Rev. Joel Hunter speaks out on broadening the evangelical agenda
In July, Rev. Joel Hunter was named president-elect of the Christian Coalition of America, the legendary political advocacy organization founded by Pat Robertson.
Last month, just before he was to formally take office, he abruptly stepped down after a meeting with the coalition’s board of directors. According to Hunter, it became clear that the organization was not ready to expand its focus beyond hot-button social issues like gay marriage and abortion. (Board director and acting president Roberta Combs says they simply wanted to move cautiously and poll their members first.)
Both sides insist the split was amicable, but Hunter’s departure casts a stark light on a growing split inside the conservative evangelical Christian movement. Long seen as monolithic and ascendant, the evangelical bloc is increasingly being pulled in two directions: one that would retain and consolidate gains based on culture-war concerns like abortion and homosexuality, and one that would open the agenda up to broader issues like global warming, AIDS, and poverty.
The former faction has the advantage of decades of entrenched power and an enormous fundraising machine. The latter boasts the allegiance of a new generation of evangelicals weary of the divisiveness and naked political ambition of its forebears. Hunter — spokesperson for the Evangelical Climate Initiative and author of a new book, Right Wing, Wrong Bird — is squarely in the latter camp. I caught up with him by phone at the Orlando, Fla., church where he preaches, in the midst of what sounds like a media frenzy with no end in sight.
There’s been some suspicion, both inside and outside the evangelical movement, that the much-ballyhooed green evangelical turn has more to do with a few high-profile leaders than any substantive change of heart at the base. Your encounter with the Christian Coalition seems to lend this notion some credence, doesn’t it?
There are two ways to look at it. One is, there’s a very recent, alarming cache of information; the scientific evidence is pretty recent in our history. Like any new information or suddenly appearing issue, there’s going to be a lot of skepticism at first. People don’t want to change. And there’s a lot of suspicion on the part of conservative Christianity about anything that the broad-based media touts. So there is going to be that kind of skepticism and pushback.
From that standpoint, I would say that on a grassroots level this is not very deep, yet, in the evangelical community.
Having said that, there are two factors that will take it fairly deep, fairly quickly. One is, like most good Christianity, this is simply a reprisal of a historic concern. Christianity was at the forefront of human rights, anti-slavery, civil rights, and so forth — that’s so deep in our history, a respect for human life and a respect for God’s creation. So even though it hasn’t been a front-burner issue recently, it goes way back into our roots and is easily recoverable.
The other thing that’s happening right now is that a number of us who have different networks are forming conversations that will have ripple effects across the church. Even the attention right now — the [Sen. James] Inhofe-type attention, the Michael Crichton this-is-all-conspiracy kind of stuff — isn’t going to last very long in the milieu of the growing body of evidence. Conservative Christians are fairly intelligent people, believe it or not, and so over a period of time they will read the articles, read the books. We will. I don’t know why I’m saying they. We will come to an accurate conclusion on global warming, and especially on the broader issue of environmental care.
in the room is that social issues — gay marriage, abortion, and so on — are identified as Republican and environmental issues are identified as liberal or Democratic. So there are two things green evangelical leaders could hope for: Republicans adopt the climate-change issue, or the evangelical base shifts its voting behavior. Which of those do you think is more likely?
Evangelicals are not primarily concerned with growing a political strategy. I do think there is a growing constituency — the maturing of evangelicalism — to go beyond the reactionary issues that were morally centered into the compassion issues that are well-being centered. As we do that, both parties are now going to be interested in what evangelicals are interested in. So I think there will be a little of each — there will be a broadening of the Republican agenda, and the Democrats will be more interested in not just writing off the evangelical vote. They will see that we are interested in a number of issues, and perhaps they will find some more conciliatory language in order to try to interest the evangelical vote.
I’m not sure exactly what’s going to happen politically, but from a conservative Christian standpoint, you just want to do the right thing and vote the best way you can. Then let the chips fall where they may.
There will be a staunch, focused group of Christians that see the broadening of the agenda as a threatening dynamic for achieving the more traditional goals. There are those of us, though, who believe we will get more done on the traditional issues by becoming more Jesus-like — concerned with other issues as well. So the real question here is, how big will this growing constituency be in comparison to the traditional group focused on narrow issues? That’s the intriguing part of this.
Some people might say the reason there’s such enthusiasm around social issues like gay marriage and abortion and pornography is that people in the evangelical church are primarily called on to condemn other people. Once you bring in issues like poverty and global warming — and more broadly, compassion for the least among you — obligations turn on them. There’s a little guilt. Is that too cynical?
Not at all. Let’s develop this conversation at a little deeper level. In Foreign Affairs, Walter Mead talked about the difference between fundamentalists and evangelicals. We make these differentiations in our own family of believers.
Fundamentalists are always mad. They don’t play well with others, and they feel tainted by any view other than the one they have. That is a pretty narrow segment, but a pretty attention-getting segment of Christianity. In terms of stereotype, that’s what most people focus on when they see conservative Christianity.
By the way, I don’t say fundamentalists in the pejorative sense. I believe there is a legitimate reaction to what we would see as declining moral integrity in culture.
But another reason it has been so popular is that anger is the greatest and most immediate way, not only to invoke a response and build an audience, but to raise money. We’ll both be cynical here for a minute: One of the things fundamentalist churches have learned, have practiced, and continue to practice, is the best way to grow in influence and fundraising is to make people mad. And the best way to do that is to create an enemy. So from that standpoint you’re right.
But from another standpoint, a much larger portion of the church really does want to be more like Jesus. And that wasn’t Jesus. Jesus didn’t spend his time walking around yelling at people. His concern was for the vulnerable. As I often say, unless we start to care as much for the vulnerable outside the womb as we care for the vulnerable inside the womb, we won’t have a picture of who Jesus was. There’s a growing number of people who want to emphasize this. They’re just not the people with a lot of money, or time to be self-righteous — there are millions of us.
Do you think the dynamic you just described was a large part of why the current leadership of the Christian Coalition shied away from what you’re trying to do?
Absolutely. Again: I like these people. They’re doing what they believe is right. But it’s very clear to everybody that if you don’t come out aggressively against something, not only might you alienate your base, but you will certainly alienate your donors. And many of these hardened or narrow right organizations have been formed specifically to react against something. That’s who brought them to the dance.
So the attempt to broaden the agenda just didn’t work. I thought maybe it would. They said they wanted to go into some of these other issues, but when it came time to do it, they were afraid of alienating their base.
How did the concept of morality come to attach itself exclusively to issues of private, individual behavior?
That is almost uniquely American. Our society focuses on the individual. If you go to church in the rest of the world, it is not this way. I can tell you this as a matter of fact, because we have partners all over the world. They are much more community minded and their sense of morality is much, much broader than simply personal behavior.
You’re absolutely right, from a biblical standpoint. It was never merely about how some individuals behave. It was always about community. It was always about what was good for the family, good for society — what would best represent the God that loved the world.
But even in some of your writing, you make the distinction between “moral” issues and the issues of “compassion.” Why are those distinct?
I simply do it for semantic advantage. When you talk about caring for the environment, that is a pro-life issue. When you talk about justice, that is certainly a moral issue. It’s a continuing theme throughout the Bible. So when I use the word “moral,” I use it in the sense of “moralistic.” But these [broader] issues certainly are moral issues.
Tell me how you came to be active on the subject of global warming.
One of those other 86 [green evangelical leaders] called me and said, we’ve got this statement about Christians’ responsibility to creation care, and we’re looking for evangelical leaders who will sign it.
I started to read books like [Tim] Flannery’s The Weather Makers. At a National [Association of] Evangelicals board meeting, we had Sir John Houghton come in and talk to us. I became fascinated. The more I looked into it, I thought, oh my goodness, I missed something pretty significant here. I’m a more recent student, but a very convinced student.
What could environmentalists do to better reach religious communities?
Put educational materials into the hands of pastors. Just as all politics is local, all spiritual growth is local. The grassroots Christian looks to his or her pastor to understand what is important, to ask, What does God want me to do to become more like Jesus?
I was in a convocation a couple of weeks ago with some of the secular humanists, E.O. Wilson and some of those guys from Harvard and Yale who are concerned about creation. What we agreed on was, the scientists had the facts evangelicals needed in order to be credible to their constituents on the subject, but they need us for the traction. As Wilson said, you can add up all the secular humanist organizations in the U.S. and you’ll come up with around 5,000 people. You take one [National Association of Evangelicals] group and you’ve got 30 million.
We need each other. The reason it hasn’t reached the grassroots is because most pastors simply don’t have the facts. They do almost always have one or two people in the congregation that have read Michael Crichton’s State of Fear, or some other provocative, territorial thing. Unless they have the facts to answer that, they’re going to be pretty quiet on the subject.
Would you want the evangelical community to advocate for specific policies?
I think our approach would be to educate people and give them a theological basis for taking care of the environment as a biblical and moral mandate. I don’t think the place of the evangelical community is to come up with political strategies or solutions or policies.
I do think that an educated evangelical constituency will respond positively to a growing number of solutions. Certainly many of us would be willing to vote for policies that involve the government as part of the solution. We don’t think the government is all of the solution. A grassroots movement — what we can do personally, what our churches can do, what businesses can do, market-based solutions — is also important. But many of us do believe that government is part of the solution.
I doubt that the evangelical church as a body will ever recommend policy. But I do think we will respond to recommended policy, and will vote our consciences.
When do you predict the big organizations like the Christian Coalition and the National Association of Evangelicals are going to make the turn and come out vocally behind this broader agenda of yours?
I’m on the board of directors at the National Association of Evangelicals, and we have already stated that it is part of our advocacy. On the signing of that particular statement on global warming, the president and the leaders at that time decided to make it more of a states’ rights issue than it was a federal issue, so to speak, with the constituent bodies signing on if they wanted to. But there is already an emphasis on creation care, and that will continue to grow. Rich Cizik is a great leader of ours in that area.
As for the other more narrow right organizations, I would say in a few years, everybody’s going to see the light on this thing. Some of them may never come out to address anything environmentally, just because that’s not why they were developed. But I will be surprised in a few years if most people are not convinced that we have some responsibility to do better by God’s creation than we have.