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The Pentecostal political pilgrimage of Gordon Klingenschmitt

By: Steve Rabey Religion correspondent
July 10, 2016 Updated: July 10, 2016 at 7:02 am
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Colorado State Representative Gordon Klingenschmitt looks up into the balcony during the first day of the Colorado General Assembly on Wednesday, January 7, 2015. Klingenschmitt is a Republican representing House District 15. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)

Gordon Klingenschmitt says God called him to run for public office and claims he is "the friendliest and funniest member" of the Colorado Legislature. But media organizations rank him among America's "craziest" politicians and call him an embarrassment.

While some Christians praise his outspoken defense of his principles, other believers wonder how someone who leads a ministry called Pray In Jesus Name can be so lacking in Jesus' compassion.

The state representative, who last month lost the Republican primary for a state senate seat, discussed faith and politics in two genial face-to-face interviews and dozens of e-mails.

Born in 1968 to a single mom in Buffalo, N.Y., he was adopted at age 3 by Joanne and Carl Klingenschmitt, devout Catholics who immediately had him baptized.

After his first holy communion, his grandfather Frank took him to a baseball game where a player made the sign of a cross and said a prayer before stepping to the plate.

"He acknowledged Jesus Christ in front of a whole stadium of people; he's not ashamed of religion," Klingenschmitt recalls his grandfather saying.

But young Gordon strayed from the faith.

"I was not a very good Catholic," he says now, acknowledging that his teen years included "drunkenness, womanizing and coarse language."

But his life changed one day when, as a freshman at the Air Force Academy, he attended a Pentecostal Bible study.

Klingenschmitt was "born again" Dec. 13, 1986, when he "invited Jesus Christ to rule my heart in ways he had never previously done."

The next month, he responded to an altar call at Victory Chapel, receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit, an experience that Pentecostal and charismatic Christians see as the start of a spirit-filled life.

"After that time, I wanted to be a preacher and missionary," he says. "I wanted to tell the world about Jesus. This was my personal calling."

Klingenschmitt took a year's leave from the academy, and girlfriend Mary left her job to join him on a mission trip through Mexico.

"We provided service to poor, offered medical missions and did street evangelism and drama," he says.

Three days after graduating in 1991, he and Mary were wed by Ted Haggard, then pastor of New Life Church, a church Klingenschmitt still "occasionally attends."

As Klingenschmitt spent 11 years as an Air Force missile officer, his desire to serve God through some kind of ministry grew.

One day, Mary was watching Pat Robertson's "The 700 Club" when the show featured a segment on Regent University, the school Robertson founded in 1977 as Christian Broadcasting Network University. "Why don't you apply for that school?" she asked.

Taxpayers helped fund Klingenschmitt's studies at Regent, but university spokesperson Mindy Hughes declined to say which degrees he received "out of respect for the privacy of our students and alumni."

Klingenschmitt requested an endorsement from the Chaplaincy of Full Gospel Churches, an endorsing agency for Pentecostal chaplains, and in 1999 he founded Pray in Jesus Name, a tax-exempt 501(c)3 ministry created "to promote and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ."

While the Air Force wanted Klingenschmitt to continue as a missile officer, he wanted to be a chaplain and took a demotion in rank and pay cut to serve in the Navy.

"I loved being a chaplain," says the man who calls himself "Dr. Chaps." "I felt like this was everything God had called me to do."

In addition to preaching and prayer, Klingenschmitt organized sailors to feed the homeless.

"It was like leading the largest youth ministry in the world," he says.

But Klingenschmitt was criticized for preaching about hell at a sailor's funeral, for denying a Jewish sailor's kosher food requests, and for persuading sailors to skip a church service led by a gay minister, according to the Washington Post.

He also claimed the Navy prohibited him from praying in Jesus' name - a claim the Navy disputes - and staged an 18-day hunger strike in January 2006 to press his demands, according to Christianity Today.

In March 2006, he wore his chaplain's uniform to a news conference in Washington, D.C., where Judge Roy Moore, Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, criticized the government for restricting Christian chaplains' religious freedom.

Klingenschmitt was reprimanded, his pay was docked and he was found unsuitable for further service. But he did not back down.

"When Peter and John were ordered to stop preaching and teaching in Jesus' name, they answered they should obey God, not men," he says, citing an account in the New Testament book of Acts. "I took a stand when the Navy told me to stop praying in Jesus' name. I fell on my sword."

The Navy later changed its policies, providing some vindication, but the episode fundamentally changed both Klingenschmitt's life and his ministry. Instead of evangelizing to reach the lost, Pray in Jesus Name now would work to defend believers' rights.

"I was a nominal Republican, not an activist," he says. "What made me an activist was when the government came after my religion."

Klingenschmitt studied political science at the academy, but he says he had no intention of entering politics. That changed when two state Democrats who had supported gun restrictions were recalled. He determined to run after praying and fasting for 72 hours.

"At the end of the three days I was reading the Bible. In the first chapter of Joshua, God tells Joshua, 'Everywhere you set your foot, I will give you the land.' I began to weep, and the next day I announced I was running for state representative," he says.

He knocked two candidates out of the race at the El Paso County Assembly in 2014 and went on to win the primary against a candidate who petitioned onto the ballot. He then handily won the general election against a Democrat in an overwhelmingly conservative district. His first term has been marked by meager legislative accomplishments, numerous public controversies and the dramatic growth of his ministry, which the Southern Poverty Law Center labels an anti-LGBT hate group.

His religious freedom bill - which would have exempted Colorado clergy and religious organizations from being required to officiate at same-sex marriages - went nowhere. Ditto efforts to repeal state laws enabling the enactment of the Affordable Care Act.

He did co-sponsor successful tobacco labeling legislation, but his signature accomplishment might be the passage of State Motto Day, a symbolic move that resurrects the neglected state motto: "Nil Sine Numine," translated as "Nothing without Providence," or "Nothing without God."

Meanwhile, donations to Pray in Jesus Name soared more than 2,000 percent during his first year in the legislature, from $39,000 in 2013 to $853,679 in 2014, after the ministry contracted with a marketing specialist.

The nonprofit's 990 tax forms say the ministry spent $308,719, or 36 percent of its total income, on fundraising. But Klingenschmitt maintains that "70 percent of our budget goes toward programs."

"My goal in the statehouse is not to preach the Gospel but to defend everybody's constitutional rights," Klingenschmitt said in a recent interview. "If I continue to defend everyone's constitutional rights Monday through Friday, then I should be allowed to express those rights when I'm preaching on Sunday, as a chaplain, not as a State Representative."

Klingenschmitt revealed the challenges of this balancing act in an episode of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show." After correspondent Jessica Williams questioned his support for LGBT bathroom legislation, she asked him about his religious beliefs.

"I would be comfortable talking about religious freedom, but I have to change into my alter ego," he replied.

"You have to change into your alter ego?" she asked. "Who are you? Lady Gaga?"

Klingenschmitt's televised Sunday sermons overflow with controversial pronouncements and spiritual commentary. When a pregnant woman was attacked near Longmont - her unborn child cut from her womb - his comments focused on abortion:

"This is the curse of God upon America for our sin of not protecting innocent children in the womb, and part of that curse for our rebellion against God as a nation is that our pregnant women are ripped open."

The response was fierce and immediate. He was removed from a legislative committee, and State Sen. Owen Hill publicly condemned Klingenschmitt, comparing him to "Pharisees in Jesus' day" and all "who exalt themselves by condemning others."

Klingenschmitt was apologetic, temporarily shutting down his TV show, but he remains unrepentant and says his removal from the committee had a "chilling effect" on his religious freedom.

"I'm not perfect," he says. "Far from it. Sometimes I get my words wrong. This was an erroneous interpretation of scripture. I will be the first to apologize, but at least I'm going to go down swinging. I'm not timid. I'm unafraid to speak the truth boldly. I fight for principles that others are afraid to discuss."

Jesus cast out demons and many churches have followed his example. Klingenschmitt cross-pollinates classical demonology with divisive 21st century political rhetoric, declaring that his ideological enemies are God's enemies too.

In a recent interview, Klingenschmitt said he teaches Bible and theology classes at the Colorado Springs campus of Colorado Christian University. But university spokesman Gabriel Knipp said that's not the case anymore.

"Gordon Klingenschmitt is currently not teaching for CCU, nor is he scheduled for future classes. While the university ensures every affiliate faculty member aligns with our mission and strategic objectives, we cannot ensure that the university will align with statements or actions of affiliate faculty members outside the scope of their teaching. In the case of Klingenschmitt, we regret the pain he has caused through insensitive public remarks."

In March, The Gazette editorialized against Klingenschmitt for politicking at the funeral of Catholic priest Fr. Bill Carmody, urging him to "check his demeanor and stop embarrassing their city and party."

Klingenschmitt responded with his own opinion piece, claiming he was being "despised," "attacked," "hated" and called "too religious.

He criticized those who questioned his Catholic credentials, asking, "Am I not Catholic enough?"

In an interview, he said: "I consider myself a member of the Catholic laity who is an ordained Pentecostal minister, who is preaching the gospel as a chaplain and evangelizing through Pray in Jesus Name."

But Bishop Michael Sheridan, head of the Catholic Diocese of Colorado Springs, isn't buying it.

"First, matters of a person's faith and reception of the sacraments are issues I prefer to discuss privately with an individual," he said. "What is unfortunate in this situation is that Rep. Klingenschmitt chose to use the solemnity of a priest's death for political purposes."

So far, Klingenschmitt's weekend preaching has generated far more attention than his weekday legislative accomplishments.

"People who have an issue with my preaching on Sundays, or who don't like my preaching, can change the channel," he says. "But please don't say that I'm disqualified from holding public office because of what I say. The constitution prohibits religious litmus tests like that."

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