Ballot initiatives. Referenda. Plebiscites. Whatever you want to call them, they play a major role in Colorado’s political life. We vote on tax increases, pet projects, citizens’ initiatives, legislatively referred initiatives, and anything else under the sun for which a determined enough cadre of organizers can collect a sufficient amount of signatures to place on our ballots. Colorado is not unique in this regard – 26 states have ballot initiative processes – but we are exceptional: between 1912, when the first initiative appeared on a Colorado ballot, and 2023, Colorado has voted on 266 initiatives, the third most of any state, behind Oregon and California.

Having had so much practice with the process, Colorado’s various political parties, interest groups, and voters have fallen into certain familiar patterns. We have come to expect certain things. We know that the Blue Book will come in the mail, giving each voter arguments for and against each initiative. We know that our ballots will be the size of small phonebooks. And – inside baseball, at least – we know that a large number of initiatives on any given year’s ballot will be organized, funded, and promoted by the same relatively small constellation of players.

That last bit has become a hallmark of Colorado’s ballot initiative scene in recent years. Colorado conservatives, repeatedly shut out of governing power by the state’s voters, have increasingly resorted to ballot initiatives as one of the last avenues by which they can impact statewide policy outcomes. Since 2018, much of the organizing talent and funding for the Colorado Republican Party and broader conservative movement has been redirected to a series of dark money entities which focus solely on the referendum process, hoping that clever wording and millions of dollars in advertising will be able to slip some pet policy or other past the voters who have otherwise rejected them. As a result of that conscious shift in strategy, there are rarely any surprises anymore as to who is behind any given pro-industry, anti-liberal initiative which finds itself on the Colorado ballot. It’s always the same folks: Americans for Prosperity, Advance Colorado, Phil Anschutz by any other name.

Or, almost always.

This year, the lineup is shifting, and those usual suspects are finding themselves with new allies on the hustings; groups which have long supported their efforts, but have not taken a leading role in them in many years: religious organizations. As petitions circulate around the state in hopes of placing dozens of different referenda on the November ballot, churches and faith leaders – particularly those closely aligned with the Christian nationalist movement – are playing an outsized role, running their own initiatives and working to defeat those run by their opponents. Given the trendline on adherence to Christian nationalism among white conservatives over the past four years, this evolution is not surprising, but it is noteworthy. Right now, controversial leaders and organizations in the Christian nationalist movement are heavily involved in either promoting or defeating at least three major initiatives, inaugurating a new era of explicit religious involvement in Colorado politics like hasn’t been seen since the last personhood initiative failed in 2014.

But, as these organizers have made clear time and again, they don’t see it as politics. They see it as holy war.

A few weeks ago, I noticed something odd in TRACER, the state’s campaign finance database: a political committee established to oppose a pro-choice initiative on the November ballot received $20,000 in support from a ministry. While it’s neither surprising nor inappropriate for anti-abortion voters to organize against an initiative which would enshrine access to abortion care in the state constitution, the source of the funds raised my eyebrows. Not only did the money come from a ministry – a 501(c)(3) organization which has never made a direct political contribution before, per TRACER, and which is somewhat discouraged from doing so, per the IRS – it came from a ministry I am very familiar with: Andrew Wommack Ministries.

Based in Woodland Park, Andrew Wommack Ministries Inc. (AWMI) is no stranger to political involvement. Wommack’s Charis Bible College has a “Practical Government School,” where students are taught how to carry the ministry’s ideas into campaigns and elected office, and the Wommack-founded Truth & Liberty Coalition, a 501(c)(4) housed at the ministry’s Teller County headquarters, has become a major player in the growing Christian nationalist movement over the past few years, with ties to everyone from Lauren Boebert to Kenneth Copeland. 

Contributions made by Andrew Wommack Ministries to Coloradans for the Protection of Women and Children

You might know Andrew Wommack as the man who vowed to “take over” Woodland Park, and who has since taken strides to make good on that vow. In November 2021, a few months after declaring his intent to conquer the town, Wommack’s Truth & Liberty boosted a slate of hyper-conservative school board candidates to victory in the Woodland Park school district. By 2023, Truth & Liberty had expanded those efforts, supporting candidates in more than 30 school districts statewide – many of whom won. Earlier this spring, Wommack tried to push the conquest of Woodland Park even further, with a slate of Charis students, employees, and allies running for city council, but all of them came up short in the final tally.

Or, if you have not kept up with the truly astonishing Woodland Park saga, you might know Andrew Wommack from the incendiary national headlines he has repeatedly spoken into existence over the past few years. Like, for instance, the statement he released in the immediate aftermath of the Club Q shooting, where five Coloradans were massacred and 18 more were injured for the crime of being queer. The day after the shooting – the blood still drying – Wommack criticized the media for “going overboard” in their coverage of the shooting, and referred to homosexuality as the “tip of the spear” for Satan. Or, as another example, the headline-generating statement from earlier this year, when Wommack declared that another civil war would be “worth it” to bring Donald Trump back into office.

Now, Wommack appears to be stepping up his political activity, hoping to influence outcomes not just in Woodland Park, not just in school districts, but statewide. The $20,000 in contributions AWMI gave to the committee opposing the abortion initiative, Coloradans for the Protection of Women and Children, was no drop in the bucket: it represents nearly 70% of the funds the committee has raised to date. And, in a testament to the strengthening alliance between standard issue Republicans and Christian nationalists, one of the committee’s designated agents is a man named Tom Bjorklund: a Jan. 6 participant who works as the treasurer for the Colorado Republican Party.

But Wommack’s attempt to near single-handedly defeat the abortion access ballot initiative is not the main draw for Colorado’s Christian nationalists this cycle. That superlative goes to Protect Kids Colorado.

Right now, petition packets are circulating around the state in an attempt to place two culture-warring, social conservative initiatives on the November ballot – but you might never see the circulators. That’s because these petitions are not circulating in Walmart parking lots or areas of high foot traffic, standard practices for signature collection. Instead, they are circulating inside churches. Specific churches.

The two initiatives, gathered under the umbrella organization Protect Kids Colorado (PKC), are manifestations of the relentless transphobia which has seized much of the right-wing over the past three years. Where Wommack’s efforts against the abortion access initiative are defensive, PKC’s efforts are offensive: they are an attempt to get blue Colorado to pass policies against transgender youths which are so severe that, even amidst three straight years of right-wing trans-panic, most red states have not implemented them.

The first of the PKC initiatives, currently collecting signatures as Initiative #142, would effectively ban the practice of social transitioning among transgender youths. Social transitioning is when someone who is either exploring their gender identity or who has determined that their sex assigned at birth does not match the self inside their mind takes steps to begin better aligning themselves with who they know themselves to be. It is not surgical, it is not medical. It is social – taking a new name, wearing different clothing, finding out where you feel at home – and studies have consistently shown that social transitions have positive impacts on transgender youth: reducing anxiety while improving mood, self-esteem, and relationships

Protect Kids Colorado does not believe that kids should be able to do this. More specifically, they do not believe that kids should be allowed to engage in social transitioning at school, one of the only safe spaces children from non-queer-affirming households have to express themselves. If #142 were to collect enough signatures to appear on the ballot, and then pass, it would create a new law in Colorado which would require schools to notify parents if their kids are “experiencing gender incongruence,” which it defines as “a difference between a child’s biological sex and the child’s perceived or desired gender.” In other words, PKC wants to bring the force of law to bear on the task of ratting-out kids who are doing what all kids do: attempting to find themselves.

The second PKC ballot initiative pays homage to another shibboleth of the transphobic right: the unfounded belief that large numbers of men are going through the long, difficult process of transitioning specifically so that they can beat women at sports. Currently circulating for signatures as Initiative #160, the second PKC-backed initiative would create a law in Colorado which would “only allow students who are female based on biological sex at birth to participate in athletic programs designated as female,” and allow parents to sue the Department of Education if any schools fail to sufficiently target and exclude transgender athletes.

These positions are not new. Anyone who has seen a conservative relative’s Facebook posts in the past three years has seen some version of them. What is new, though, are the lengths to which Christian nationalist orgs and leaders are going to support the initiatives.

According to Protect Kids Colorado’s website, the petitions to put these initiatives on the November ballot are currently circulating through the pews in some of Colorado’s most politically active – and often controversial – churches. Per the group’s calendar, petitions were passed around at Colorado Springs’ Church for All Nations last Sunday, and two weeks before that. CFAN is no stranger to political controversy, often wading into hot button issues, and hosting figures like former Congressman Steve King, who lost reelection in 2020 after coming under fire for his positions on white supremacy, rape, and incest. Earlier last week, PKC collected signatures with the help of Rep. Scott Bottoms, arguably the leading Christian nationalist in the state legislature and the pastor of the Church at Briargate.

Charissa Smith soliciting ballot initiative signatures at Family Worship Center in Pueblo, 11 May 2014. Source: Rob Rogers

Petitions are also circulating at the Family Worship Center in Pueblo. On May 11, Charissa Smith, wife of lead pastor David Smith, announced to the congregation that “for the next few weekends, we’re going to be collecting signatures for Protect Colorado Kids [sic],” while the livestream showed the PKC website (despite Smith misnaming the group). “Common sense is not that common anymore in Colorado, so we have ballot initiatives to protect our children,” Smith said, before indicating that information about the petitions was printed in that week’s bulletin. “If you’re registered to vote, we encourage you to sign the petition.”

Interestingly, Protect Kids Colorado has also attracted major boosters from outside the state, like former swimmer Riley Gaines. Gaines, who swam competitively for the University of Kentucky, seems to have radicalized herself against trans rights after tying trans swimmer Lia Thomas for fifth place in a 2022 competition, and has since made herself a go-to mouthpiece for the anti-trans right. In the past two years, she has frequently appeared on Fox News, cut an ad for Herschel Walker’s doomed U.S. Senate race in Georgia, spoken at Trump rallies, and appeared with virtually any Republican politician who has invited her onstage to criticize transgender athletes. In 2022, Gaines waded into Colorado politics in support of Eli Bremer’s Nine PAC, which supported Congressional candidates who pledged to target trans athletes. Two weeks ago, Gaines was in Colorado promoting PKC’s initiatives, and filming a video for the group. Gaines is also, by her own admission, an out-and-out Christian nationalist.

The biggest name selling PKC’s efforts to national crowds, though, is Lance Wallnau. A Texas-based televangelist with close ties to Andrew Wommack, Wallnau is best known as the “Trump prophet,” and was one of the early evangelical leaders to endorse – and, indeed, anoint – Trump in 2015. Though Wallnau prophesied that Trump would win reelection in 2020, he seems to have avoided the fallout from that misstep and continues traveling the country at a frenetic clip, whipping up crowds with his unique combination of Trump and Jesus. In addition to co-founding Truth & Liberty with Wommack, Wallnau is a major leader in the Seven Mountains Mandate movement, which exhorts Christians to “conquer the seven mountains of society”: family, religion, education, media, arts & entertainment, business, and government.

On Tuesday, Wallnau’s neverending roadshow stopped in Michigan for a tent revival where, in front of a riotous crowd, Wallnau and PKC organizer Erin Lee spoke about the need to support these ballot initiatives. In her remarks, Lee revealed that Wallnau was involved in the creation of Protect Kids Colorado. 

Erin Lee & Lance Wallnau, 21 May 2024

“I helped found Protect Kids Colorado, actually under the guidance of Lance Wallnau, where we are running ballot initiatives to protect parental rights and female spaces in the state of Colorado,” Lee said, claiming that the group is “not political, but we are tackling Biblical issues in the public square.”

Wallnau, speaking after Lee, was explicit about why the group is pursuing ballot initiatives, saying that initiatives are “the only weapon” they have left, and encouraging his followers to be “wise as serpents” to defeat “the left.” Flashing a large QR code on the screen behind him, Wallnau told the audience he needed their help reversing the “government takeover of Colorado.”

“We need to support the believers in other states who are fighting on the front lines.”

To be clear: there is nothing wrong with Christians participating in politics. They have every right to do so, just like the adherents to any other faith. When my colleagues and I criticize Christian nationalism, we are often told that we are attempting to drive Christians out of the political realm. In reality, the truth is quite the opposite: I want to invite Christians into the political realm. I want American Christians to place their ideas on a level playing field and fight for policy outcomes like the rest of us. What becomes clear when you listen to Wommack, or Wallnau, or Erin Lee, is that they do not see it that way at all – and that’s a problem.

Politics is an inherently earthly endeavor. It is manmade, and every participant in it is human, with human decision-making capacities and human emotions. One of the great dangers posed by Christian nationalism is the spreading belief that right-wing Christian political preferences are somehow more. Somehow divine. Most of us prioritize our own political views over those held by others – that’s why they are our political views – but also operate in the understanding that the outcome will be determined by whether we have been able to convince a majority of our countrymen that our political views should be their political views, too. 

That’s not how Christian nationalism operates. It is not majoritarian. It is anointed, and it sees no need to win the hearts and minds of a majority of voters. Christian nationalists do not see themselves as engaged in politics, they see themselves as engaged in warfare. They do not even believe that their political views are “political views;” they believe that their views sprung straight from the mind of God – as if God cares about the border wall, et al – and that it’s their duty to see God’s will manifest in earthly systems. 

As one speaker at Wallnau’s Tuesday rally declared, “I would say that border security is a spiritual issue.” 

When a large group of voters comes to believe that their views are holy and righteous, and that all other views are literally Satanic, they have removed themselves from the practice of politics – this earthly thing – and elevated themselves, in their own minds, to be arbiters of divine will. They have cast themselves as holy warriors, and holy warriors don’t accept losses, because they believe that doing so would be tantamount to forsaking God and his will. 

The PKC ballot initiatives are insidious: they would hurt vulnerable children and put them at risk. That is my position, and I do not need to cloak it in righteousness. I do not believe children should be hurt or endangered and, as a direct result, I do not believe these initiatives should be passed. But Christian nationalists – folks like Erin Lee and Lance Wallnau – refuse to see their political views as preferences, or as outworkings of their own values, or as anything less than divine. They refuse to see their political struggles as anything less than Holy War. If you disagree with them, there is no agreeing to disagree; if you disagree, you are a tool of Satan. You are, according to Lee, evil. Only they are fit to rule.

“This is truly a spiritual battle, and our children and families are the target,” Lee told the crowd, “and millions of people in government and our education, our healthcare systems, mental health, child protective services, are complicit in the agenda.”

“This is a battle of good versus evil.”