Magazine article The Christian Century

Joel Hunter Pays a Price for His Political Activism

Magazine article The Christian Century

Joel Hunter Pays a Price for His Political Activism

Article excerpt

There's a price to pay for becoming the voice of moderate conservatism and coalition politics. Even more so for refusing to march in lockstep with the Republican Party.

Ask pastor Joel Hunter of Northland Church, Florida's largest evangelical congregation. Hunter, 65, says his megachurch in Longwood may have lost as many as 1,500 members, or 10 percent of its membership, as a result of his ecumenical and political activism.

But the upbeat midwesterner is sanguine, likening membership departures to separating the wheat from the chaff. "There is no such thing as safe leadership," he said.

Hunter, who may be best known as President Obama's spiritual counselor, still has plenty of church members--around 13,500. And he is not the first evangelical to lose favor for taking a less traveled path.

Fellow evangelical Richard Cizik took a harder hit in 2008 when he spoke out on social issues such as gay civil unions and global climate change and lost his job as chief Washington lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals.

Cizik said Hunter's amiable demeanor will help him, but there's no escaping criticism when an evangelical pastor talks about political cooperation.

"Give Joel Hunter credit," said Cizik, who now heads the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. "He has guts, depth of conviction, and hasn't lost his integrity, nor his prophetic voice."

A good example of that leadership was Hunter's recent two-day visit to Washington, D.C.

First, Hunter talked immigration reform with Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) alongside a group of Florida Jewish religious leaders. The next day, Hunter attended an annual Jewish-evangelical leaders' dialogue, whose agenda includes issues such as human trafficking, prison reform and religious persecution around the world.

"When I advocate for these issues, I see that as part of the natural influence of the church," he said. "Most of our members believe that it's a good thing that I'm involved in policy and political matters."

Pointedly, Hunter did not stay in Washington for the kickoff of the annual Faith and Freedom Coalition Conference, a magnet for conservative national evangelical leaders, though he is a strong opponent of abortion and gay marriage.

Hunter's high-profile activism is not new. He delivered a benediction at the Democratic National Convention. Last year, Northland Church hosted a talk about exercise and nutrition by First Lady Michelle Obama.

Yet in the 2008 Florida Republican presidential primary, Hunter supported --and contributed to--the campaign of former Arkansas governor and former Baptist minister Mike Huckabee. …

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