirling miasma, that milieu of militant influences, that allowed Woodland Park to become the very first – and, to date, only – school district in the nation willing to adopt the Birthright standards.
In the past eight months since the adoption of the American Birthright standards, the secular and religious efforts have effectively merged: both factions now have solid footholds in the district, and both factions are explicitly using the district as a proving ground for policies and practices they can export elsewhere. Both factions are now in a position to see how far they can push their vision before Woodland Park pushes back.
That pushback may come this November, when Woodland Park holds its first school board elections since becoming one of the most-talked-about districts in the state. Though I have dedicated most of this investigation to the forces operating above the local board, I want to conclude with a look at the board members themselves: not just Sue Patterson, but David Illingworth, David Rusterholtz, Mick Bates, and Cassie Kimbrell too. They did not write the playbook – Illingworth, one of the board’s most aggressive members, admitted on a podcast that he did not even know what charter schools were before being elected – but they are part of it, and the impact they have had on the district has been enormous.
They are a cautionary tale for the other Colorado school districts electing new board members this November, and a roadmap to understanding what to expect – and who to protect – when a takeover comes to town.