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Summit Ministries' founder retiring after nearly 50 years

September 18, 2011
photo - David Noebel, 75, leader of Summit Ministries, based in Manitou Springs, is retiring Sept. 30. He founded the organization in 1962. Photo by Courtesy of Summit Ministries
David Noebel, 75, leader of Summit Ministries, based in Manitou Springs, is retiring Sept. 30. He founded the organization in 1962. Photo by Courtesy of Summit Ministries 

You may not recognize his name or face, but David Noebel’s influence in conservative Christian circles has been huge.

Decades before there was a Christian right, Noebel, 75, proclaimed many of its ideas in books, broadcasts and lectures. In 1962 in Manitou Springs, Noebel founded Summit Ministries, which teaches young people how to view the world through a Christian perspective.

On Sept. 30, Noebel will retire and Jeff Myers, 45, will take over as president.

“It’s time,” said Noebel, who recently moved from Manitou Springs to Prescott, Ariz., with his wife of 54 years. “I’m getting up there in years, and (Summit) is so big now, it was getting hard for me to oversee.”

Summit Ministries’ headquarters is a campus of buildings sitting on four acres just above downtown Manitou Springs. Its main building is a former luxury hotel built in 1893.

The nondenominational ministry shares Christian school curricula and offers two- and 12-week programs for people ages 16 to 21. Some adult conferences are also offered. Christian scholars teach students “how to analyze competing worldviews and to defend their faith,” according to Summit’s website. Costs range from $895 to $10,500 per student, depending on program duration, special trips chosen, and if room and board are required.

Summit Ministries has grown steadily over the decades. It now has a $5 million annual budget, several satellite offices around the world and 24 staff members. Some 30,000 young people have attended its Christian programs, and tens of thousands more have followed its curriculum at Christian schools across America.

Many Summit students have gone on to become public boosters of Christian conservatism, such as Curtis Bowers, a former Idaho representative who recently made the film “Agenda,” which examines American socialism.

In 1987, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson sent his 17-year-old son, Ryan, to Summit. Recently on Family Talk, a Christian radio show he co-hosts with his father in Colorado Springs, Ryan Dobson said he experienced “a massive change” at Summit that led to his career as a Christian author, lecturer and radio personality.

Noebel has had an enviable career as Summit’s leader, but he’s also endured controversy. His most difficult period occurred in the 1970s when the founder of the ministry he worked at was forced to resign due to a sex scandal.

He’s also turned heads with his fiery rhetoric and insistence that communism is alive and well in America. Of those who guffaw at his communist warnings, Noebel has a quick retort: “They are smoking grass.”


Conservative Christian influence

Many Christian leaders hail Noebel’s career. “Thank you for the contribution you made to our family, our life and our son,” James Dobson told Noebel on a Family Talk show last April.

Steve McConkey, founder of 4 Winds, a faith-based group in Madison, Wis., that helps train Christian athletes, praised Noebel for teaching young people how to defend their faith. “All I’ve heard is good about him,” McConkey said.

Some observers, however, blame Noebel for fomenting the culture wars that began in earnest in the 1980s. In 1977, Noebel published “The Homosexual Revolution,” which emboldened Christian leaders James Dobson and the late Jerry Falwell to publicly attack the gay lifestyle. In the early 1990s, Noebel supported Colorado’s Amendment 2, a gay-rights anti-discrimination measure.

In a barbed column this summer for Summit’s newsletter, Noebel railed against gay sex, called President Barack Obama “our gay pride president” and labeled Washington, D.C., our “Sodom on the Potomac.”

“It’s who I am,” Noebel said of his language.

Perhaps Noebel’s biggest influence today is his distaste for big government and his suspicion that a socialist plot, which he often calls “communist,” is surreptitiously undermining America. Both ideas have entered the right-leaning conservative mainstream, such as in the Tea Party and stump speeches by Republican presidential candidates Michele Bachman, Ron Paul and Rick Perry.

“When you see Republicans ranting on and on about Obama’s socialism, that is all Noebel’s line,” said Paul Harvey, author of the book “Themes in Religion & American Culture.”

“That doesn’t mean that Noebel has influenced all these people directly,” said Harvey, an American history professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. “But I would say he’s influenced them indirectly by training people who have trained people who have become educators and political activists.”


Fighter of socialism

Noebel was born and raised in Oshkosh, Wis. At age 15 he became a born-again Christian while attending a Bible camp.

While a student at the University of Wisconsin, Noebel was subjected to secular teachings and almost lost his faith, he said. He dropped out to attend the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, where he later earned a master’s degree in philosophy.

In 1962 he got a job at Tulsa’s Christian Crusade, headed by right-wing fundamentalist Billy James Hargis. Summit Ministries started as a program within Christian Crusade, when Noebel wanted to provide a counterbalance to what he saw as anti-Christian teachings in secular universities. He hoped to teach young people a Christian worldview.

During the 1960s, Noebel made a name for himself writing books, published by the Christian Crusade, that critiqued the emerging counter culture and warned, McCarthy-like, of communism seeping into America. In a Christian Crusade recording, Noebel called 1960s folk music communist propaganda.

By 1974, Noebel was vice president of Christian Crusade’s American Christian College in Tulsa. Then his world came apart: Hargis, ostensibly a doting family man, resigned when it was revealed he’d had sex with at least one female and three male students.

“I was in total shock,” Noebel said. “I couldn’t believe it for six months.”

With Hargis disgraced, Noebel was named president of the American Christian College. But the college never recovered from the scandal and closed in 1978.

After the closing, Noebel devoted all his energies to Summit Ministries, though American Christian College lived on as the incorporated name of Summit.

Noebel’s best-known work is the 1991 Summit textbook “Understanding the Times: The Religious Worldviews of Our Day and the Search for Truth.” Noebel contrasts the “Christian worldview” with a handful of other “worldviews,” including Marxism-Leninism, secular humanism, new age and Islam. He dismisses evolutionary science and says atheists and secular humanists are “militant” and “dogmatic.”

Some observers say Noebel is good at calling the kettle black; he and his Summit teachers are dogmatic about their Christian worldview. Also, Summit teachers and the secular university professors they criticize both rely on their authority when expounding ideas to impressionable young people.

But Noebel denies the double standard. “We do not teach them how to think but what is going on in the world,” he said.

Though retiring from Summit, Noebel will continue to lead the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade, founded in 1953 in Iowa by Fred Schwarz to track U.S. communism, and currently headquartered in Manitou Springs. Noebel has written for the nonprofit’s newsletter for 45 years.

Educating young people on the Christian worldview has been Noebel’s calling and passion. But fighting socialism seems almost as important to him.

Of his work at the CACC, Noebel said, “I am having a grand time with it.”


Passing the baton

Jeff Myers will become Summit’s new president Oct. 1. Myers has spent much of his adult life at the ministry, first as a volunteer, then an instructor and most recently as chairman of the board. At age 17 he was a Summit student.

Myers said he’ll carry on the tradition that has made Summit a lauded program for nearly 50 years. “We’ll continue Dr. Noebel’s firm commitment that Christians should be thinking people,” he said.

But a difference between Noebel and Myers has already emerged.

While Noebel is a provocateur, Myers in guest spots on Fox News and Christian radio this year has been measured and light-hearted.

“Each generation has a different tone,” Myers said.

Myers contends that Noebel’s charged words misrepresent his open heart toward everyone. A scholar who reads up to five books a week, Noebel nevertheless relates to people of all ages and backgrounds, Myers said, and especially to Summit students.

“He cares about the young people,” Myers said.

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